LINGUIST List 13.1690

Fri Jun 14 2002

Review: Language Description: Garry & Rubino (2001)

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  1. Zoe Toft, Garry & Rubino (2001) Facts about the World's Languages

Message 1: Garry & Rubino (2001) Facts about the World's Languages

Date: Thu, 13 Jun 2002 20:01:49 +0000
From: Zoe Toft <>
Subject: Garry & Rubino (2001) Facts about the World's Languages

Garry, Jane and Rubino, Carl, eds. (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
Book Announcement on Linguist:

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


Given the large number of publications which survey the languages of
the world (e.g. Campbell 1991, Comrie 1987, Dalby 1998, D�csy
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.

D�csy, 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: Le�nstryckeriet.

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. Qu�bec: Presses de l'Universit� Laval.

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

Malherbe, M (1995) Les langages de l'humanit�: une encyclop�die des
3000 langues parl�es 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.


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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