Ethnologue Explained

Ethnologue: Languages of the World is a web and print publication of SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics), a Christian linguistic service organization, which studies lesser-known languages, primarily to provide the speakers with Bibles, in their native language.

The Ethnologue contains statistics for 6,912 languages in the 15th edition, released in 2005 (up from 6,809 in the 14th edition, released 2000) and gives the number of speakers, location, dialects, linguistic affiliations, availability of the Bible and so forth. It is currently the most comprehensive existing language inventory, along with the Linguasphere Observatory Register. However, some information regarding more esoteric languages is quite dated.

What counts as a language depends on socio-linguistic evaluation: see Dialect. Some accuse the Ethnologue of dividing languages, preferring to call the different varieties "dialects". In other cases, the Ethnologue has been accused of lumping together different languages as "dialects" of single languages. As the preface says, "Not all scholars share the same set of criteria for what constitutes a 'language' and what features define a 'dialect.'"

In 1984, the Ethnologue released a three-letter coding system, called a SIL code, to identify each language that it describes. This set of codes significantly exceeded the scope of previous standards, e.g., ISO 639-1. The 14th edition, published in 2000, included 7148 language codes which generally did not match the ISO 639-2 codes. In 2002 the Ethnologue was asked to work with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to integrate its codes into a draft international standard. The Ethnologue now uses this standard, called ISO 639-3. The 15th edition which was published in 2005 includes 7299 codes. A 16th edition will be released early 2009.

In addition to choosing a primary name for the language, it also gives some of the names by which a language is called by its speakers, by the government, by foreigners and by neighbors, as well as how it has been named and referenced historically, regardless of which designation is considered official, politically correct or offensive or by whom. This selection of "alternative names" is extensive, but often incomplete.

Ethnologue contains its fair share of errors. Some of the errors are fixed in every new edition; for instance, en route to the 14th edition, some languages such as Chenoua were added, and some rumoured "languages" such as Nemadi or Wutana were removed. Some possible remaining errors are discussed at Imraguen language, Senhaja de Srair language, Ghomara language, Kwavi language, Molengue language, Yauma language, Fer language, Yeni language, Phla-Pherá languages and Ofayé.

Bill Bright, editor of Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society of America, wrote that it "is indispensable for any reference shelf on the languages of the world" (1986:698).


In some cases Ethnologue's estimates about the number of the speakers of the languages do not concur with other sources. For example, in Ethnologue, the speakers of Persian and Azerbaijani languages in Iran are estimated as 36% and 37%[1], respectively. In The World Factbook, these percentages are estimated as 51% and 24%[2] . Sometimes the total numbers of speakers of languages in a country differ from the overall population figure: for example, for Croatia, Ethnologue gives a total population of 4,496,869 while, remarkably, the number of Croatian speakers in Croatia is reported to be 4,800,000.

Old information

Although Ethnologue is updated periodically, much of the information is old: The editors do not re-examine each entry for each new edition. One example is the figures for Ireland, which rely on the census of 1983 even though three censuses have been held since then. Another is the classification of the Khoisan languages, which dates from the 1960s and includes several spurious language entries, though some of these were deleted for the 15th edition.

Language families

Following are the language families listed in the Ethnologue language family index of the 15th edition. The first column gives the Ethnologue name for the group, followed by the location by continent and Ethnologues count of the number of languages in the family. In addition to language families, Ethnologue lists three artificial languages, one 'cant' (Pitkern), 86 creoles, 18 pidgins, 121 Deaf sign languages, three other sign languages, 21 mixed languages, forty language isolates, and 78 unclassified languages.

AlacalufanSouth America2
AlgicNorth America44
ArauanSouth America8
AraucanianSouth America2
ArawakanSouth America64
Arutani-SapeSouth America2
AymaranSouth America3
BarbacoanSouth America7
CaddoanNorth America5
CahuapananSouth America2
CaribSouth America32
Chapacura-WanhamSouth America5
ChibchanSouth America22
ChimakuanNorth America2
ChocoSouth America12
ChonSouth America2
ChumashNorth America7
CoahuiltecanNorth America1
East Bird's HeadAustralasia3
East PapuanAustralasia36
Eskimo-AleutNorth America11
Geelvink BayAustralasia33
GuahibanSouth America5
GulfNorth America4
HarakmbetSouth America2
Hibito-CholonSouth America2
HokanNorth America28
HuaveanNorth America4
IroquoianNorth America11
JivaroanSouth America4
KatukinanSouth America3
KeresNorth America2
Kiowa TanoanNorth America6
Left MayAustralasia6
Lower MamberamoAustralasia2
Lule-VilelaSouth America1
Macro-GeSouth America32
MakuSouth America6
MascoianSouth America5
Mataco-GuaicuruSouth America12
MayanNorth America69
MisumalpanNorth America4
Mixe-ZoqueNorth America17
MuraSouth America1
MuskogeanNorth America6
Na-DenéNorth America47
NambiquaranSouth America3
North CaucasianEurope/Asia34
Oto-MangueanNorth America174
PanoanSouth America28
Peba-YaguanSouth America2
PenutianNorth America33
QuechuanSouth America46
SalishanNorth America27
SalivanSouth America3
SiouanNorth America17
Subtiaba-TlapanecNorth America5
TacananSouth America6
TarascanNorth America2
TotonacanNorth America11
Trans-New GuineaAustralasia564
TucanoanSouth America25
TupiSouth America76
Uru-ChipayaSouth America2
Uto-AztecanNorth America61
WakashanNorth America5
West PapuanAustralasia26
WitotoanSouth America6
YanomamSouth America4
YukiNorth America2
ZamucoanSouth America2
ZaparoanSouth America7

See also


  1. Ethnologue estimation of languages in Iran
  2. Languages spoken in Iran according to CIA Factbook


External links