Clarifying points on Ethnologue pay-wall and language codes

As many of our readers know, the great catalogue of the worlds languages Ethnologue has instituted a paywall. In the wake of this, there's been a lot of discussion at various venues about what this means, about SIL International and languages codes in general. I've been following and participating in these discussions, and I thought I'd share some points that might clarify things a bit and improve discussions and general understanding of these issues. Please have a read through these points and the statements Ethnologue and SIL International has done themselves if you want to get into the discussions.

Jump the basics if you know them.

First some basics
Ethnologue is a product from SIL International. It started in 1951 and is now on its 18th edition. A new edition will from now on be coming out every year in North American Spring, i.e. relatively soon. Ethnologue features information on languages, in particular population stats, alternative names, genealogies and endangerment level. You can also access statistics on countries.

Ethnologue is often used by the academic community for basic information on languages and access to the ISO 639-3 code. It is also used by the non-academic community, such as governments and commercial industry. For a statement by Ethnologue on how it should not be used in these settings, see their post here.

SIL International is a faith-based organisation dedicated to language development, in particular of threatened languages. They're the published of Ethnologue and many more resources, and registration authority for ISO 639-3 for language names. The aim of SIL is (from this financial statement): 
  • To train linguists.
  • To sponsor such linguists in their study of languages, especially less known and unwritten languages. 
  • To make available the data gathered by linguists through publication or other means.
  • To publish resource materials for persons engaged in linguistic research.
  • To prepare literature, both by original composition and by translation into the languages studied.
  • To promote literacy among the people who speak the languages studied
  • To train people to promote literacy, and prepare literature in their own languages. 
Despite being faith-based they are not missionary and state that they limit [their] focus of service to language development work. SIL does not engage in proselytism, establish churches or publish Scriptures. Their partner and main funder though, Wycliffe, is missionary and publishes scripture.

According to their financial statements, SIL International revenue mainly comes from Wycliffe Global Alliance which is an openly Christian missionary organisation who wants to spread the word of God around the world. Unless I am poor at reading financial statements (which I very well could be) there is virtually no funding from academic funding schemes like research councils or private research funding enterprises (like how Volkswagen sponsors DOBES for example). On their site, SIL states that:

Resources for the work of SIL are provided primarily by individuals and organizations interested in their work. In addition, for many of its larger projects, SIL seeks grants from a variety of other sources, both public and private. Less than one percent of its income derives from any sort of government source.

SIL International and Wycliffe also collaborate and share resources.

SIL’s work is carried out primarily by over 4,000 individuals, many of whom are recruited and supported by organizations which participate in Wycliffe Bible Translators International, Inc.  (from this financial statement)

Ethnologue and Wycliffe are interesting enterprises in that they seek to carry out what they deem is
the best actions as dictated by their religion in an at least partially non-religious academic context.

*Post-published addition*
Just to be clear, no other organisation or university has contributed as much to language description as SIL International. As an illustration: 2,694 references in Glottolog have "SIL" in the publishers's field. Descriptive and diversity linguistics is greatly indebted to the work of SIL International. That does not mean they are above critique, but that credit should be placed where credit is due.

You can read more about the history of SIL on Wikipedia and on their website (historyabout & financial statements).

Clarifying points

About the pay-wall
About ISO 639-3
Beyond Ethnologue - where else can we go?
Personally, several of the functions that Ethnologue provides I can get elsewhere. The main use I have of Ethnologue is looking up population stats, but that can also be done elsewhere (census etc) - it's just a bit more cumbersome. As for other the other functions...
What I will miss is some calculations and summaries that Ethnologue or a resource that is Glottolog + population stats could provide, like the Greenberg Diversity Index. Ethnologue also lists populations in different countries and classifies the communities as either "indigenous" or "immigrant", which can be informative sometimes.

More reading
I'd like to recommend a few posts from here and elsewhere discussing these issues that I think will prove most enlightening. If you're curious about these topics, definitely go look at this. You can also check out the tag for posts about Ethnologue here.
All the best now,
Power User of Ethnologue
John Oliver of Typology

P.S. Just to be clear, I'm not employed by SIL International and never have been. Just like how I like to keep track of things going on in generative research despite not being a generativst myself, I also like to understand SIL:s work despite not being Christian or working at SIL.


  1. Hedvig: Thanks for this helpful overview and clarification. Only one correction is needed: The paywall only limits access to country and language pages. The Statistical summaries are unmetered and remain completely and freely accessible.

    1. Hi!

      Sorry, I had included that in the preceding post on this matter and just forgot to repeat myself:

      The statistics pages are metered though, I can't access them right now for example because I've maxed out. Perhaps that's a mistake?

      Thanks for responding, always great to know you're reading :)!

    2. Hedvig: My bad. I had understood that the statistics pages were not to be metered but apparently they are. My apologies to all for the misinformation. mpl

  2. Another problem: the "open" access to the ISO-639/3 information at is completely unusable. If you only use the information available here, it is in most situation very difficult to decide this language is intended (you will need more information, like alternative names or in-depth knowledge of the linguistic situation in a particular country).

    Currently this means IMHO that ISO 639/3 will only work as far as Harald (Hammarström) is able to replicate the ISO classification inside the glottolog. I have no doubt that he can do that, but it is a quite awkward situation that the ISO registrar is withholding crucial information.

    However, in the broader view of things: most industry standards cost money! So maybe a more transparent pricing for educational institutions might make sense (currently they state "Discounted subscriptions are available for your institution, library, or classroom. Contact us.").

    1. Harald not only can do it but does it :). I guess if with the 2016 edition new alternative names are added, and Glottolog for some reason doesn't acquire access, Glottolog will have less information.

      Personally, I'd prefer to not mix industry and academia in this way at all, and it seems unnecessary and unproductive. Either I'd like SIL to become more open access and more like a regular academic organisation, or we could just rely less on these products of theirs, like the ISO standard.

      Yes, they did state that university libraries and other organisations might be able to buy institutional subscriptions and I'm assuming there's some kind of deal to be made there. Also consider that the pay-wall is not in effect in all countries.

  3. Let's cheer ourselves up with an old post about open access in publishing of linguistic descriptions!


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