Thursday, December 05, 2013

Ethnologue and "national languages" in Africa

In this post I'll discuss the second of two aspects of Ethnologue's presentation that seem to me to detract from its overall quality. The previous one was on cross-border languages being titled simply as "a language of" a single country. This one deals with how the new, 17th edition of Ethnologue* uses the term "national language" in presenting summary information about countries.

The Country information/summary pages in the current version of Ethnologue appear as the first tab in a set of pages for each country. These Country information pages feature a table that in the third row indicates "National languages." This replaces "National or official language(s)" in the 16th edition** (there is also a significant redesign of the presentation). This seeming simplification actually is problematic in the case of many African countries which use the term national language in a way different than that in the current Ethnologue. .

For example, if one goes to Ethnologue's current page on Niger, one sees a single language - French - listed as the national language (compare the page in the previous edition) - the same as for France. However in Niger and by Nigeriens, French is not called the national language, but rather the official language. "National language" (langue nationale in French) is a legal and widely understood category for the endogenous languages, that is separate and distinguished from "official language." Same with perhaps 20 other countries in Africa. The choice of terms by these countries was (is) deliberate and meaningful, but was it taken into account when revising Ethnologue's use of terms?

Although one appreciates the challenges of finding terms that work in a reference that seeks to cover all languages and all countries, this particular choice of term on a summary page does not seem at all fortuitous from the point of view of information on Africa.

Official, national, and local languages: An example

When I was on the Peace Corps staff in Niger in the early 2000s, a somewhat similar question arose. The then new regional training officer for West Africa - an American - referred to the consideration of language training approaches in terms of a choice of emphasis on "national language or local languages." However, "national language" in most of the countries we were talking about actually means what in Peace Corps is often referred to as "local language." The real distinction for our use, I suggested, was actually between "official language" and "local languages" (although those terms also have some shortcomings).

The issue was communication, not just semantics or formality of usage. If we started using the term "national language" in a way different from our host country colleagues and counterparts, it could create unnecessary confusion (aside from appearing to ignore what is effectively a common regional usage). And by the same token, since many American staff would tend to hear "national language" as "nationwide" language, it would not make sense to oblige everyone to conform to host countries' use of the term. Better simply to avoid the term "national language" in our planning in favor of alternatives that were known and clear to all.

The choice in this case was fairly straightforward, but it may be worth keeping in mind when considering the more complicated set of terminology choices facing Ethnologue.

"National language" in Ethnologue

Ethnologue defines its current use of the term "national languages" on the country information pages in this way:
"Languages which have been categorized as national languages at EGIDS [Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale] level 1 are listed here. This includes all the languages that are actually used for education, work, mass media, and government at the nationwide level, regardless of how they are classified in legislation."
Ethnologue's use of the term national languages on the initial country information page therefore comes out of a broader system for classifying languages and helping to understand their status and condition. This is important work and the schema they have developed is of great value. The issue here however is terminology.

In that system, references to "official language" have effectively been eliminated. Editor Paul Lewis, in discussing the terminology changes in his Ethnoblog posting, "Functions of Languages in Countries" (31 October 2013), gave the example of the Turkish language, which is listed as a "statutory national language," even though in the Turkish constitution reference cited (article 3) it is actually called the official language.

However this schema also relies on various modifications of "national language" (and terms relating to nation and nationality):
  • Under EGIDS, "national" (meaning effectively "nationwide" but overlapping a lot with common and language policy use of "official language")
  • Under "Official recognition categories and definitions," which is how Ethnologue now deals with official status, several descriptors:
    • Statutory national language
    • Statutory national working language
    • Statutory language of national identity
    • De facto national language
    • De facto national working language
    • De facto language of national identity
    • Language of recognized nationality
As it stands, it does not seem that Ethnologue has a way of describing the language situation in many African countries that does not collide with established local and indeed regional usage. The official language is called "national" and the national languages seem to fall mainly under the somewhat sterile rubric "recognized."

Nation, national, nationality ...

A lot revolves around the meanings assigned to and understood by the term "nation" and its derivatives. These can on the one hand refer to a country or nation-state (nationwide, or in/by all of the country), which is how Ethnologue appears to use them. On the other hand, they may also have more visceral and identity-related meanings, which is how I understand the main African use of the term. Ethnologue's categories relating to languages of national idendity are also along the latter lines.

Part of  the problem is that Ethnologue uses "national" across this range of meanings, even if primarily in the "nationwide" sense. And in the case of many countries of Africa it has in effect switched the potentially more identity-related term "national" with the more formal term "official" for some languages, and the more formal term "recognized" for "national" in the case of other languages.

To a certain extent, one can in academic and reference publications use a term in a particular way by defining it clearly, as Ethnologue attempts with the above. However, when one's chosen usage is at variance with an existing legal and common use of the term, and the term itself has many applications and colors of meaning, it is often worth looking for alternatives.

Distinct meanings of "national  language"

The term "national language" actually turns out to have more than just the two uses discussed above (per "nationwide" and legal status as "national language"). Conrad Brann, who has taught and researched on language policy and multilingual societies for decades in Nigeria, suggests that in Africa there are actually "four quite distinctive meanings" of the term*** (which I've numbered for ease of reference):
  1. "Territorial language" (chthonolect or chtonolect) of a particular people
  2. "Regional language" (choralect)
  3. "Language-in-common or community language" (demolect) used throughout a country
  4. "Central language" (politolect) used by government and perhaps having a symbolic value.
The African usage that I highlight above is probably mainly under #1, but depending on the country, nos. 2 (DRC, Ethiopia) and/or 3 (see below). In a few African countries it corresponds with #4 and with Ethnologue's usage (Lesotho, Burundi).

Ethnologue's definition of "national language" seems to overlap #4 and in some cases #3 in Brann's typology. However, in some countries more than others, the official languages Ethologue lists as national languages may be less "languages-in-common" (#3) than some languages that those countries call national: The case of Wolof in Senegal, used widely as a first or second language, comes to mind.

Looked at from this perspective, "national language" seems to be a conglomerate of concepts, which requires clarification as to intent based on the context and intent. As such, it seems ill-suited for using in a quick reference page of any sort. Add to that the fact that many African countries use the term in a particular way, it would seem less than fortuitous for Ethnologue to choose it to use as a simple category for all countries.

Another look at Ethnologue's Country information pages

Another problem with Ethnologue's current approach to listing "National languages" is that for countries like Niger or Senegal, the top of the language summary gives the impression that French is the only language of importance. On the Senegal page, Wolof, for instance, does not appear anywhere. Nor do any of the other main languages of the country. On the other hand, there is a list of "immigrant languages" by name. As such the country information page - the first place a user would come in this reference to find information on languages in a country - seems very selective in the information it highlights.

A related question: Paul Lewis's Ethnoblog posting referred to above refers to continued use of the category "National or Official Languages" on the Country information tab, under which one would find all languages that they "have identified as national languages, or national working languages, or national languages of identity whether statutory or de facto." Is it possible that the issues discussed in my posting here may have arisen from a recent change within Ethnologue 17th edition's presentation of information on the Country information pages?


For a reference like Ethnologue that aims to cover all countries and all languages, a term that means different things to different people by itself would seem to make it a problematic choice for an information heading. One simple way to resolve this would be to return to the use of the former rubric - "National or Official Languages"- or something similarly broad, which allows naming of principal languages on the Country information pages.

Considering the issues I've raised with "national language" as well as the range of uses of the term highlighted by Prof. Brann and indeed by Ethnologue's own schema, it may also be worth considering whether and how to avoid using "national language" altogether in the schema and the titling, just as Ethnologue now omits "official language."

* Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2013. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 17th ed. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:
** Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 16th ed. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:
*** Brann, C.M.B. 1994. "The National Language Question: Concepts and Terminology." Logos [University of Namibia, Windhoek] Vol 14: 125–134.

1 comment:

Don said...

Ethnologue editor Dr. Paul Lewis of SIL responded to this issue in reply to a post on H-Africa in March 2014. Full text is at

Excerpt below; I'm working on a follow-up posting in light of the new edition which features some changes:

"As for the references to 'National languages', we are very aware that the legacy labeling for the information we report there has led to some confusion. The terms 'national' and 'official' have multiple meanings in different places and we agree that using one or the other of them globally will only continue to raise questions. In the forthcoming (Real Soon Now) update to the 17th edition data, we are revising our labeling of that field to 'Primary languages' taking into account both the introduction of the EGIDS for evaluating the status of each language in terms of its endangerment or development and the new language functions categories introduced with the 17th edition. We now include in the primary language field any language that has been evaluated as being at EGIDS 1. Beyond that general categorization included in the country description, we also have introduced a much more fine-grained analysis of the state of official (both statutory and de facto) recognitions (what we are calling Function In Country or FIC) and we report those categorizations in each language entry as part of the Status description of the language. As long as Ethnologue users read our introductory material where data fields and their contents are described, they will see that we use a globally consistent set of criteria for inclusion of languages in the now-labeled primary languages field, and a detailed system of function parameters for the FIC categories we assign. That's not to say that we don't have some erroneous information for which we would gratefully accept corrections and updates. We do hope that we are consistently applying the classificatory systems that we have developed across the whole range of the world's languages."