How NOT to use the Ethnologue

Many people turn to the Ethnologue as their primary source for information about the state of the world's languages and we are always happy to see that this resource is valued. However, there are some uses of the Ethnologue that aren't justifiable given the nature of the data we report.

What brings this to mind is a recent communication we received, and some earlier similar cases reported to us, where the Ethnologue was used in a legal setting as evidence to support arguments regarding immigration and asylum issues.  In one case, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service used the fact that the Ethnologue had no listing for a language by the name a defendant was using for it, as evidence that the language didn't exist and therefore drew the conclusion that the defendant's case was entirely fabricated.  In the more recent case, a person's request for asylum in another country was opposed on the grounds that there was no Ethnologue listing for the language he speaks in the country that he was fleeing from.  Though in neither case was the language of the speaker the central issue, the discrepancies between a person's claims and the data reported by the Ethnologue were used as evidence to undermine the defendant's credibility.

No matter the merits of the cases I've cited, this kind of use of the Ethnologue represents a serious misunderstanding of how we collect data and how we report it.  So a bit of clarification is called for.

First, the Ethnologue is an ongoing research project that has followed a trajectory of continuous improvement and revision over its 60-year history.  That is, as we say in the introductory paragraphs, language identification is not a straightforward process and the inventory of recognized languages changes depending on the criteria used.  As a result, we struggle to keep up with the dynamics of those changes.  We readily admit that at any point in time, some of our data will be out-of-date.  When we were on a four-year publication cycle (a new edition coming out in print and online every four years), a great deal of what we reported was in need of correction and updating by the end of the review period.  More recently, we have opted to update the online edition annually (followed by print "snapshots" of that data) but in doing so we have had to focus primarily on one-third of the world's languages each year.  In addition, we have added the online feedback feature so that users of the Ethnologue who wish to suggest corrections and updates can do so more easily. While the Ethnologue may be the best information that is available, it always lags behind the reality in spite of our best efforts with a limited staff to keep up.

Second,  since its inception, the focus of the Ethnologue has been on smaller, less-well-known languages, sometimes called "vernaculars," "local languages,"  or "minority languages." Initally only languages that might fall into that category were included in the Ethnologue.  It wasn't until the 8th edition (1971), that the decision was made to expand the scope of the Ethnologue to include all of the known living (and recently extinct) languages.  At that point, Barbara Grimes, the editor at the time, contacted scholars and other sources to include information about the world's major languages.  While we continue to track major languages and are making efforts to make our reporting on all languages complete, concise, and consistent, we recognize that the world's major languages have been and continue to be much more thoroughly studied and described in academia, whereas the lesser-known languages continue to be under-documented.  One of the strengths of the Ethnologue is its focused attention on those lesser-known languages; less emphasis is given to keeping up with published studies about major languages.

Finally, the Ethnologue relies on a large "social" network of correspondents who voluntarily review our data periodically and submit updates and corrections. Many of those correspondents are experts on particular languages or language families.  All of them have other responsibilities and give freely of their time to assist us as they can.  While we encourage them to provide us with thorough and comprehensive reviews of the languages they know about, frequently all they can do is point out glaring errors or significant changes that they are aware of.  We are a long way from being able to stay on top of all of the dynamics of border realignments, migration, population changes, alterations in language use and transmission patterns, and changes in language and education policy.  There are many omissions (which legal cases like those reported above motivate us to repair) and some reported facts go unchanged for multiple editions.

So, how NOT to use the Ethnologue?  While we have a lot of confidence in what we report as being true at the time the data were given to us, we recognize that the Ethnologue is a work that is continuously in progress.  Statements made in the Ethnologue can be relied on in general but in any specific case, further investigation may be needed and may, in fact, be ongoing.  We know governments and many others will continue to look to the Ethnologue for current information about the languages of the world. We assert that the data is, and always will be, incomplete in one way or another.  Therefore it would be a misuse of the Ethnologue to base a legal decision solely on something the Ethnologue says or especially, on what the Ethnologue doesn't say.  We have a high degree of confidence that the Ethnologue has the best word on the state of the world's languages, but we are equally certain that we'll never have the last word.