Ethnologue launches subscription service

As I have mentioned a few times in the past, the Ethnologue represents three generations of ongoing research. This project has involved thousands of linguists over the years from SIL International, from partner organizations, and from many, many individuals.  The team of personnel who now work on Ethnologue here at Ethnologue Central has grown as the scope of the project and the number and kinds of products we offer have expanded. There are now 8 of us who invest some part of our working days in Ethnologue operations. That investment of time and expertise has been supported by a generous subsidy from SIL International and others. While we have sold books and other products, income from sales has never been sufficient to sustain the Ethnologue project.

We recognize that the free online Ethnologue has been greatly appreciated by many, and we want to be able to continue providing the most accurate and comprehensive information about the languages of the world. And so, we now find it necessary to initiate a more sustainable financial model. Starting today, we are moving to a digital subscription model for users of The income from subscriptions will help us to improve by providing you with even better data and features in the future.

We could have fallen back on the now-familiar annual pledge drive model, but we think most users of Ethnologue would find it less distracting to use a pay-for-what-you-use model. We'll let NPR, PBS, Wikipedia, and others do their thing. The system we are implementing is very similar to what you may have seen on other online publication websites. All users of the website will continue to have free access to a set number of language data pages each month. Once that limit is exceeded, however, you will need to purchase a subscription that will give you unlimited access for a full month (or a year) from the date of purchase.

Subscriptions give you access to the Ethnologue's extensive data on the world's languages. This includes all of the maps, language family trees, language data pages, country information pages, and much more.

It is very likely that most users of the website won't even notice this change. The current page limit is set at 7 data pages.  That number excludes all of the navigation pages, indexes, and other "administrative" pages that you may need to access to get to the data you want to see. And you can return to any of those pages as many times as you need to within the calendar month. You will see a page counter in the lower left corner of each page that shows you how many free pages you have remaining.  Only if you reach your monthly limit of data pages--by visiting a larger number of pages--will you see a message requiring you to purchase a subscription in order to continue browsing with unlimited access.

If you wish to subscribe, (or if you would just like to support the Ethnologue) the process is quick and easy and you don't have to wait for the subscription message to pop up.  You can start your subscription now by clicking on the Subscribe link at the top of the home page at or you can go there directly by going to: with your browser. A third path is to click on the page counter in the bottom left corner of the page.

As with anything new, we expect there will be questions. Feel free to get in touch with us by using the appropriate email address or the contact form found here:


Submitted by Henrik Liljegren on Wed, 2015-12-16 01:48
Dear Paul and colleagues, As a former colleague of yours (and a still active linguistic researcher), I think this is a very unfortunate decision to start asking for money for the use of the Ethnologue. It's a tremendously important tool, not only for professional linguists but also for anyone interested in languages and language issues. Many of my local friends in the country of my former assignment use it, and they really need it in their capacities as researchers, minority language advocates and language activists. It also seems the wrong way to go as a large part of the academic world (at least in Europe) now purposefully moves in the direction of open-access alternatives for publication and presentation of data. For most Western academics this probably a minor problem, as their institutions in most cases will carry the expenses (alternatively abandon Ethnologue in favor of e.g., Glottolog, which will then become the main source of this type of data), but for the general audience, for less-privileged scholars and language-specialists in the developing world this is most definitely a step in the wrong direction, as I see it. I don't know, for instance, how to explain this to my many colleagues and the network around the regional language resource center that I was part of establishing in Asia a few years ago. At the least, I would expect SIL to make the Ethnologue freely available in those non-Western countries where the organization serves. (Perhaps you already have something in place for this, I just haven't seen any information about it.) Anything else would be entirely against SIL values as I know them. Please, reconsider this. Sorry for sounding negative. I do appreciate your work, but I have a hard time understanding the rationale behind this. Sincerely, Henrik Liljegren, Ph.D Associate Professor Department of Linguistics Stockholm University
Submitted by mplewis on Wed, 2015-12-16 08:58
Henrik: Thank you for taking the time to comment.

You have expressed sentiments similar to those we have received from several others. Believe me when I say that the decision to change the Ethnologue's "business model" was not taken quickly or without a considerable amount of prior research. I'll give some more detailed information on that in the next Ethnoblog post.

First though, to set your mind at ease on a couple of points:

The metering/subscription process is only being applied to users in high income countries as defined by the World Bank. So it is very likely that your former colleagues in Asia are not even aware that anything has changed when they access the Ethnologue. And in countries where the subscription metering is at work, only those who are "power users" of the website are likely to run up against the limit. Since most users have an interest in only one language, they should not have any difficulty in accessing the country and language pages related to their primary area of inquiry. And once they have accessed those pages, they can return to them as many times as they need to, as often as they wish to during the month. In fact, even among our academic contributors, there are only a few who have very broad interests and are likely to consult many different language and country pages during the course of a month.

The other point you make, regarding open access, is indeed one where we also share your concern. The movement towards open access shifts the economic burden from the consumer to the producer. That may be a model that works if the producer has alternative funding sources such as through advertising or sales of related products. Ethnologue does sell products--we always have. Before the website began to offer access to the data "for free" about 15 years ago, the ONLY way one could access the Ethnologue was by purchasing a book. We still sell the books (and country reports, and maps, and a downloadable dataset) and, for some, those may be viable alternatives to paying the subscription fee for online access. In most cases, however, the cost of the subscription represents a considerable savings over what one would spend to get the hard or soft copy products. In spite of that sales component, however, our income does not cover the costs of producing and maintaining the Ethnologue website.

We could have resorted to online fund drives or to selling advertising space on our web pages, but we think that approach departs even more significantly from SIL's values (and would require even more monitoring and supervision) than the approach we are taking. We have been working very actively with those who inquire about institutional and group (e.g. classroom) subscriptions to provide the greatest amount of access as possible at a more than reasonable cost.

We love the idea of open access and SIL has been at the forefront in making our resources available as widely and as freely as possible. We were actively involved in establishing the Open Language Archives Community (OLAC) and we have encouraged community participation in the Ethnologue itself through the addition of the Feedback feature on every language and country page. Providing sustainable access to the Ethnologue and its information is our goal. We think that asking the most frequent users in high income countries to pay very minimal fees for that access is the most equitable way to achieve that sustainability.

Submitted by Jennifer on Thu, 2015-12-17 11:21
I was already down to "1 view" left before I even noticed the change, and even then, I only noticed it because it was more obvious when viewed in "mobile" mode - on my desktop I probably would not have noticed until it at all, until I ran out of views and it asked me for money. Since I subscribe to the feedback lists, I had been clicking on language data related to some of those comments I'd received through those lists, but probably would not have clicked on them at all if I'd realized that I was using up my "free" monthly pages by doing so. I was just clicking on them out of a slight interest to "see for myself" what they were commenting on but I might have "saved" my free pages for my own research if I'd realized I was using them up... I'll know from now on, but there are also many sites that directly link to various pages on Ethnologue. It would be nice if the "counter" at the bottom was a bit more obvious or there was a clear notification at the top of the pages (and maybe also a notice sent to the feedback lists - or did I miss that somehow?) so that other users who get there that way are more aware of this change. It would be different if it were a brand-new site, but people are very used to this site being free and the counter in the bottom corner blends in with the other logos etc - portions of the site that rarely change so I didn't read them closely.
Submitted by mplewis on Thu, 2015-12-17 11:51
Hi Jennifer:

Sorry this snuck up on you like this. It has been a major change for all of us and we are all adjusting to the new wrinkles that the subscription process has introduced.

One important point that your comment brings up: Not every page on the website is "metered" and that may be part of the reason that you didn't immediately notice the page counter. When it appears it is pretty obvious (bright blue with white text against the white background of the data page). And it is deliberately in the lower right (oops! I mean LEFT) corner of the screen so as not to obscure any of the data that you want to look at. So, for example, the home page and the various "navigation" pages that you need to click on in order to get to a specific country or language, are not counted, so the remaining-free-page counter doesn't appear. You wouldn't have seen it until you actually accessed a data page.

In addition, while the language and country data pages are counted, the Feedback pages aren't. So the remaining-free-page count appears on the language data pages but then disappears when you go to the Feedback tab. Keep in mind that you can go back to any data page you have already accessed during the month without using up a free page access. So if you want to check if a comment you posted (for example) has been responded to, you should be able to get there without using any additional pages from your monthly allotment.

And then just to repeat once more: most users of the Ethnologue are not likely to encounter the access limitation at all. Only users in high income countries are seeing the page counter to begin with, and most users of the Ethnologue tend to focus on a single language and so, generally don't access more than 7 different pages each month though they may access those few pages multiple times.

Hope this helps.

Submitted by mplewis on Thu, 2015-12-17 15:24
You mentioned the "feedback lists". The way it works is that whenever a registered Ethnologue user (different from a subscriber) decides to follow a specific language, country, or region, they receive a notification when another user posts feedback regarding that language or country (or any language or country in a region). There is no list as such. So short of posting a comment on the Feedback tab for every data entity in the Ethnologue, there is no way for us to contact every user directly as you suggest.
Submitted by John Van Der Decker on Fri, 2015-12-18 20:40
After I log on, my only option appears to be clicking on "The Languages of the World." Neither the pre-highlighted VIEW or the icon with 4 horizontal lines stacked vertically trigger any response from the site. The latter used to open Browse By for me, but no longer. What am I missing? Thanks, John
Submitted by mplewis on Wed, 2015-12-30 19:19
John: My apologies for not seeing this and responding to you more quickly. I've forwarded your question on to our Webmaster and hope to get a response back to you as soon as possible. Unfortunately we are heading into the New Year holiday weekend so it will probably be next week before we can get a response back to you. All the best in the New Year! Paul
Submitted by Peter Arkadiev on Wed, 2015-12-30 15:48
The decision of Ethnologue to go for paid subscription is very unfortunate and distressing, and I believe that it will be met with strong opposition from scholars all over the world. I am a typologist from Russia and I need to use Ethnologue more or less every day routinely visiting pages of very different languages. Moreover, I am a teacher and recommend Ethnologue as a useful source for my students. The financial situation in the Russian universities and academic institutions is such that most of them will never subscribe to Ethnologue. My own salary allows me to buy the yearly subscription, though it is not cheap for me at all, but my students will never be able to access it. You say that "The metering/subscription process is only being applied to users in high income countries as defined by the World Bank" - I'm wondering if Russia and other non-EU post-Soviet states belong to this category. However, this is not about money, but about principle: what used to be free should not become paid, especially at the moment when, as you have already been informed, the trend is rather the opposite. Therefore, I strongly endorse what Henrik Liljegren wrote above. This is a wrong decision, especially in the long run, and it should be reconsidered.
Submitted by mplewis on Wed, 2015-12-30 19:21
Peter: Thank you for taking the time to comment. I am forwarding your comment on to those who are handling the subscription process. They should respond to you sometime early in the coming week with whatever options are available to you and others in your situation. All the best in 2016, Paul
Submitted by magnuspharao on Thu, 2016-01-28 13:25
9 dollars per month is extraordinarily excessive and seems to be to be a very poor business decision. The price is higher than for example an online streaming service such as netflix. Netflix is both more likely to be something that people are willing to pay such an amount for, and also that service has to use the money to buy copyrights. Ethnologues updates are few, and requires very little labor - simply ont enough to justify this price. I think Ethnologue will simply make itself irrelevant with this kind of service and the people who use it will gravitate towards other platforms. I have often defended Ethnologue against criticisms of its accuracy, exactly because as a free service it is the best available, but this will be really hard to do in the future.
Submitted by mplewis on Thu, 2016-01-28 13:45

Your concerns about the costs have been noted, Magnus.

I'd suggest you contact to get the full scoop on both what it costs us (in time, effort, and money) to maintain and deliver annual updates to the Ethnologue in a variety of formats and the very reasonable options that are available for institutional, classroom and other subscription plans--not to mention that the Ethnologue remains absolutely free to users in World Bank-designated "low income" countries.

Just because something is free doesn't mean it is easy nor without value. In fact, the Ethnologue's research effort over 65 years is without comparison, worth a whole lot more than Netflix, I would hope! You are correct that it is "the best there is" and that's because no one else has been able to marshall the resources (i.e. finances, labor, and expertise) to pull together anything similar.

We always acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and the data we are able to collect and report--an ongoing research project like this will never be able to provide the "final word". Simply put, trying to make that resource sustainable and better as we move into the future doesn't invalidate its current worth.

Submitted by magnuspharao on Thu, 2016-01-28 14:23
I wonder why an ad-based service hasn't been tried first? Also, I think Ethnologue is the best for the money - when the money is free. For most languages more accurate data can be found by going to specialist paper sources. That is certainly what I will be doing in the future. I do commend the choice of maintaining Ethnologue free in low income countries. And when you say that the work of compiling the data deserves payment, does this mean that you will provide non-SIL linguists who contribute data and corrections with remuneration in the future? Remuneration might for example be in the form of a free subscription.
Submitted by mplewis on Thu, 2016-01-28 15:57

You certainly can get much better and more detailed information about any language by going to the "specialist paper sources" that you refer to. If you are a scholar I would expect no less. But those resources are rarely free (any library that you might patronize is paying for those and passing them on to you by collecting student fees, being subsidized by public funds, or through membership or subscription fees). Download any single published journal article and you'll pay far more than a single month's subscription to the Ethnologue. Have you bought a book lately? There is no "no cost" option that I'm aware of. Somebody is paying for the information and the process whether that cost is passed on to the end user or not. Even when materials are open access, there are costs that are being covered by some means.

And you misquote me. I didn't say that the work we do "deserves payment". I said that the service we provide is valuable (which you seemed to imply was not the case comparing it to cheap entertainment). The work we do has significant costs associated with it and those costs do need to be covered in some way. Our goal is to make this valuable resource as widely available as possible for the longer term and to improve the quality and scope of the data we can provide.

Submitted by magnuspharao on Thu, 2016-01-28 17:37
In fact I compared it to an extremely expensive form of entertainment. I doubt that even the work that goes into a full Bible translation approaches the cost of a single Hollywood production. I do not claim that Ethnologues content is not valuable - of course it is or there would be no argument here. What I say is that part of its value has been exactly that it is available not just instantly, but also at no cost. When in the past I have chosen to contribute information to Ethnologue for free, information which I have myself procured at a cost, it has been exactly because I knew that, that information would then be freely available to everyone. I am sure other linguists have thought the same. You imply that the money paid by subscribers will be used to improve the quality and scope of the data. Does that mean that you will use it to pay linguists to collect more and better data, or will you only use it to off set the costs of producing and hosting the website? Currently a "no cost" option is Wikipedia. Which incidentally largely uses Ethnologue's content (with appropriate citations to the source).