It’s a pleasure to be able to offer unalloyed praise for a NY Times story about linguistics, Michael Erard’s “How Linguists and Missionaries Share a Bible of 6,912 Languages.” I’ve been using Ethnologue in print form since I was in college (its availability online at no cost is one of the best things about the internet), and it was interesting to learn that it started as far back as 1951. There are some great quotes in the piece:
“I occasionally note in my comments to the press,” said Nicholas Ostler, the president of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, “the irony that Ethnologue’s total count of known languages keeps going up with each four-yearly edition, even as we solemnly intone the factoid that a language dies out every two weeks.”
This dissonance points to a more basic problem. “There’s no actual number of languages,” said Merritt Ruhlen, a linguist at Stanford whose own count is “around” 4,580. “It kind of depends on how one defines dialects and languages.”
The linguists behind the Ethnologue agree that the distinctions can be indistinct. “We tend to see languages as basically marbles, and we’re trying to get all the marbles in our bag and count how many marbles we have,” said M. Paul Lewis, a linguist who manages the Ethnologue database (www.ethnologue.com) and will edit the 16th edition. “Language is a lot more like oatmeal, where there are some clearly defined units but it’s very fuzzy around the edges.”
The Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich once famously said, “A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un a flot” (or “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”). To Ethnologue, and to the language research organization that produces it, S.I.L. International, a language is a dialect that needs its literature, including a Bible.
I love the fact that he worked a Yiddish quote into a piece about a Christian organization, and remember, folks, you heard it here first! (I was wondering why I chose the spelling “diyalekt” in that entry, but it seems I picked it up from here; in any case, Erard’s version is undisputably better.)
Update. See now UJG‘s post, with an actual image of Weinreich’s original Yiddish.