Ferguson's schema for written & standardization categories

Don Osborn dzo at bisharat.net
Thu May 10 02:41:33 UTC 2007

I came across a 1962 article by Charles A. Ferguson entitled “The Language
Factor in International Development” (Anthropological Linguistics 4(1):
23-27) in which a simple schema for measuring relative language
“development” (quotes are his) according to degree of use in writing and
degree of standardization. Ferguson puts this forth as a “first


I summarize his system below. I’m interested in knowing if anyone has tried
to apply and/or develop this further. I realize that such a concept of
hierarchies is problematic and even if one accepts the principle, its
application is not easy (IOW the boundaries defining the categories are not
so clear). However I am looking at it for two reasons:

1)      as a possible way of sketching the language situation for language
planning purposes (straying here into ground that is not my specialization)
– can it be useful to have sense of language use from application of such
categories despite whatever shortcomings?

2)      in localization of ICT there is another kind of categorization
happening, and that is the level of technical resource endowment for
languages. Terms like “under-resourced” languages have emerged to describe
the situation of minority languages without much in to facilitate their use
in computing or the internet. In 2004 Vincent Berment completed a thesis on
this subject in which he also proposed using Greek letter as neutral terms
for the level of endowment: tau (well resourced), mu (moderately well
resourced), and pi (poorly resourced). Such discussions focusing on
technology however, and whatever terms are used, are difficult without
reference to other basic measures. Berment seems to recognize this, but is
it useful to separately analyze such basic (non technical) measures as
writing and standardization. The object in this case is to provide richer
information for localization strategies.


Anyway, it’s a current small area of interest that I’m trying to gather more
information on.


The scales proposed by Ferguson for discussion are:

(level of writing of a language)

W.0 – not used for written purposes

W.1 – used for normal written purposes

W.2 – original research in physical sciences regularly published

W.3 – languages in which translations and resumés of scientific work in
other languages are regularly published.

(level of standardization)

St.0 – a language in which there is no important amount of standardization

St.1 – (this category he recognizes to pose some challenges, but involves
situations where there is more than one standard)

St.2 – a language which has a single, widely accepted norm which is felt to
be appropriate with only minor modifications or variations for all purposes
and for which the language is used.


Thanks in advance for any information or thoughts.


Don Osborn


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