[Lingtyp] Ethnologue goes for paid access

Mark W. Post markwpost at gmail.com
Thu Dec 31 02:33:30 UTC 2015

Well, as Stephen pointed out, one of the main uses that many linguists 
have for the Ethnologue is to find out the "three letter codes" for 
particular languages, since SIL as registration authority for ISO 639-3 
is responsible for creating and maintaining this code set. Furthermore, 
if linguists want to argue for changes to the ISO 639-3 code set, we 
need to interact with the Ethnologue and its staff, who are ultimately 
responsible for these sorts of decisions. The official ISO 639-3 code 
set must be purchased from the ISO in Geneva, so up to now, Ethnologue 
has been the only free way of accessing the current code set, so far as 
I am aware.

As near as I can tell, this job - of figuring out how many distinct 
languages there are in the world, assigning unique identifiers for them 
(and even figuring out what the relationships among them are, which is 
another job that SIL was supposed to do for ISO) - is being done at 
least as well by Glottolog, and is arguably being done better (because 
Glottolog's decisions seem to be based on the widest possible reading of 
the scientific literature, whereas Ethnologue's decisions seem to mostly 
privilege their own internal resources, which are rarely cited or made 
publicly available).

The problem is that since that since (a) the ISO maintains the 
"official" list, and (b) the Ethnologue is the registration authority 
for ISO 639-3, and (c) ISO 639-3 codes are increasingly obligatory 
features of archival deposits and even some publications, many linguists 
are currently forced to engage with this system. I share several of the 
concerns that Dan Everett expressed earlier, and agree that we do, as a 
field, need to have a conversation about whether or not it is desirable 
to rely primarily or exclusively on SIL for these sorts of services. 
Part of the argument that I've often heard against moving away from SIL 
(for example, as ISO 639-3 registration authority) is that while its 
funding and permanence seem to be relatively assured, the same can't be 
said of organizations like Glottolog. So one question that I think that 
this episode naturally raises is whether, as a field, our faith in SIL 
has been too great. Note that in saying that, I don't imply that SIL 
itself has done anything wrong. Ultimately, it's up to linguists (who 
are on funding boards, who are on boards of archives, who are on 
editorial boards, etc.) to decide whether we should be requiring our 
colleagues to engage with SIL/Ethnologue in this way, or not. Speaking 
for myself, I'd vote "not".


PS - if anyone's interested in thinking about this further, there is a 
handout from the 2013 PARADISEC conference that discusses some of these 
issues here 
and a related DLC conversation initiated by Martin H here 

On 31/12/2015 12:57 PM, Hedvig Skirgård wrote:
> Hi,
> The main use I have of Ethnologue is for looking up population stats, 
> which I can also do elsewhere but it's more cumbersome.
> Many of the other functions I get elsewhere.
> Endangerment level - UNESCO's Atlas
> Codes and classification - Glottolog
> Genealogies - Glottolog or MultiTree
> Alternative names - Glottolog
> Then there's some summaries and calculations like Greenberg Diversity 
> Index, indigenous vs immigrant languages, the "statistics" pages and 
> some more functions that Glottolog could do maybe sometime in future, 
> but doesn't right now.
> What are the main uses for the linguists in this mailing list for 
> Ethnologue?
> Best,
> Hedvig
> *Hedvig Skirgård*
> PhD Candidate
> The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity
> ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language
> School of Culture, History and Language
> College of Asia and the Pacific
> Rm 4203, H.C. Coombs Building (#9)
> The Australian National University
> Acton ACT 2601
> Australia
> Ph: +61 (0)451 878 060
> E: hedvig.skirgard at anu.edu.au <mailto:hedvig.skirgard at anu.edu.au>
> On 31 December 2015 at 12:49, Everett, Daniel <DEVERETT at bentley.edu 
> <mailto:DEVERETT at bentley.edu>> wrote:
>     The issue is not whether SIL will discontinue the service. It is
>     whether the support will be sufficient to meet the expectations of
>     the academic community.
>     On the one hand, I am concerned that SIL has taken so long to make
>     any public statement about this. But on the other, the more
>     fundamental question is whether it is appropriate for data bases
>     of this type to be kept and controlled exclusively by a missionary
>     organization. That is not a problem for SIL. It can build any data
>     base it wants. That is a problem for the academic community.
>     As was discussed at an LSA meeting several years ago, via a panel
>     organized by Lise Dobrin (and which I participated in with several
>     others), a concern that was expressed had to do with the fact that
>     as the academic community allows SIL to take on a quasi-official
>     capacity in certain areas, e.g. the Ethnologue, SIL thereby is
>     able to further the myth that it is an academic organization, when
>     in reality (as I know having been a member of SIL from 1976-2002)
>     it is a missionary organization, its members dedicated to the
>     establishment of churches among indigenous communities around the
>     world. The church support for the Ethnologue is not for the
>     furtherance of scientific research but to have a more accurate
>     assessment of Bible translation needs of the world’s languages.
>     That might be fine for some, but I think it is time that the
>     academic community think about funding for a parallel project.
>     Otherwise, no one should be concerned about paying the fee. This
>     is the only way SIL seems to be able to support the project and if
>     interested academics are willing to cede that responsibility to
>     SIL, then they ought not to complain or worry about fees.
>     In any case, I don’t use Ethnologue much anymore so am indifferent
>     to the outcome. I simply believe that it is worth discussing the
>     general situation, perhaps at a LingTyp meeting, and LSA, etc.
>     Dan
>>     On Dec 30, 2015, at 8:24 PM, Les Bruce <les_bruce at sil.org
>>     <mailto:les_bruce at sil.org>> wrote:
>>     I don’t think we need fear that Ethnologue will be discontinued
>>     by SIL. People like Joe and Barbara Grimes who pioneered this
>>     work have been strongly supported by their constituency who have
>>     appreciated the academic work of these people.
>>     Les Bruce
>>     *From:*Lingtyp
>>     [mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org]*On Behalf
>>     Of*Everett, Daniel
>>     *Sent:*Wednesday, December 30, 2015 3:41 PM
>>     *To:*Martin Haspelmath
>>     *Cc:*lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
>>     <mailto:lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
>>     *Subject:*Re: [Lingtyp] Ethnologue goes for paid access
>>     It is not at all clear that SIL is trying to make money.
>>     Maintaining these pages costs thousands of dollars per month and,
>>     as Martin says, SIL has no academic funding. Its funding comes
>>     from churches by and large and they have no particular interest
>>     in supporting non-mission related academics. I strongly urge the
>>     academic community to develop its own resources in this area.
>>     DLE
>>     Sent from my iPhone
>>     On Dec 30, 2015, at 16:28, Martin Haspelmath
>>     <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de <mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>> wrote:
>>>     Yes, that's true, and here's the
>>>     description:http://www.ethnologue.com/ethnoblog/m-paul-lewis/ethnologue-launches-subscription-service
>>>     They say you can access seven data pages per month for free.
>>>     I don't find this surprising. Ethnologue (and the entire
>>>     academic branch of SIL) has no proper academic funding, so it's
>>>     normal that they are trying to make some money out of their
>>>     flagship publication.
>>>     Incidentally, Glottolog has no proper funding either, but as it
>>>     is now hosted by MPI-SHH in Jena
>>>     (http://www.shh.mpg.de/48816/research_outline), at least its
>>>     continued existence is assured for the next dozen years or so.
>>>     (I think we should try to tell our administrators that it makes
>>>     little sense to try to sell academic publications. Instead, they
>>>     should by properly funded by the academic publishers themselves,
>>>     in order not to drive academics even further intoquestionable
>>>     practices
>>>     <http://www.frank-m-richter.de/freescienceblog/2015/12/18/is-our-scholarship-based-on-illegal-foundations/>.)
>>>     Martin
>>>     On 30.12.15 22:16, Peter Arkadiev wrote:
>>>>     Dear all,
>>>>     does any one know whether the access to the Ethnologue is going to be by paid subscription only? When trying to routinely access the information about a random language, I got a screen advertising paid subscription for $60 per year, and there is no way to bypass it and get access to the information which was freely available a week ago. This looks pretty distressing.
>>>>     Best,
>>>>     Peter
>>>     -- 
>>>     Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at shh.mpg.de <mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>)
>>>     Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
>>>     Kahlaische Strasse 10
>>>     D-07745 Jena
>>>     &
>>>     Leipzig University
>>>     Beethovenstrasse 15
>>>     D-04107 Leipzig
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