[Paleopsych] NYT: How Linguists and Missionaries Share a Bible of 6, 912 Languages

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How Linguists and Missionaries Share a Bible of 6,912 Languages


    Among the facts in the new edition of Ethnologue, a sprawling
    compendium of the world's languages, are that 119 of them are sign
    languages for the deaf and that 497 are nearly extinct. Only one
    artificial language has native speakers. (Yes, it's Esperanto.) Most
    languages have fewer than a million speakers, and the most
    linguistically diverse nation on the planet is Papua New Guinea. The
    least diverse? Haiti.

    Opening the 1,200-page book at random, one can read about Garo, spoken
    by 102,000 people in Bangladesh and 575,000 in India, which is written
    with the Roman alphabet, or about Bernde, spoken by 2,000 people in
    Chad. Ethnologue, which began as a 40-language guide for Christian
    missionaries in 1951, has grown so comprehensive it is a source for
    academics and governments, and the occasional game show.

    Though its unusual history draws some criticism among secular
    linguists, the Ethnologue is also praised for its breadth. "If I'm
    teaching field methods and a student says I'm a speaker of X, I go
    look it up in Ethnologue," said Tony Woodbury, linguistics chairman at
    the University of Texas. "To locate a language geographically, to
    locate it in the language family it belongs to, Ethnologue is the
    one-stop place to look."

    Yet Ethnologue's most curious fact highlights a quandary that has long
    perplexed linguists: how many languages are spoken on the planet?

    Estimates have ranged from 3,000 to 10,000, but Ethnologue confidently
    counts 6,912 languages. Curiously, this edition adds 103 languages to
    the 6,809 that were listed in its 2000 edition - at a time when
    linguists are making dire predictions that hundreds of languages will
    soon become extinct.

    "I occasionally note in my comments to the press," said Nicholas
    Ostler, the president of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, "the
    irony that Ethnologue's total count of known languages keeps going up
    with each four-yearly edition, even as we solemnly intone the factoid
    that a language dies out every two weeks."

    This dissonance points to a more basic problem. "There's no actual
    number of languages," said Merritt Ruhlen, a linguist at Stanford
    whose own count is "around" 4,580. "It kind of depends on how one
    defines dialects and languages."

    The linguists behind the Ethnologue agree that the distinctions can be
    indistinct. "We tend to see languages as basically marbles, and we're
    trying to get all the marbles in our bag and count how many marbles we
    have," said M. Paul Lewis, a linguist who manages the Ethnologue
    database ([3]www.ethnologue.com) and will edit the 16th edition.
    "Language is a lot more like oatmeal, where there are some clearly
    defined units but it's very fuzzy around the edges."

    The Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich once famously said, "A shprakh iz a
    dialekt mit an armey un a flot" (or "a language is a dialect with an
    army and a navy"). To Ethnologue, and to the language research
    organization that produces it, S.I.L. International, a language is a
    dialect that needs its literature, including a Bible.

    Based in Dallas, S.I.L. (which stands for Summer Institute of
    Linguistics) trains missionaries to be linguists, sending them to
    learn local languages, design alphabets for unwritten languages and
    introduce literacy. Before they begin translating the Bible, they find
    out how many translations are needed by testing the degree to which
    speech varieties are mutually unintelligible. "The definition of
    language we use in the Ethnologue places a strong emphasis," said Dr.
    Lewis, "on the ability to intercommunicate as the test for splitting
    or joining."

    Thus, the fewer words from Dialect B that a speaker of Dialect A can
    understand, the more likely S.I.L. linguists will say that A and B
    need two Bibles, not one. The entry for the Chadian language of
    Bernde, for example, rates its similarity to its six neighboring
    languages from 47 to 73 percent. Above 70 percent, two varieties will
    typically be called dialects of the same language.

    However, such tests are not always clear-cut. Unintelligible dialects
    are sometimes combined into one language if they share a literature or
    other cultural heritage. And the reverse can be true, as in the case
    of Danish and Norwegian.

    In Guatemala, Ethnologue counts 54 living languages, while other
    linguists, some of them native Mayan speakers, count 18. Yet
    undercounting can be just as political as overcounting.

    Colette Grinevald, a specialist in Latin American languages at Lumière
    University in Lyon, France, notes that the modern Maya political
    movement wants to unite under one language, Kaqkchikel. "They don't
    want that division of their language into 24 languages," she said.
    "They want to create a standard called Kaqkchikel."

    Beyond its political implications, the Ethnologue also carries the
    weight of a religious mission. The project was founded by Richard
    Pittman, a missionary who thought other missionaries needed better
    information about which languages lacked a Bible. The first version
    appeared in 1951, 10 mimeographed pages that described 40 languages.

    "Hardly anyone knew about the Ethnologue back then," said Barbara
    Grimes, who edited the survey from 1967 to 2000. "It was a good idea,
    but it wasn't very impressive." In 1971, Ms. Grimes and her husband,
    Joseph Grimes, a linguistics professor at Cornell, extended the survey
    from small languages to all languages in the world.

    What emerged was just how daunting a global Bible translation project
    was. "In 1950, when we joined S.I.L., we were telling each other,
    maybe there are about 1,000 languages, but nobody really knew," Ms.
    Grimes said. In 1969, Ethnologue listed 4,493 languages; in 1992, the
    number had risen to 6,528 and by 2000 it stood at 6,809.

    The number will probably continue to rise - 2,694 languages still need
    to be studied in detail, and in 2000, S.I.L. officials projected that
    at the current rate of work, a complete survey would not be completed
    until 2075. (They now say they are working to speed it up.) As for
    their goal of translating the Bible, Ethnologue's figures show that
    all or some of it is available in 2,422 languages.

    Ethnologue lists 414 languages as nearly extinct in 2000, a figure
    that rises to 497 in the new edition.

    However, a few linguists accuse the publisher of promoting the trends
    it says it want to prevent. Denny Moore, a linguist with the Goeldi
    Museum in Belém, Brazil, said via e-mail: "It is absurd to think of
    S.I.L. as an agency of preservation, when they do just the opposite.
    Note that along with the extermination of native religion, all the
    ceremonial speech forms, songs, music and art associated with the
    religion disappear too."

    Dr. Moore, who won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1999 for his 18 years
    of linguistic work in Brazil, adds: "There is no way to resolve this
    contradiction. The only options are fooling yourself about it or not."

    S.I.L. officials say missionaries are giving another option to people
    who are already experiencing cultural shift. "The charge of destroying
    cultures has been around for a long time," said Carol Dowsett, a
    spokeswoman for the publisher. "Basically we're interested in people,
    and we're interested in helping them however we can."

    Though the Ethnologue is intended to help spread the word of God, it
    is being mined for more secular reasons. Computer companies that are
    developing multilingual software for foreign markets turn to the

    "You've got a developer in Silicon Valley, and a person in the field
    calls them and says, 'We need to provide support for Serbian' or some
    language the developer's never heard of, so they can pop open the
    Ethnologue and find out, 'What is this thing?' " says Peter Constable,
    a former S.I.L. linguist who now works at Microsoft.

    Ray Gordon, the editor, says producers of "Who Wants to Be a
    Millionaire" once contacted him, and according to Brian Homoleski, the
    manager of the publisher's bookstore, several copies were bought after
    the Sept. 11 attacks by "a U.S. government agency." According to
    S.I.L. staff members, the American Bar Association, the Los Angeles
    Police Department, the New York Olympic Committee and AT&T all called
    for help.

    Ethnologue's newest step toward worldwide influence has been in the
    arcane world of the International Organization of Standards. The
    survey assigns a three-letter code to each language (English is
    "eng"), and the 7,000-plus codes (for living and dead languages) is
    near acceptance in library indexing and multilingual software
    standards. The codes also form the backbone of the Open Language
    Archives Community, a Web-based technical infrastructure.

    Most linguists are unfazed at S.I.L.'s affiliations. "If you took away
    all the literature done by the S.I.L. people done in the last 60
    years," said Dr. Ruhlen of Stanford, "you'd be taking away a lot of
    language documentation for a lot of languages for which there's
    nothing at all."

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