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The Linguasphere Register of the World's Languages and Speech-Communities

What is the Linguasphere Register?

The Linguasphere Register of the World's Languages and Speech Communities is the first attempt at a comprehensive and transnational classification of the modern languages and dialects of the world – and of the communities of humankind.  Compiled over several decades by David Dalby (Linguasphere Observatory, London School of Oriental  & African Studies and University of Wales, Cardiff), the Register classifies all known languages and dialects on the basis of their closest linguistic relationships, and includes a theoretical and practical discussion and presentation of the linguasphere.  A complete index of linguistic and ethnolinguistic names has been prepared by Michael Mann (School of Oriental & African Studies).

Following the preview editions of 1997 (formally presented to the Director-General of UNESCO in September 1997), and 1998, the framework edition of the Linguasphere Register is published and  available from January 2000.  To order click here.

 What is the philosophy and purpose of the Linguasphere Register?

From Sarajevo in 1914 to Kosovo in 1999, the 20th century has revealed a widening gap between the sovereignty of the nation-state, and the fragility of its frontiers and institutions.  Published to mark the century's close, the Linguasphere Register spotlights the importance of languages and multilingual communication in the future construction of a planetary society.  It demonstrates the need to recognise each language and dialect of the world as an integral part of the linguasphere, the continuous mantle of speech which humankind has woven around the globe during the last fifty millennia or more.

The first part of the volume, From Person to Planet, outlines the need to design a global architecture for the management of planet Earth, in the first new century of instant worldwide communication.  It considers the evolution, nature and potential development of humankind's linguistic environment, and considers the options open to world society, based on complementary principles of global unity, communal diversity and personal choice.  Written as though from outside the planet, the text is presented in a modular form of questions and answers, which may be consulted in whichever order the reader prefers.

The second and major part, the Linguasphere Register of the World's Languages and Speech-Communities, presents the first classification and structured roll-call of the modern communities of humankind, based not on their segmentation behind superimposed national frontiers but on their places within a continuous global system of communication.  Rather than being constructed from the so-called "top" downwards, centred on the study of ancient or currently dominant languages, the Linguasphere Register is based on the classification of the living dialects and "inner languages" of speech-communities in all parts of the world, regardless of their demographic size.

Over 20,000 languages and constituent dialects of the 20th century are listed, classified and indexed, providing a complete transnational system of linguistic reference for the documentation, study and continued exploration of the planet.  Information is also given on languages recorded during past centuries, where these are still culturally relevant to present-day communities, as well as on languages known to have become extinct during the last half-millennium of European linguistic expansion.

The Linguasphere Register provides a first “roll-call” of the overlapping and interacting speech-communities which make up modern humankind, using close linguistic relationships, not political frontiers, as its framework  It ranks languages on a scale of estimated numbers of speakers or “voices”, from those recently extinct or near extinction, to the twelve languages with a total of primary and second-language voices above one hundred million.  These include three languages approaching or exceeding the one billion mark, which are Chinese (Mandarin), English, and Hindi (with Urdu and Panjabi).  By promoting a global view of the continuum of human languages, the Linguasphere Register opens up a new transnational perspective on the inter-dependent communities of humankind. This is its primary objective.

At first sight, the present volume may appear to have been compiled for the use of specialists, but who are these specialists?  In practice, millions of intelligent observers throughout the world are specialists on the areas and languages surrounding them, and the help of such observers, including students and teachers in schools and colleges of every continent, will be vital in improving and updating the Linguasphere Register.  They can also play a key role in developing and applying a global philosophy of speech and education.  It can be argued that knowledge of two or more languages, and access to differing views on the world, form part of the educational rights of every child, and that the eradication of monolingualism and illiteracy should be a dual objective for the decades ahead.

Children of the 21st century will have the oppotunity to be free, as no previous generation has ever had… free to develop a sense of their collective human adventure…  to see the entire planet as their collective home… and  to develop an allegiance to humankind which may perhaps take precedence over national, cultural, linguistic and denominational bonds.

As children thumb through the long lists of unfamiliar names which make up the Register, they may be led to discover where their own language and the names of neighbouring languages have their place on this tiny planet.  They may learn how those languages have close and distant relatives, like human families.  They may be encouraged to reflect that every line of the Register represents a community with children like themselves.  They can also be encouraged to contribute directly to this ever expanding inventory of humankind, by adding to or improving the information about their own communities and languages.
The Linguasphere Observatory (Observatoire Linguistique in French or Wylfa Ieithoedd in Welsh) exists as an independent, transnational research network devoted to the observation of this “planet of speech”.  It has no national, commercial, religious or party-political motives, and its ideology is expressed by its motto: Within the galaxy of languages, each person’s voice is a star.

The purpose of the Linguasphere Observatory is to serve as a public observation platform in cyberspace, where comprehensive data on the workings of the linguasphere may be gathered, and presented in a readily accessible form to a public audience.  The human and material support of individuals and organisations who favour this aim are welcomed from every region of the world.

Responsibility for shortcomings in the present volume falls to its compiler, but competent individuals and institutions in all continents are invited to accept future responsibility for providing improved and expanded information for the Register on each language and dialect and every speech-community of the linguasphere. This needs to include data on the thousands of minority speech-communities within the world's major cities and on the electronic networks which now support and unite linguistic minorities scattered over wide areas of the globe.  As fellow passengers on a leaking vessel, with no lifeboats, all human beings are now “us”, and there is no more “them”.  World studies are now local studies.

A call is launched for wide participation in the expansion, improvement and corroboration of the Linguasphere Register, by all those who can contribute comments and information on the current state of the linguasphere.  See Getting Involved.

Sincere thanks are due to all those whose support, advice and encouragement have prevented this enterprise from being abandoned en route, and whose continued participation now permits its progressive realisation.

 What is the structure of the Linguasphere Register?

The structure of the Linguasphere Register has been designed to shift the emphasis of linguistic classification from remoter layers of prehistoric relationship to the immediate layers of close and observable relationship among modern languages and dialects.  It is designed around a layered system of classification, composed of: One of the objectives of the framework edition of the Linguasphere Register is to establish a basic pattern for the organisation and presentation of summarised data on each component language and dialect of the linguasphere.  This is achieved in the form of a five column table which runs progressively through the entire linguasphere, organised horizontally in terms of five categories of information for each language and dialect, and vertically in layers of coded classification.

For the detailed presentation of the methodology and layout of the Register, see the Guide to Reading Extracts provided on the Download Extracts page.

How are language speakers classified in the Linguasphere Register?

Alongside the question of the definition and countability of individual languages, we need also to consider the question of the definition and countability of their speakers.

For the purposes of the Linguasphere Register, totals or estimated totals of first and second language speakers are treated together when calculating the order of magnitude of the speakers of any idiom (outer-language, language or dialect).  Exact figures of speakers of individual languages are not presented in the Register, however, to avoid giving a false impression of precise accuracy.

For two reasons, it has been decided to provide orders of magnitude rather than numerical totals for the speakers of any idiom in the Register (except in the case of a few severely endangered languages, where only a handful of speakers is known to remain).

The first reason is the difficulty of obtaining and maintaining an exact count of speakers, especially in a situation in which so few nation-states include adequate questions about languages in their national censuses.

The second reason is the difficulty of defining the precise status of individual speakers or potential speakers of a language. Account has to be taken of non-speaking infants, and of projected future births and deaths, if one is to arrive at approximate figures appropriate to a period a few years ahead, when census and other calculations may be effectively available.  David Barrett, a founding member of the Linguasphere Observatory, is currently examining the feasibility of such future linguistic projections, on the basis of demographic data provided by the United Nations.  One of the complications in this area is the difficulty of estimating total numbers of non-mother-tongue speakers and learners of a language, whose degree of knowledge justifies their inclusion in the total number of speakers. Another complication relates to the numbers of speakers of closely related languages, who may therefore be regarded as actual or potential "speakers" of each others’ languages (as in the example of the "52-Nordic" languages, including Danish, Norwegian and Swedish).

The orders of magnitude provided in the last (5th) column of the Linguasphere Register, are based on estimated totals of first and adequate second language speakers on a sliding demoscale, as follows:

      9 = over one billion (79-Mandarin and 52-English, which alternate daily as the "most intensely" spoken language on earth - depending on whether China is awake or asleep)
      8 = over one hundred million (including 59-Hindi+ Urdu, 51-Spanish, 53-Russian, 59-Bengali, 12-Arabic, 31-Malay+ Indonesian, 51-Portuguese, 45-Japanese, 51-French and 52-German)
      7 = over ten million
      6 = over one million
      5 = over one hundred thousand
      4 = over ten thousand
      3 = over one thousand
      2 = over one hundred
      1 = below one hundred
      0 = extinct (during the 20th century)
(A star after any of these orders of magnitude, e.g. 5*, indicates that the figure is provisional, pending confirmation or revision, including cases where a language appears to be on the borderline of the next category below.)

 What parts of the Linguasphere Register are available on this site?

A selection of extracts from the Register, including the Preface and Synopsis,can now be viewed on this website under Download Extracts.

It is also intended to provide a free search service on this website, which will provide the classification and geographical location(s) for any language-name requested.

What were the origins of the Linguasphere Register?

David Dalby’s voyage towards the completion of the first Linguasphere Register, towards the goal of surveying and classifying the whole linguasphere as a dynamic entity in our own time, began with the study of European languages during the 1950’s, and then of African languages, beginning in newly independent Ghana in 1958 and in Sierra Leone from 1961.  Africa is the most multilingual continent in a highly multilingual world, and it seemed useful to embark on the preparation of a map which would present the overall linguistic complexity of Africa as an entity in itself. This first task was achieved twenty years ago, in 1977, and provided two fundamental lessons.

The first lesson was that Africa is not an island, and that the interesting linguistic structure of that continent can only be satisfactorily viewed within the context of the overall linguistic structure of our planet. From the end of the 1970’s it was possible to embark on this wider exploration of the linguasphere and on the gradual gathering of data from the other continents for the purposes of the present Linguasphere Register.

The second lesson was that a referential system of classification needed to be designed which would permit the comprehensive organization of data assembled on the languages and dialects of the world, as spoken, written or read during the 20th century, but which would not need to be fundamentally reorganized to account for each subsequent reconstruction of prehistoric linguistic relationships.

Many colleagues have contributed information and good counsel along the pathway towards the completion of the Linguasphere Register, but the compiler of the Register wishes to acknowledge the indispensable and sustained participation of two colleagues in particular, without whose moral and scientific support this work would never have been completed: David Barrett of Richmond (Virginia) and Michael Mann of the School of Oriental and African Studies (London).