[Paleopsych] NYT: How Linguists and Missionaries Share a Bible of 6, 912 Languages
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Tue Jul 19 19:31:52 UTC 2005
How Linguists and Missionaries Share a Bible of 6,912 Languages
By MICHAEL ERARD
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 (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
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
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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