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  • The linguasphere register of the world’s languages and speech communities by David Dalby
  • Edward J. Vajda
The linguasphere register of the world’s languages and speech communities. By David Dalby. Hebron, Wales: Linguasphere Press, 1999–2000. Vol. 1: Pp. 300. Vol. 2: Pp. 743.

Some of the first serious steps toward cataloging the world’s languages were made during the second half of the eighteenth century with the vocabulary lists commissioned by Russia’s Catherine the Great (Peter Simon Pallas, Linguarum totius orbis vocabularia [End Page 606] comparativa, St. Petersburg, 1786). Since that time numerous areal, genetic, and typological reference works on select language groups have appeared as well as important worldwide studies such as Ethnologue: Languages of the world (13th edn. ed. by Barbara Grimes, Dallas: SIL, 1996) and A guide to the world’s languages, vol. 1: Classification (Merritt Ruhlen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987). David Dalby has now undertaken the first attempt to portray the totality of the Earth’s linguistic variety in terms of a global environment or ‘linguasphere’. Published on the millennial cusp, this two-volume work is intended as a reference guide to all language forms, language names, and speech communities (including those that have become extinct in recent centuries). It also offers a strong statement about the intrinsic value of linguistic diversity and the need for international cooperation in documenting it more systematically.

Vol. 1 contains the Register’s explanatory portions. The foreword (13–14), by Colin Williams, in parallel Welsh and English, calls for international participation in documenting endangered languages and in expanding and improving future editions of the Register. In the chapters that follow, D argues that the pressing need to assess the world’s current sociolinguistic geography should take precedence over investigations of deep genetic affinity between languages. In general, the Register groups languages either according to well-established genetic linkages or, in the case of smaller genetic groupings, by geographic considerations first and genetic relatedness second. The book divides the global ‘linguasphere’ into five ‘phylosectors’ and five ‘geosectors’ as its primary referential layer. The phylosectors (designated by odd numbers) contain the world’s major genetic groupings according to number of speakers (Afroasiatic, Austronesian, Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, and Niger-Congo); the geosectors (even numbers) contain the remaining languages on each of the five inhabited continents. Each sector is subdivided into smaller ‘phylozones’ or ‘geozones’ so that the entire surface of the globe is referentially covered. A foldout map on the inside back cover shows the relative number of ‘voices’ representing the languages of each geozone or phylozone. The many neologisms used in the book are explained in the ‘linguasphere lexicon’ (vol. 1, 93–109). A few resemble jargon, such as neolinguasphere, defined as ‘the “linguasphere” since the invention of electronic communication’ (105). Others fill more practical lexical gaps, such as autonym, defined as ‘the name for a language and/or speech community as used in that language’ (93).

The bulk of vol. 1 contains an ‘Index to languages and speech communities’ (121–286)—an alphabetical listing of 70,000 linguistic and ethnic names followed by a two-digit number referring to zone and sector location and/or genetic affiliation. Letter codes identify various degrees of genetic relatedness and mutual intelligibility. D groups genetically related languages according to the percentage of shared basic vocabulary into ‘sets’ (25–30+%), ‘chains’ (intermediate percentage), and ‘nets’ (65–70+%). He also replaces the language vs. dialect distinction of Standard English with a more fine-grained division between ‘outer languages’ (mutually unintelligible forms), ‘inner languages’ (highly divergent dialects or very closely related languages), and ‘dialect’ (minor variation). The Register lists 13,840 inner languages with 8,881 constituent dialects within 4,994 outer languages, of which 4,557 are still spoken; these are subsumed inside 694 linguistic sets (roughly corresponding to the low-level, uncontroversial genetic families). The main alphabetical index in vol. 1 is followed by an ‘Index to countries’ (287–90) identifying each country’s national or official language and the ‘geozones’ and ‘phylozones’ represented within its borders. Basic genetic and areal data on the world’s 28 ‘arterial languages’, defined as those spoken by over 1% of...


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