History of the Ethnologue


The Ethnologue was founded by Richard S. Pittman, who was motivated by the desire to share information on Bible translation needs around the world with his colleagues as well as with other language researchers.

The first edition in 1951 was 10 mimeographed pages and included information on 46 languages or groups of languages. Hand-drawn maps were included for the first time in the fourth edition (1953). The publication transitioned from mimeographed pages to a book in the fifth edition (1958). Dr. Pittman continued to expand his research through the seventh edition (1969), which listed 4,493 languages.

In 1971 Barbara F. Grimes became editor. She had assisted with the Ethnologue since the fourth edition (1953) and took on the role of research editor in 1967 for the seventh edition (1969). She continued as editor from the eighth through the fourteenth editions (2000). In 1971 the scope of the Ethnologue was expanded from primarily minority languages to encompass all known languages of the world. Between 1967 and 1973 Grimes completed an in-depth revision of the information on Africa, the Americas, the Pacific, and a few countries of Asia. During her years as editor, the number of identified languages grew from 4,493 to 6,809 and the information about each language expanded so that the published work more than tripled in size. In 2000, Raymond G. Gordon, Jr. became the third general editor of the Ethnologue and produced the fifteenth edition (2005). At the same time, Gary F. Simons became the Executive Editor, taking on overall responsibility for the production of the Ethnologue both online and in print. Shortly after the publication of the fifteenth edition, M. Paul Lewis became the general editor and served in that role through the 19th edition. In response to the growing scope and importance of the Ethnologue as a global research project, the editorial staff of the Ethnologue has expanded to include Charles D. Fennig as managing editor, a globally distributed team of Field Contributors, and several research assistants and interns.

The published data are generated from a computerized database on languages of the world first created in 1971 by then consulting editor, Joseph Grimes, from the typesetting tapes for the seventh edition (1969). The work was done at the University of Oklahoma under a grant from the National Science Foundation. In 1974 the database was moved to a computer at Cornell University where Dr. Grimes was professor of linguistics, and it was then moved to a personal computer in 1979. Since 2000 the database has been maintained at the headquarters of SIL International in Dallas, Texas. The structure of the database continues to develop to meet the ongoing research needs of the Ethnologue user community. The fact that language entries are largely constructed from the database by software accounts for a certain stiffness or redundancy in the phrasing.

The seventeenth edition marked a major milestone in the history of the Ethnologue. Previously, the primary product had been a printed book. Beginning in 1997 with the thirteenth edition, the complete contents of the book were also shared online. However, with the seventeenth edition, Ethnologue shifted to a web-centric paradigm in which the website is the primary means by which the Ethnologue database contents are accessed. The web edition stands at the center of a whole family of more-focused derivative digital and print products that are updated annually. The seventeenth edition was initially released to the web in 2013, with a revision of that same edition appearing both on the web and in other formats (including print) in 2014. Another significant milestone accompanying the seventeenth edition release was the development of the Ethnologue Global Dataset which makes a subset of the Ethnologue database available in tabular form. In 2015, a new Online System for Collaboration and Research (OSCAR) was developed and launched. This data entry and editing interface greatly enhances the editorial and database maintenance processes as well as providing greater opportunity for collaboration in the Ethnologue research itself.

One feature of the database since its inception has been a system of three-letter language identifiers. The codes were first published with the following explanation in a monograph reporting the results of the grant to create the database:

Each language is given a three-letter code on the order of international airport codes. This aids in equating languages across national boundaries, where the same language may be called by different names, and in distinguishing different languages called by the same name. (Grimes 1974:i)

While the codes were used behind the scenes in the database that generated the eighth and ninth editions, it was not until the tenth edition (1984) that they appeared in the publication itself.

In 1998, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted ISO 639-2, a standard for three-letter language identifiers. It is based on a convergence of ISO 639-1 (an earlier standard for two-letter language identifiers originally adopted in 1967) and of ANSI Z39.53 (also known as the MARC language codes, a set of three-letter identifiers developed within the library community and adopted as an American National Standard in 1987). The ISO 639-2 standard was insufficient for many purposes since it has identifiers for fewer than 400 individual languages. Thus in 2002, ISO TC37/SC2 formally invited SIL International to prepare a new standard that would reconcile the complete set of codes used in the Ethnologue with the codes already in use in the earlier ISO standard. In addition, codes developed by LinguistList for ancient and constructed languages were incorporated. The result, which was officially approved by the subscribing national standards bodies in 2006 and published in 2007, is a standard named ISO 639-3 that provides unique three-letter codes for over 7,500 languages (ISO 2007). SIL International was named as the registration authority for the standard and administers the annual cycle for changes and updates as a function separate from the Ethnologue under the supervision of ISO and following the procedures established by the standard itself. It is the editorial policy of Ethnologue to follow ISO 639-3 in determining what linguistic varieties should be listed as languages.

This edition of Ethnologue is now the sixth to use the ISO 639-3 language identifiers. In the fifteenth edition (2005) the codes had the status of Draft International Standard. Since then the Ethnologue’s language inventory has been based on the standard as originally adopted plus all the adopted change requests. The twentieth edition includes those updates as of January 2017. Information about the ISO 639-3 standard and procedures for requesting additions, deletions, and other modifications to the ISO 639-3 inventory of identified languages can be found at the ISO 639-3 website: http://www-01.sil.org/iso639-3.