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Review of  Facts About the World's Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World's Major Languages, Past and Present

Reviewer: Zoe Toft
Book Title: Facts About the World's Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World's Major Languages, Past and Present
Book Author: Jane Garry Carl R. Rubino
Publisher: H.W. Wilson Company
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Issue Number: 13.1690

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Date: Thu, 13 Jun 2002 10:49:46 +0000
From: Zoe Toft <>
Subject: Garry & Rubino (2001) Facts about the World's Languages

Garry, Jane and Rubino, Carl, ed (2001) Facts About the World's Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World's Major Languages, Past and Present. H. W. Wilson Company, 896pp, Hardback ISBN 0-8242-0970-2

Zoe Toft, SOAS, University of London.

Facts about the world's languages surveys almost 200 languages, providing structural descriptions alongside relevant historical and cultural information. Languages covered include the majority of those currently spoken by over 2 million people (e.g. Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, English) and a substantial number of ancient languages (e.g. Ancient Egyptian, Hittite, Sogdian). A selection of languages with small(er) populations are also included in order to provide a broader typological perspective to readers (e.g. Welsh, Nahutl, Nama, Lakota).

Whilst each chapter is written by a different specialist in the field, the same basic outline is followed throughout: The first section provides a general introduction to the language in question, covering language name (including alternates and autonym), location, genetic classification and relationship, names of dialects and number of speakers. The second section, which forms the core of each chapter, first addresses the language's origins and historical setting, and then outlines the orthography, phonology, morphology and syntax of the given language. The third section in each chapter contains a list of common words and some example sentences, and expressly addresses the linguistic and extra linguistic influence of other languages on the one in question; examples of loan words are provided and efforts to preserve, protect and promote the given language are discussed. Each chapter concludes with a bibliography containing standard grammars, dictionaries and linguistic works, intentionally restricted to English language works in the main. In addition to the language chapters the book contains a 23-page glossary, and indexes of languages by country, languages by family, and languages and alternate names.

Given the large number of publications which survey the languages of the world (e.g. Campbell 1991, Comrie 1987, Dalby 1998, Décsy 1986-88, Grimes 2000, Gunnemark 1992, Katzner 1995, Malherbe 1995, Voegelin and Voegelin 1977), my evaluation of Facts about the world's languages shall not only consider the book on it own merits but also in its context, by trying to highlight where and how it differs from other available resources.

Any attempt to survey the world's languages must start with a difficult decision: which languages are to be included and why? Pei (1949) chose such languages as would give his reader '... the elementary linguistic consciousness that the soldier of yesterday needed in his military activities on foreign soil and that the man and woman of tomorrow will need in a world destined [...] to become more and more a single political economic and cultural unit' (p.13). Nida (1972) selected only those languages for which at least one full book of the Bible had been published, whilst Comrie (1987), in discussing how to decide on the 'major' languages of the world recounts: '... when linguists learned in 1970 that the last speaker of Kamassian, [...] had kept her language alive for decades in her prayers - God being the only other speaker of her language - they may well have wondered whether, for this person, the world's major language was not Kamassian'. Garry and Rubino, editors of Facts about the world's languages, have opted for population count as their principle criterion for inclusion: 'as a general rule', all languages currently spoken by two million or more people are included. Thus, with a few exceptions, the 150 or so most widely spoken languages each get a chapter of their own. Languages not covered by Garry and Rubino, despite having large numbers of speakers include Sotho/Pedi (4.1 million speakers, Benue Congo), Kashimiri (4.5 million, Dardic), Kongo (3.2 million, Benue Congo), Luri (4.3 million, Iranian), Mazanderani (3.25 million, Iranian), Mbundu (3 million, Benue Congo), Mundari (2 million, Munda), Tiv (2.2 million, Benue Congo) and Toba/Batak (2 million, Austronesian) (all figures and classification taken from Whilst some of these languages are presumably not included because of the sheer lack of information available on them (e.g. Luri, Mazanderani), I find no reason for the exclusion of Toba/Batak or Sotho/Pedi, for example.

Whilst population was the first criterion for inclusion, the second was that of 'importance in early linguistic scholarship and in the development of [...] other languages'. 17 languages which are no longer spoken qualify for inclusion on these grounds and thus we, as readers, are treated to excellent articles on Ancient Greek (by Brian Joseph), Akkadian (Benjamin Foster), Sanskrit (Michael Witzel), Gothic (Charles Barrack), Latin (Rex Wallace) and Phoenician (Charles Krahmalkov) amongst others. I found the inclusion of so many 'ancient' languages a very valuable extension to the volume, especially in the light of sections on the origins and history of languages still spoken. My only quibble with this selection would be that Avestan (Iranian) should also have made it to the list, given its cultural significance as the sacred language of Zoroastrianism.

The third and final criterion for inclusion was typological representation. On this basis 24 languages spoken by fewer than 2 million people were included by Garry and Rubino to ensure as wide a selection as possible from the 'genetic pool' of languages. Consequently Basque (Robert Trask), Irish (James McCloskey), Nivkh (Johanna Mattissen), Nama (Wilfred Haacke) amongst others are also included in the final list of languages, thereby ensuring that all 17 of the phyla proposed by Ruhlen (1991:290) are represented, as are the majority of 'language groups' (Ruhlen's term for the level below phylum). Whilst it is true that there are no representatives of Kordofanian, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Miao-Yao, Yukagir, and the majority of Australian and Indo-Pacific language groups, these exceptions only highlight the overall success in choosing a selection of languages that balances breadth, depth and practical exigencies nigh on perfectly.

In contrast to Garry and Rubino, Campbell (1991), Comrie (1987), Dalby (1998) and Malherbe (1995) include multiple chapters devoted to language groups as well as individual languages. By doing this, they are able to provide information on many more languages spoken by small communities, and to give more accessible typological overviews. Garry and Rubino do in fact included one such 'macro-chapter', on Polynesian languages (Jeff Marck) but in doing so they only highlight the absence of other chapters along similar lines. To the best of my knowledge no language survey book includes chapters on signed languages, an ideal candidate for such a 'macro-chapter'. (Ethnologue lists several hundred sign languages but no characterizations are provided). In the Warlpiri chapter (Angela Terrill) of Facts about the World's Languages mention is made of the sign language used by Warlpiri women during periods of mourning, but signed languages used as a primary means of communication are not addressed.

Having chosen, no doubt after much debate, the languages to be described, the next step is no less difficult: precisely what should be described and in how much detail? The introductory section to each chapter is particularly useful in that it generally provides not only the standard English language name for the language in question but also alternate names, often indicating pejorative use, and autonym(s). Other sources for this information include Voegelin and Voegelin (1977), and Klose (1987), though in the latter it is not possible to see all names for any particular language at one entry, but rather they are scattered throughout the volume. As regards information on location, very simple maps are included for some languages by Garry and Rubino, though this is certainly not the norm. Instead the reader is treated to accurate but slightly peculiar descriptions such as 'The country of Ethiopia located in Northeast Africa' (p.20), or 'The African countries of Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe' (p.131). Should the reader be interested in language maps they will not be disappointed by the fabulous examples included in Les langues dans le monde ancien et modern nor the more comprehensive collection now available from Ethnologue.

Individual authors were given free reign to detail the 'genetic' classification of their specialist language. This has lead to considerable variation, acknowledged by the editors, ranging from entries like 'Family: Jaqi' (for Aymara, p. 48) to the rather more useful 'Family: Dagaare is a member of the Mabia (western Oti-Volta) group of the Gur branch of the Niger-Congo language family' (for Dagaare, p.180). I acknowledge that genetic classification of languages is for some a thorny area, with potentially many minefields to be traversed. However, with a relevant proviso, I think it would be have been very useful, both to the lay reader and the student to include a genetic overview, particularly bearing in mind the lack of chapters on language groups rather than individual languages. Despite what one might hope for, the problem of classification is not resolved in the Index of Languages by Family (pp 887-888) as the headings, and their relationship to each other, are undifferentiated. For example, we have 64 languages listed under 'Indo European', and a naive reader might believe that Slovene is as closely related to Sogdian as it is to Slovak. Likewise Nilo Saharan is listed after Niger-Congo with no hint as to the nature of any relationship between these two language groups. Ruhlen (1991), Katzner (1995) and Voegelin and Voegelin (1977) provide clearer pictures of classification.

Leaving the introduction and moving on to the main body of each chapter, the first thing that must be said is that on the whole what we are presented with is a mine full of gems that will engage all levels of readers. With regard to the question of how much detail should be provided in a book that is aimed both at 'general readers as well as linguistic specialists', the amount of information provided is for the most part spot on. Facts about the world's languages is more detailed than Campbell (1991), Grimes (2000) , Katzner (1995) and Dalby (1998), both in terms of linguistic and non linguistic information (though Dalby deserves a special mention for the fascinating anecdotes that it contains), and less detailed that the articles in Comrie (1991), the Routledge Language Family Descriptions series (including Steever 1998, Hetzron 1997, Abondolo 1998) , and the Cambridge Language Surveys series (including Dixon 1980, Holm 1989, Posner 1996). The sections on 'Origin and History' and 'Efforts to preserve, protect and promote the language', will no doubt be very well received by the general reader, as well as the linguist, whilst the relatively detailed linguistic information and solid bibliographies provide good starting points for any linguist.

However, there is one area which umbrages me. For some unclear reason the editors of this volume took the decision to group orthography and phonology together under one section heading. As a result, orthography, phonetics and phonology are often conflated in a way that would cause a lecturer of phonetics or phonology to despair. Whilst complete consonant and vowel charts are generally provided (unlike e.g. Katzner 1995, Dalby 1998), no consistent transcription scheme is used: Inventories are presented either in the standardized writing system of the language in question, or using a transliteration scheme of the author's choice, making it considerably more difficult to use the volume for comparing different inventories. Often the bulk of the so-called phonology section is given over to describing what sound is represented by a particular symbol (on several occasions authors describe a tap as 'similar to the English sound' in the middle of 'petty' or 'letter', for example p.21, 49 although this should presumably read as 'similar to the American English sound' ), rather than talking about actual phonological processes that are found in the language in question.

Not only is phonology poorly dealt with as a result of this editorial decision - so too is the question of orthography: there appears to be no consistency in the presentation of orthographic samples despite the editors' claim that samples of non-Roman scripts are given 'wherever applicable'. Thus chapters on Akkadian, Balinese, Bikol, Mandarin and many others do not include script samples. Where they are included, they are often of poor quality (looking as though they have been faxed through to the publishers e.g. the Pashto alphabet p. 544, Mongolian vertical script samples p.489, the Hangul alphabet p. 396) and are given as individual characters and not in running text. It is true that there are several excellent books on scripts and alphabets (e.g. Campbell 1997, Daniels and Bright 1996, see also Nida 1972 and Katzner 1995 for text examples) but this does not justify the apparently random approach of Garry and Rubino, especially in an area that is of particular interest for many 'general readers'.

Despite the disappointment caused by the 'Orthography and basic phonology section', I still feel that the 191 chapters which form the bulk of Facts about the World's Languages are, on the whole, useful, stimulating and, to the best of my knowledge, accurate. Their accessibility to a general readership is greatly enhanced by the addition of a fairly comprehensive glossary (none is found in Campbell 1991, Katzner 1995, and only a small one in Dalby 1998) which provides both definitions and examples. Unfortunately, quite a few languages are mentioned in the Glossary that are not included anywhere else in the volume (e.g. Ao Naga, Nauruan and Mwera). The very tight delineation of which languages are included and which not also causes problems in the Index of Languages by Country. Only those languages which have an entry in the book are included in this Index, resulting in an index which has to be read with caution. A casual glance at the list would suggest that in Iceland the only language spoken is Danish: Icelandic per se does not have an entry, and thus does not get a mention here. Bhutan would appear to be a monolingual country with only Nepali listed, and yet 24 languages are spoken there including Dzonghka (160,000) and Tshangla (138,000). Greenland and Aruba are listed with only their language of government (Danish and Dutch respectively), failing to mention the languages spoken by most people at home (Inuktitut and Papiamentu, an Iberian based creole, respectively). Kloss and McConnell (1974-84), however, provide an extremely detailed, but somewhat dated, index of languages by country, including information on second language speakers.

Facts about the World's Languages does not contain a subject index, and this omission is to my mind a serious one. For any user of this book it would have been extremely helpful to be able to look up all languages with e.g. 'agglutinative morphology', 'VOS word order', or 'final devoicing'. Such information could easily have been extracted from each chapter, and would have considerably increased the usefulness of the volume for those readers interested in phenomena or language in general, rather than, or as well as, specific languages. To be fair Dalby (1998), Comrie (1987), Campbell (1991) and Katzner (1995) do not have subject indexes either, although monographs in the Routledge Language Family series and the Cambridge Language Survey series do.

In a book of this size, with so many different contributors, it is no doubt difficult to ensure 100% consistency from beginning to end. Nevertheless I believe proof reading and copy editing could have been considerably more accurate, particularly across chapters. The use of capitalization to indicate languages which have a chapter of their own, presumably to ease cross referencing, is not consistent: It is rather too often the case that languages which do have their own chapters are not capitalized (e.g. Malay p.1, Arabic p. 3, Dagaare p.10, Tigrinya p.20 and all mentions of featured languages in the Glossary). Another area of inconsistency that should have been picked up on is the translation (or lack) of book titles in languages other than English. For example, in the bibliography for Bugis, titles in what I presume is Bahasa Indonesian are not translated (p.104), whilst titles in the chapter on Afrikaans are translated from the Afrikaans (p. 7). Likewise, loanwords are not always given with the original form of the word: for some reason loanwords in Balinese are compared with their originals whilst loanwords in Azerbaijanian are not. It would have been relatively simple to ensure inclusion of source words for loanwords and this small amount of effort would have made the information provided even more useful. Within chapters the editors have done a good job: Typos are relatively few and far between, and are generally not a cause for confusion, for example p. 809 '1, 210, 235 million speakers of Wolaitta', p. 606 'Russian has progressive voicing assimilation' (actually regressive, as is clear from the examples given), p. 558 'All obstruents [in Polish] are devoiced in word final position e.g. kod [kOd]' (transcription includes voiced stop, when it should be a voiceless stop).

Books like Facts about the World's Languages always have something of a magical air about them: they promise dreams and exciting journeys from one chapter to the next following intriguing leads. Garry and Rubino have certainly succeeded in creating a book with that sense of allure. It is quite distinct from all other survey books I have had access to, with a flavour very much of its own. At $150 not many individuals will be able to afford such a treasure trove. For the home rather than institutional market Malherbe (1995, at about 30 Euros) or Comrie (1987, $42) offer something for those wanting solid linguistic information about languages, whilst Katzner (1995, $23) and Dalby (1998, about 15 GPB in paperback) are good bets for those interested in surveys focussing on the who/where/how many type questions associated with languages. Facts about the World's Languages must, however, be aimed primarily at the library market. My personal feeling is that it is much more useful and accurate than Campbell (1991, $305), and not really comparable to either the Routledge Language Family Descriptions series (costing about 150 GBP per volume) or the Cambridge Language Survey series (ranging from $26 - $110 per volume), given that it is a single volume rather than a series, and is also aiming at a general readership. Facts about the World's Languages offers good value for money and is an essential addition to both public and university libraries and will provide all who use her with well written introductions to the selected languages and plenty of leads to take readers further if they wish.

Abondolo, D (1998) The Uralic Languages. (Routledge Language Family Descriptions) London: Routledge

Campbell, G. (1991) Compendium of the World's Languages. London: Routledge

Campbell, G. (1997) Handbook of scripts and alphabets. London: Routledge

Comrie, B. (ed.) (1987) The World's Major Languages. London: Routledge

Dalby, A. (1998) Dictionary of Languages: The Definitive Reference to more than 400 Languages. London: Bloomsbury.

Décsy, G. (1986-88) Statistical Report on the Languages of the World as of 1985. 5 vols. Bloomington, IN: Eurolingua

Dixon, R. (1980) The Languages of Australia. (Cambridge Language Surveys) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Grimes, B. (ed.) (2000) Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th ed. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Gunnemark, E (1992) Countries, People and Their Language: The Geolinguistic Handbook. Gothenburg: Länstryckeriet.

Hetzron, R. (ed.) (1997) The Semitic Languages. (Routledge Language Family Descriptions) London: Routledge

Holm, J. (1989) Pidgins and Creoles. 2 vols. (Cambridge Language Surveys) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Katzner, K (1995) The Languages of the World. London: Routledge.

Kloss, H. & McConnell, G. (eds.) (1974-1984) Linguistic Composition of the Nations of the World / Composition linguistique des nations du monde. 5 vols. Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval.

Les langues dans le monde ancien et modern. Ouvrage publié sous la direction de Jean Perrot. 1981-1988. 3 vols. Paris: ECNR

Malherbe, M (1995) Les langages de l'humanité: une encyclopédie des 3000 langues parlées dans le monde. Paris: Robert Laffont.

Nida, E. (ed.) (1972) The Book of a Thousand Tongues. London: United Bible Societies.

Pei, M (1949) The World's Chief Languages. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Posner, R. (1996) The Romance languages. (Cambridge Language Surveys) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ruhlen, M. (1991) A Guide to the World's Languages. Vol 1. Classification. London: Hodder Arnold

Steever, S. (1998) The Dravidian Languages. (Routledge Language Family Descriptions) London: Routledge.

Voegelin, C. & Voegelin, F. (1977) Classification and Index of the World's Languages. New York: Elsevier.

[The reviewer submitted an addendum to this review that appears in issue --Eds.]
Zoe Toft is a PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where she is researching syllables without vowels, such as those containing 'syllabic' consonants, and also 'empty headed' syllables, from both phonological and phonetic perspectives. For the last 3 years she has co-taught introductory courses in Phonology to both BA and MA students.

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