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The Ethnologue

by Evangeline


How many languages are spoken in Singapore today? Four? Seven? 12? The answer is actually 24.

Most people (in Singapore, at least) would probably know that English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, the four official languages of Singapore, add towards this count. What, then, are the other 20 languages?

10 of these languages are still commonly used and include fairly familiar ones such as Southern Min (a branch of Chinese that includes varieties like Hokkien and Teochew), Eastern Min (such as Fuzhou), Puxian, Cantonese (while these are all forms of Chinese, they are mutually unintelligible and therefore counted as separate languages), Hindi, Sindhi, and Singapore Sign Language. The remaining 10, such as Malayalam, Madura (including Boyanese), Baba Malay, and Orang Seletar, are languages either ‘in trouble’, or dying.

Of course, there are also unestablished languages like Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Tagalog, and more, which do not add to the country’s overall language count.

But facts aside – how can one get hold of such information?

All it takes is a quick check-in to the Ethnologue (although a paid subscription is now required), an online and print reference publication that provides detailed information and statistics on all the known languages in the world, and voila! all the above-mentioned facts and more will appear. The online site is practical and easy to use, where one can locate a language based on its name, family, or even region.

Founded by Richard Pittman, the first version of the Ethnologue was published in 1951, with 10 pages describing 40 languages. This was when the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) was sending missionaries to the field to translate the Bible into languages which lacked the Bible, 34 years after Cameron Townsend first set out to translate the Bible into Cakchiquel. To do so, Pittman, who himself was with the SIL, felt that they would need greater and more comprehensive information about which languages needed a Bible. As a result, he put together the Ethnologue, and went on to edit it for the next 20 years.

In 1971, Joseph and Barbara Grimes, also members of the SIL, expanded the Ethnologue survey from just minority languages to all languages in the world. This revealed the full scale of just how massive the global Bible translation project being undertaken was. Each year, the number of languages that were found to still be in existence increased, subsequently increasing the need for Bible translation.

Based on recent statistics, there are currently about 7,353 languages spoken or signed in the world and of these, 2115 languages affecting 171 million people need translation to begin. To Ethnologue, the SIL, and Wycliffe, a ‘language’ is defined as a particular variety which is mutually unintelligible from another. Thus, it would require its own literature, and in the case of Wycliffe’s mission, its own Bible.

Before missionary field linguists even begin Bible translation, they have to conduct surveys to assess which varieties of that particular language are mutually unintelligible; the fewer the words that speakers of different ‘dialects’ can understand, the more likely they are to need two separate translation projects. However, this process is hardly so straightforward – sometimes, mutually unintelligible dialects may still be ‘combined’ in a project if they share some form of cultural heritage or another. The same process applies for projects other than Bible translation, such as literacy projects.

Today, the Ethnologue has established the official ISO standard for three-letter codes for language identification worldwide. Entries in the Ethnologue continue to be fed from linguists in the field but, unlike its earlier days, it now serves more than just missionaries. Academics, scientists, tech developers, politicians, lawyers, and many other categories of users rely on it for linguistic, literacy and language development, multilingual education, and a whole range of other seemingly secular purposes.

Nonetheless, the extensive documentation of languages since its beginning and the vast depth of information of over 7,000 languages to date undoubtedly remind us of God’s amazing creativity – and Wycliffe’s mission: that by helping a people to retain the use of their language, we are not only protecting their cultural heritage and identity, but also maintaining part of God’s creation. More about the Ethnologue and other useful resources can be found here. For several years now, the Ethnologue has been the go-to reference for this writer for various purposes, especially when it comes to linguistics research. She was first introduced to it as a student but, nevermind that she was a linguistics major, it became more of a useful tool in the cosmopolitan environment that she was in then; every time she met someone who spoke X language, she would look it up in Ethnologue out of plain curiosity. Little did she know that she would one day end up working in the organisation that is historically linked to the one that produces the Ethnologue!

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