Functions of Languages in Countries

In an earlier post I mentioned a new category of information, Status,  in which we provide a measure of the state of endangerment or development of each language using the EGIDS. But to quote those late night TV infomercials, "Wait! There's more!"

In addition to the EGIDS status, we have also implemented a new system for identifying the function(s) that a language may have in the country where it is spoken.  Almost any language entry will show Status information, but here's an obvious example with the Status section of the language entry shown in bold:

[tur] Widespread as L1 or L2. Also in Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Egypt, El Salvador, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Netherlands, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan. 46,300,000 in Turkey (1987). Population total all countries: 50,733,420. Status: 1 (National). Statutory national language (1982, Constitution, Article 3). Alternate Names: Anatolian, Türkçe, Türkisch Dialects: Danubian, Dinler, Edirne, Eskisehir, Gaziantep, Karamanli, Razgrad, Rumelian, Urfa. Danubian is west; other dialects east. Classification: Altaic, Turkic, Southern, Turkish Comments: Muslim.

In the past, we had a very simple system where we identified a language as being an official or a national language (and those terms are still used on the Country tab for each country page).  We didn't define very precisely what that meant and we didn't make any distinction between official languages and national languages.  This provided only a very general (and sometimes misleading) indication that the language had some sort of official recognition but anyone who really wanted to know more would have to do additional research to find out how the language actually was used.

Now here's where it gets good.  We knew that things were a lot more complicated than that simple label "National or Official" implied, but we didn't quite know how to go about developing a set of categories that would cover the ground of all the possible functions and recognitions and, at the same time, a set of categories that could be applied globally to all of the languages of the world in all of the countries where they are spoken.  We needed to do some research to find out if anybody had actually come up with a "theory" that could explain and describe those functions. If so, from that theory we wanted to be able to develop the categories that would be most helpful in describing how the languages were assigned these "functions in country."

As in all scholarship, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. We found some help by looking at the work of Robert Cooper, best known perhaps for his work on language contact, and his book on language planning (Cooper 1989).  Cooper in turn had drawn on the work of William Stewart (1968).  From these excellent sources, we were able to identify three sets of factors that can be combined to produce a set of categories for describing the recognition and functions of languages in each country.

The first of these factors is the legal status of the function.  Some functions are assigned legislatively by means of a constitution, a law or a statute.  Other functions have no statutory basis but are the common de facto usage of the language within that country. So some functions are statutory and some are de facto. In the example above, Turkish is the statutory national language of Turkey having been recognized as such by the constitution of the country.  In the United States, there is no law that establishes English as the official language of the country, so English is the de facto national language.

The case of English in the United States is a good example of the second factor that we need to be aware of.  That is the level or scope of the function.  While English has no statutory recognition at the national level in the United States, there are several states where English has been designated as the official language within that state.  So, the scope of the recognition can be either national or provincial.

Finally there is the function of the language itself. In some cases a language is used not only for carrying out the practical business of governance, but it also serves as a powerful symbol of identity.  A language that is used only for the operations of the government is labeled in our system as a working language. That contrasts with a language that serves only the identity function.  In each of these cases, the language is identified appropriately in our system as, for example, "statutory national working language" or "de facto language of national identity."  When a language exercises both functions, we simply don't specify the function.  So, as in the case of Turkish, it would be identified as a "statutory national language."

To round out the system, we needed to add two additional categories. Sometimes a language's function is neither for governance nor for identity. It has simply been recognized (usually in a statute) as existing or being suitable for a particular purpose (for example, as a language of education).  In those cases, we label it simply as a "recognized language" and we provide the source document of that recognition.  The second case is where a nationality or an ethnic group is recognized legally but not their language(s) specifically.  Where we know that to be the case, we label the language as a "language of a recognized nationality."

And one other item to note is that, except on the Country tab, we no longer label any language as "official."  The languages that are listed on the Country tab and identified as "National or Official Languages"  are all those which we have identified as national languages, or national working languages, or national languages of identity whether statutory or de facto.

What makes me excited about this, is that the combination of these three factors gives us a much more precise and accurate way of identifying the roles that languages play within a country. And it gives us a small window into the nature of language policy and practice within each country. The combination of the three factors produces a very nice system that takes the theoretical insights of our predecessors and puts them to work in a powerful way. And, thanks to the tireless work of our research staff (thanks, Bob!), the Ethnologue is now also able to provide information about the statutory basis for the recognition of each language where it is known. That's gotta be useful to somebody!

The full description of the possible combinations and what they refer to is found on the Language Status page under the heading Official Recognition and the extended discussion linked to from there.