ELL: Number of written lgs in the world: Allen's comments part 1

Jeff ALLEN jeff at elda.fr
Mon Mar 15 19:03:21 UTC 1999

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Date: Mon, 15 Mar 1999 20:03:21 +0100
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From: Jeff ALLEN <jeff at elda.fr>
Subject: ELL: Number of written lgs in the world: Allen's comments part 1
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Trond wrote:
>Some months ago I asked for information on written lgs. I waited for more
>info, and thus never made it to reposting the result.

Sorry, I wasn't subscribed to the ELL list at that time.

>Taking the SIL database as a basis, we find the following results:
>Published Bibles:		320 languages
> " New Testaments:  		    801    "
> " Bible portions:  		    	   919    "
>TOTAL           : 			   	  2040    "
>Barbara F. Grimes Ethnologue Editor [data from 1996]

I've already sent Trond some additional comparative statistics in a separate
message.  Grimes is in the process of completing a new edition of the

>If we assume that the worlds missionaries have published their Gospel
>according to Luke every time they have had the opportunity to do so (that
>is, every time a written lg has been available), the wr lg coverage is
>appr. 1/3 (2000 out of 6000 lgs (6000 is a conservative estimate)). It may
>exist some lgs with a written lg but without any published bible portions,
>but on the other hand side, the number of lgs in the world are probably
>6500 rather than 6000 (cf. the Ethnologue list quoted below), and 1/3 may
>thus be a good guess.
>SIL also has a list of lgs (6500 lgs) ordered by number of speakers:

The number between 5800 - 6800 fluctuates depending on how much
one makes a distinction between languages and dialects. No need
to go into that discussion right now.

>"First Language Speakers of the World's Languages"
>"Estimates from the Ethnologue data base, February 1995"
>(available from http://www.sil.org)
>This ##certainly## does not imply that the lgs of the upper 1/3 are "safe",
>"do not need support", or whatever. Wr lgs in a modernized world need more
>than some bible fragments. They need primers, dictionaries, technical
>literature, belletristics, popular fiction, lg technology tools, etc, etc.

There is no doubt about this.  From the many SIL people who I have met over
the past 10-15 years at linguistic conferences, and as an invited speaker
at their
linguistic training schools, none of them has ever said that they want to only
translate the Bible into the languages that they work on.  I spent 2 years
on my doctoral thesis on St. Lucian French Creole and am very thankful for
the SIL team there that had spent the previous 8 years producing Biblical
stories, folkloric stories, animal stories/legends, and personal stories told
by native speakers of the language, and produced all of these works in a
form and in a very cost-effective manner through their own local publishing
All of these booklets are available at a price that most people in St. Lucia
can afford.  On the contrary, the Dictionary of St. Lucian Creole (1992),
that I reviewed
for the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, was published by Mouton de
Gruyter and costs something like $125 US.  Few people I know, whether they
be native speakers of the language or linguistic researchers, can afford
this reference
book.  Most of us who have worked on this language have either had to do a
book review of the work or consult it in a library on a constant basis just to
be able to obtain information from it.
Another point, I've noticed that SIL has been emphasizing literacy training
their students who plan to go out to the field.  From what I can tell as an
outsider, they have put their linguistic work into practice by describing
the languages, developing grammars and dictionaries, producing and
distributing written materials in the languages, and teaching the
native speakers how to read through literacy campaigns.  They appear to
emphasize a complete cycle process.

As for language technologies, SIL has been at the forefront of such
research for many years.  They were the first to provide a decent set of
IPA fonts to the linguistic community at large, and have done it for free.
Their fonts have been progressive and are now even required by many
speech and linguistic papers that are submitted electronically because
the fonts are reliable and functional.
Not to mention also the CARLA system that SIL has been working on
for many years.  Let me see. It stands for something like Computer
Assisted Related Language Aid.   Basically, it's a related dialect
comparison tool.  I've watched its progress over the years since
I have been involved in translation technologies tool development
for many languages.
All in all, I've been impressed with SIL's work, and the quality of the
knowledge of linguistics that is shown by many of their students
and workers (as compared with many general linguistics programs).
Several universities even host SIL summer training schools and offer
university credits in their undergraduate and post-graduate programs
through SIL courses (University of Oregon, University Lyon 2,
University Paris 3, University North Dakota, University Texas Arlington).
They disseminate their work and are quite cooperative, at least in
my experience in having been in touch with about 50 or so SIL workers
over the past 10+ years.

I will answer Trond's other questions about 7 levels of classification
once I find some more time.



Jeff ALLEN - Directeur Technique
European Language Resources Association (ELRA)  &
European Language Resources Distribution Agency (ELDA)
(Agence Europ.enne de Distribution des Ressources Linguistiques)
55, rue Brillat-Savarin
75013   Paris   FRANCE
Tel: (+33) (0) - Fax: (+33) (0)
mailto:jeff at elda.fr
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