From Abkhaz to Zulu: A Comparative Look at World Language Guides

Reference Reviews

ISSN: 0950-4125

Article publication date: 29 March 2011



Johnson, S.L. (2011), "From Abkhaz to Zulu: A Comparative Look at World Language Guides", Reference Reviews, Vol. 25 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

From Abkhaz to Zulu: A Comparative Look at World Language Guides

Article Type: Reference Reviews survey From: Reference Reviews, Volume 25, Issue 3

Most academic and research libraries own one or more book-length surveys of world languages, even if their institutions don’t offer coursework in linguistics. This article examines five such publications, each with a slightly different approach, emphasis, and purpose. Their target audience also varies, ranging from the general public to advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals.

These reference works offer more than their titles and subject classifications might imply, something of which students and librarians should be made aware. As a field, linguistics is highly interdisciplinary, overlapping with areas as diverse as physics and human anatomy (in the subfield of phonetics), history, anthropology, geography, religious studies, and more. Human migration patterns, national boundaries, and colonialism strongly affect the spread and usage of individual languages, making these sources relevant to political scientists. Likewise, sociologists and cultural anthropologists interested in learning how language affects people’s views of themselves and one another will want to consult these books. Lastly, of course, students in foreign language programs curious about the structure of their chosen subject and its relationship to other languages will find much to discover.

Because they are not dictionaries or tutorials, none of these books will be of immediate practical use for anyone interested in learning another tongue. However, they will provide readers with a wealth of detail on each language, offering information on its internal structure, historical development, usage, geographical spread, total number of speakers, writing system (if any), and family relationships. All of these guides are organized in such a way as to invite comparisons between two or more languages.

Ethnologue: Languages of the World, now in its sixteenth edition (Lewis, 2009), has the broadest range of the five sources under discussion. The well-regarded product of SIL International (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics), a faith-based US non-profit organization dedicated to studying, documenting, and preserving lesser-known languages, Ethnologue is available online and in print. Although the latter provides good value (at $100 for a 1,200-page volume), the free web version’s many data access points and hyperlinks between sections make it the obvious choice.

Ethnologue describes itself as a catalogue rather than an encyclopedia. It aims to document all known living languages (both spoken and signed languages), with data coming from published sources as well as an international “network of field correspondents” with first-hand knowledge. The latest edition includes profiles of 6,909 languages which were learned as a mother tongue and which are still in use. While the print version is organized by continent and country, primary access online is by language name; the web version allows for searching as well as browsing by country (with clickable map), language family, and language code. The system for three-letter language codes, a feature unique to Ethnologue, was developed in cooperation with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to provide a standard way of describing individual languages. For example, Occitan (code “oci”) goes by alternate names depending on where versions of it are spoken: Provençal in France, Gascón in Spain, Occitani in France or Andorra.

Because of Ethnologue’s inclusiveness, the amount of data is limited when compared to other sources. For most languages, it includes brief facts and figures: number of speakers, region, map (with hyperlink to a visual aid), alternate names, dialects, family classification, information on usage (if spoken by people of certain ages and educational levels, for example), its development (including literacy rate), and the writing system used, along with links to citations from the SIL Bibliography. It specializes in documenting endangered languages; 473 are listed as nearly extinct, with “only a few elderly speakers still living”. For anyone looking for a complete picture of the linguistic situation within a given country or region, or for basic, accurate facts on any language in current use, Ethnologue should be the first place to consult.

George Campbell’s two-volume Compendium of the World’s Languages (Campbell, 2000) (RR 2001/81) draws a balance between comprehensiveness and depth of coverage by collapsing less widely spoken languages into larger groupings. Of the 1,000 languages included in the book, 300-plus of them have their own chapter. The remainder are organized by language family. It aims to include “all of the world’s literary languages” (p. xii) – those with a written literature, both current and older – as well as others the author felt were significant enough to include. Because of the focus on literature, there are separate entries for classical and modern Japanese, for example.

All chapters follow the same format, with sections for phonology, written script, and morphology and syntax. Campbell highlights the historical development of each written language and provides numerous examples of phonemes (distinctive speech sounds), formations of various parts of speech, and vocabulary. The author’s biography describes him as a “polyglot linguist”; per his obituary in the Washington Post of December 21, 2004, he spoke at least 44 languages fluently and knew the structure of 20 others – an amazing accomplishment! For languages with which he was unfamiliar, he reproduced examples from works cited in the bibliography.

To allow for easier comparison, most entries conclude with a translation of the same short Biblical text (verses 1-8 of chapter 1 of St John’s Gospel). Because it requires some linguistics expertise, this source is recommended for upper-level undergraduates and higher. For libraries unable to afford this pricey set (£330; $600), the publisher offers a slimmed-down version, Concise Compendium of the World’s Languages (Campbell and King, 2010), with 110 languages covered (£135; $240).

Dictionary of Languages (Dalby, 1998) is the oldest among the works under consideration, but it is still very much worth discussing due to its breadth and accessibility to the non-specialist. In addition, its low cost ($85 hardback, $24.95 paperback) makes it an appealing purchase not only for library collections but also for general readers. A “revised” paperback was published by Bloomsbury in 2004 (RR 2005/304). Each of its 400-plus chapters, ranging in length from half a page to ten pages, offers an erudite and succinct overview of a “major language of the 20th century” or a group of closely related languages. This covers both popular spoken forms as well as classical languages, such as Latin and Sanskrit, considered important to humankind’s cultural past.

Dalby includes a four-page glossary of terms at the very end, but overall his book is relatively free of jargon. This is a significant achievement for a reference book in a discipline in which undergraduates are introduced to specialized vocabulary early in their studies. The chapters comprise lively narrative descriptions discussing a language’s historical development, current usage, and geographical layout, along with any unique religious, political, or other social factors that influence its use and spread. Small maps are included for most, and sidebars provide things like written alphabets, pithy quotes from the local literature, and colorful anecdotes, riddles, and bits of folklore that illustrate the richness of its speakers’ culture. As such, Dictionary of Languages not only serves as a quality source for information on languages from Abkhaz to Zulu, but it also has the potential to tempt students to pursue further study in linguistics.

Facts about the World’s Languages (Garry and Rubino, 2000) is part of the long-running Facts About series by venerable reference book publisher H.W. Wilson. Each of its 191 chapters is written by a recognized expert – professors of linguistics or independent scholars – and provides three to five pages’ worth of tabular and narrative detail. Included are all contemporary languages with more than two million speakers, with additional languages (such as Eskimo) added to broaden diversity. Descriptions for a small number of ancient languages, such as Etruscan and Sanskrit, are also provided.

The chapters follow a consistent format: basic facts (name, location, family, related languages, dialects, number of speakers) followed by narrative sections covering a language’s origin and history, orthography and basic phonology, morphology, syntax, contact with other languages, some common words and example sentences, and any efforts undertaken to promote or preserve it. A select bibliography concludes each entry. All chapters provide tables with examples of consonants, vowels, verb conjugations, and/or pronouns. Although the authors assume some familiarity with linguistic concepts, there is plenty of material to interest the educated non-specialist. Special effort has been made to place each language in its sociopolitical context, and these sections are especially fascinating to read. For example, we learn in the Afrikaans chapter that black schoolchildren in 1970s South Africa protested against the government’s promotion of the language because it was considered a symbol of apartheid (p. 7). The price is $200.

Lastly we come to The World’s Major Languages (Comrie, 2009) (RR 2009/376), edited by a British-born linguist who has been Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, since 1997. His contribution in this area has demonstrated remarkable stability. Most of the contributors from the first edition (1987) – all scholars with internationally recognized expertise – have remained with the project, updating the volume’s 52 chapters with the latest research. Comrie defines what he considers a “major” language, looking at elements like widespread use, its position as an official language of an independent state, and cultural importance. European languages are emphasized for this reason.

The chapters, organized in a linguistic family tree, are on the lengthy side (twenty pages is average). Consisting primarily of narrative text, they describe a language’s usage, history, and structure in generous detail. Their authors are provided sufficient leeway to discuss in depth the elements that make each language or language family unique, and there are numerous maps, charts, and diagrams. Priced at $200 in hardback or $75 in paperback, Comrie’s single-volume reference is a necessary purchase for libraries serving upper-level linguistics students and above.

With five separate works of this type, one might expect more similarity between them than there actually is. Overlap in content is unavoidable, especially for basic structural and demographic data on well-known languages like Spanish or Bengali. There are even some contradictions, though these are usually minor. Ethnologue, for example, gives the total number of second-language French speakers as 50 million. Linda Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston, within Comrie’s volume, give the figure as 20-40 million (p. 172), while acknowledging that evaluating the number of francophones worldwide is hard to measure. While Ethnologue is dependable for quick facts, Waugh and Monville-Buston provide the more complete picture with their two-page study of the French-speaking world.

Debates over whether certain spoken forms constitute dialects or languages in their own right also play out in these works. In both Comrie and Campbell, Xiang, Hakka, Wu, and Min are considered dialects or dialect groups of “the Chinese language”. Both books discuss the complexity at the heart of the distinction. Despite being mutually unintelligible, a factor that would normally cause linguists to call them separate languages, the four are genetically related and are spoken within the same country. Garry and Rubino, on the other hand, list them as languages rather than dialects and allot a different contributor – and considerably longer treatment – to each one. For this reason, scholars more interested in their differences than their commonalities will want to consult Garry and Rubino. Ethnologue deals with this intricate issue by listing them separately but connecting them all together, via hyperlinks, to the “macrolanguage” known as Chinese.

It is also interesting to note that, while the books may seem to be competitors, the field is broad enough to allow for multiple reference sources – and even from the same publishers and contributors in some cases. Comrie and Campbell are both published by Routledge. Also, Dr Brian D. Joseph of The Ohio State University (former graduate advisor of this article’s author) wrote chapters on the Greek language for both Comrie and Garry and Rubino (as well as for two larger encyclopedic sets in linguistics). These volumes’ Vietnamese and Serbo-Croatian chapters were contributed by the same scholars as well.

Each of these books or sets brings something different to the table; each has a singular purpose and offers unique examples that showcase the world’s linguistic diversity. While Ethnologue has the largest breadth of coverage, Comrie and his contributors provide the deepest analysis. The others offer a balance fitting somewhere in between. Campbell’s two-volume set is the most costly, though its focus on literary languages makes it indispensable for research in this area. With its low price and accessible tone, Dalby is within easy financial reach of public libraries and armchair linguists as well as scholars. Smaller schools without formal linguistics courses, and with correspondingly smaller budgets, will probably find a combination of Ethnologue, Comrie, and Garry and Rubino sufficient for their purposes. Academic libraries supporting advanced linguistics studies, however, will want to own (or access, in the case of Ethnologue) all five.

Sarah L. JohnsonAssociate Professor and Reference Librarian at Booth Library, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Illinois, USA


Campbell, G.L. (2000), Compendium of the World’s Languages, 2nd ed., Routledge, London and New York, NY (RR 2001/81)

Campbell, G.L. and King, G. (2010), Concise Compendium of the World’s Languages, 2nd ed. , Routledge, London and New York, NY

Comrie, B. (2009), The World’s Major Languages, 2nd ed. , Routledge, London and New York, NY (RR 2009/376)

Dalby, A. (1998), Dictionary of Languages, Columbia University Press, New York, NY (RR 2005/304 for revised paperback)

Garry, J. and Rubino, C. (2000), Facts about the World’s Languages, H.W. Wilson, New York, NY and Dublin

Lewis, M.P. (Ed.) (2009), Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 16th ed. , SIL International, Dallas, TX, online version available at:

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