Book Review: Ethnologue Language Family Index

Ethnologue Language Family Index To The Thirteenth Edition To The Ethnologue, by Joseph E. Grimes & Barbara E. Grimes

As this book consists of more than a hundred pages of languages listed one after another included as part of various language families, this book will not likely interest anyone except for one who happens to be a student of linguistics. It must be admitted, though, that someone who is a student of linguistics will find much that is troubling and concerning about the book, as it purports to be an index of language families but contains a scanty bibliography at the end of the book of only one page and takes an inconsistent attitude to the categorization of languages. While it is indeed true that the languages are categorized in general in language families, this is not universally done. In some cases, as with the Altaic languages, languages are combined that are often viewed as being languages in an aerial sprachbund rather than in a true family.

While this is possible in the case of the Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungistic languages that these are not true members of a language family, there are at least many people who would claim this was the case. That said, there are no necessary family connections between the various sign languages, creoles, or pidgins that make up three of the supposed language families that are made of highly disparate languages that are certainly categories of languages but equally certainly not related by family resemblance. In other cases, the authors choose to organize languages families internally in such cases with very doubtful means, such as in having the supposed Sino-Tibetan family divided between the Sinitic languages and the Tibeto-Burman languages, even though linguistically both the Sinitic and Tibetic languages are rather close together compared to the other languages in their famously complicated families.

While there are some languages that are considered to be unclassified, the amount of languages that are combined together on geographical rather than familial lines is distressingly many. The inconsistencies of the categorization is also troubling in some cases, as when the English Traveler language is included in the English language group along with English and Scots (but no other languages are considered to be separate, not even the highly divergent AAVE), while the remaining languages of the various Sinti and Roma peoples are considered to be part of the Indo-Aryan languages. This is the sort of book that seriously needs to have its categorization justified through some sort of clear appeal to the linguistic writings of specialists in the various languages and language families that exist in the world, but merely a dozen books overall are sorted, many of which are wholly unsuited to provide the sort of insight into the relationship of languages that a book like this requires in order to be a genuine and worthwhile text that seeks to untangle the family tree of languages around the world. This is true, for example, when all of the language isolates of the world that currently exist are lumped together as one category even though, again, these languages merely share a salient feature of having no known surviving relatives rather than an ancestral heritage with the other languages they are grouped with. Nor does the book do a good enough job of including ancient but attested languages that help flesh out the language families spoken of in the book, though it must be admitted that adding such detail would add complexity to a book that cannot handle even the complexity it takes on already. This is a brave effort at a difficult task, but not good enough to be relied upon by the reader as presenting the true picture of the relationship between the languages of the world.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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