Written Form

Mike_Cahill at SIL.ORG Mike_Cahill at SIL.ORG
Fri Dec 5 14:32:25 UTC 2003

Dear all,

I was wondering if my own message on this had gone out, and it turns out I
had only responded to Alasdair, rather than to the whole list. So I've
copied it directly below. I find it interesting that my estimates tally
with Trosterud's, though using a different basis for the calculation.
Mike Cahill
Dear Alasdair,

SIL and co-workers have been responsible for reducing about 1200 languages
to writing. Add several hundred others which are also written (this is
where my ignorance flares up - how many?), and you may get close to 2000
languages which have a written form. The Ethnologue lists 6800 languages,
so I think we can fairly confidently say that about 2/3 of the languages in
the world are unwritten.

Now for "unusual, primitive, and unsustainable". A 50% literacy rate is
pretty good in most languages, especially if they're not used in the
official school system up to secondary level education. So, together with
the first paragraph, this is not unusual. Maybe for Europe, but certainly
not worldwide. Primitive? What do they mean by that? We tend to think
primitive technology and primitive language go together;  the "primitive
language" concept was and is a leftover from evolutionary thinking. But no
human language can be called primitive - they're all incredibly complex. As
for unsustainable, certainly a higher literacy rate would help. But if
children are learning it, and they're using it in a variety of domains, it
sounds pretty sustainable, at least for the near future.

Gaelic experts can correct and supplement any of the above!


Dr. Michael Cahill
International Linguistics Coordinator, SIL International
7500 W. Camp Wisdom Rd.
Dallas, TX 75236

email: mike_cahill at sil.org
phone: 972-708-7328
fax: 972-708-7380

|         |           Nicholas Ostler                        |
|         |           <nostler at CHIBCHA.DEMON.CO.UK>          |
|         |           Sent by: Endangered Languages List     |
|         |           STLIST.ORG>                            |
|         |                                                  |
|         |                                                  |
|         |           12/05/2003 05:08 AM                    |
|         |           Please respond to Nicholas Ostler      |
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  |        To:      ENDANGERED-LANGUAGES-L at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG                             |
  |        cc:                                                                                   |
  |        Subject: Re: Written Form                                                             |

At 1:19 pm +0000 1/12/03, Alasdair Macleod wrote:
>One claim I occasionally hear tossed at Scottish Gaelic is that Gaelic's
>high level of illiteracy (50$ of the 60,000 Gaelic speakers are unable to
>read and write proficiently in the language) makes it highly unusual, as
>well as primitive and unsustainable.
>I normally retort by stating that 'actually, over 80% of the world's
>languages do not exist in a written form' - but I must hold my hands up
>admit that this statistic is completely made up (my only defence is that
>sounds about right). Does anyone have a figure for this based on any sort
>reliable/empirical evidence?
>Alasdair MacLeod

In 1999 Trond Trosterud did an informal survey on "How Many Written
Languages in the World?" in which he used availability of the gospel
in a language as a proxy for functioning literacy, and estimated that
two thirds of the world's languages do not have that level of written

Although his remarks originally appeared on the Endnagered Language
List, you can find them duly archived in an issue of the FEL
newsletter Ogmios.  If interested, have a look at:


I certainly find it one of the more useful factoids when discussing
endangerment in popular fora.

Regards to all

Nicholas Ostler
                        Nicholas  Ostler
              Foundation for Endangered Languages
                         UK Registered Charity 1070616

              Batheaston Villa,  172 Bailbrook Lane
              Bath           BA1 7AA        England
              +44-1225-85-2865 fax +44-1225-85-9258
                   nostler at chibcha.demon.co.uk

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