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Reviewed by:
  • Ethnologue: Languages of the world
  • Lyle Campbell and Verónica Grondona
Ethnologue: Languages of the world. 15th edn.Ed. by Raymond G. Gordon, Jr.Dallas: SIL International, 2005. Pp. 1,272. ISBN 155671159X. $80 (Hb).

What could be more natural for the linguistics profession than a catalogue of the world's languages? In Ethnologuewe have one, highly valuable, yet not produced by an organization of academic linguistics but by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), whose primary focus is Bible translation. Ethnologue(henceforth E) has become the standard reference, and its usefulness is hard to overestimate. It deserves the high commendation we emphasize in this review. It is to Ethat scholars and laypersons typically turn to answer such questions as, how many languages are spoken in the world?, what languages are spoken in a given country?, how many speakers are there of a particular language?, and so on. Eis unquestionably the best source for answering these questions even if it does not always provide adequate answers. We assume E's high merit is beyond debate, and therefore concentrate here on matters that we hope can lead to future improvements in this catalogue of the world's languages.

An unusual feature of this volume is that the information has also been made available on an associated website ( that can be searched easily. The editors are to be commended for making this service available at no cost to the public.

Ehas the following chapters and sections: 'Introduction', 7–14; 'Statistical summaries', 15–36; Part 1: 'Languages of the world', 37–648; 'References', 649–72; Part 2: 'Language maps', 673–888; Part 3: 'Indices', 889–1272 (including the 'Language code index', 1231–70). [End Page 636]

The purpose of E'is to provide a comprehensive listing of the known languages of the world' (7). For this, Ehad to face the question of how to define a language, or more precisely how to distinguish independent languages from dialects of the same language. As Esays, 'not all scholars share the same set of criteria for what constitutes a "language" and what features define a "dialect" ' (8). E's criteria include: (i) 'two related varieties are normally considered varieties of the same language if speakers of each variety have inherent understanding of the other variety at a functional level'; so far so good, but Eadds (ii) 'where spoken intelligibility between varieties is marginal, the existence of a common literature or of a common ethnolinguistic identity with a central variety that both understand can be a strong indicator that they should nevertheless be considered varieties of the same language'; and (iii) 'where there is enough mutual intelligibility between varieties to enable communication, the existence of well-established distinct ethnolinguistic identities can be a strong indicator that they should nevertheless be considered to be different languages' (8). Linguists are usually driven to accept criteria (ii) and (iii) in certain situations, but, given that they are inconsistent with (i), the application of (ii) and (iii) in any given instance can be a delicate matter, raising serious questions of language identity. This is especially true in numerous instances where Elists as independent languages entities that most linguists consider dialects of a single language. This question of how to define a 'language', and in particular how to apply the definition, is a serious problem for E(see below).

'Layout of language entries' (10–13) explains the information included in the volume: primary language name, alternate names, language identification code, speaker population, location, linguistic affiliation, dialect names, intelligibility and dialect relations, lexical similarity, language function, viability, domains (of use), age (of speakers), language attitudes, bilingual proficiency, literacy rates, writing scripts, publications and use in media (especially Bible translations), general remarks, typology (especially basic word order), geological and ecological information, religion, and status (e.g. as a 'second language only'). The information, however, is not consistent across language entries; often only information from this list down to 'affiliation' or 'dialect names' is present. For example, information on basic word order (typology) is present for only about 15% of the languages, on 'religion' for about 38%. We might speculate that SIL...


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