So what's in a name?

We sometimes are asked for information about a language or we see a language mentioned in the news and, of course, we go to the Ethnologue to see if it is listed and what we have to say about it. More often than not, however, what we find is that there are several languages in our Language Names Index that are called by the same name. So we have to get more information before we can check to see what we know about it.

Recently, for example, there was a news story about a language called Tiwa.  The article was about the language spoken in India and described how a dictionary was going to be produced to help the Tiwa community preserve their language.  As it happens there are two other Tiwa languages listed in Ethnologue, Northern Tiwa and Southern Tiwa, spoken in New Mexico, USA.  As is the case with several Native American communities, access to their languages, and publication of information about these languages are closely guarded by the community members. So, news that outsiders were about to produce just such a publication in Tiwa caused some alarm. It had to be made clear that the Tiwa mentioned in the article was neither of the two Tiwa varieties spoken in the United States.

This is a fact of life for the Ethnologue.  Early on the editors learned that sometimes there are multiple languages called by the same name. In many other cases it is common for a single language to be referred to by more than one name.  Sometimes the same language has one name in one country or region and a very different name in another location.  In addition, sometimes people refer to a language using a variety of names depending on whether they are thinking about what the language is called by its speakers, what it is called by outsiders (in their respective languages) or, as is often also the case, where it is spoken, using the name of a village, a region, or a country.

We try to keep track of all of these names. Where we can, we identify the names that we have by category.  The terminology for all of these different name categories may be useful if you want to show off at a party, but it is also helpful in sorting out what the name is actually describing.

The Ethnologue, first of all, distinguishes between "primary" and "alternate" language names (glossonyms).  This division provides the primary means by which we organize our presentation of the data that we report.  The primary name is the name we use to alphabetize our list of languages in each country.  Generally it is the most commonly known name of the language in English or in an anglicized form.  Alternate names include all of the other names that may have been used, accurately or not, at some time to refer to a language.  Most of these are the names applied to the languages by outsiders (exoglossonyms). We include alternate spellings of known names, even though sometimes those are brought to our attention as misspellings. Not everyone is appreciative of the inclusion of pejorative names as well. We enclose such names in quotation marks (inverted commas) and tag each instance of such a name with the abbreviation "pej." to clearly indicate that the name may be offensive. Our goal is to include only language names in this list and where it is demonstrated that a name is used to refer to the ethnic group (an ethnonym) we will remove it. Our aim in providing such comprehensive lists is to facilitate the Ethnologue users' ability to find a language by whatever name they may be familiar with.  We would hope that if someone only knows a language by a pejorative name or a misspelled name, finding it in the Ethnologue would assist them in learning a more appropriate way to refer to the language.

Increasingly we are also being informed of the names that speakers themselves use for their languages (autoglossonymns). Currently we don't identify these specifically but as our knowledge of these names increases, we plan to report autoglossonyms as a distinct category. And where we are aware of them, we also report ethnonyms (in the "Other:" section of each language entry). So, glossonyms, autoglossonyms, exoglossonyms, and ethnonyms make the Ethnologue database a rich source of information on language identification.

But this proliferation of names, doesn't fully address the need to be able to distinguish one language from another particularly if the primary name of one language may be an alternate name of another completely distinct language.  Often, as in the case of Tiwa, Tiwa, and Tiwa,  the geographic location of the speakers of the language may be all that is needed to distinguish between them.  However, it becomes cumbersome to have to refer to a language as "Tiwa of India" or "Northern Tiwa of the USA".  A handy way to solve this problem is use the three-letter codes provided by the ISO 639-3 standard for the identification of languages.  Like airport codes, the three-letters provide a unique identifier for each language.  Since the list is standardized, it provides a universal set of identifiers that are consistent and clear no matter which of the many possible names are being used to refer to the language.  Thus, Tiwa [lax], Tiwa [twf] and Tiwa [tix] can be unambiguously identified and referred to by using the three-letter codes. This system of codes greatly enhances our ability to provide clear descriptions of languages and to share data.

The Ethnologue staff has found the use of the codes to be invaluable and a great time saver. We'd encourage others to use these codes as well.