LINGUIST List 4.809

Sun 10 Oct 1993

Sum: Teaching survey course on the world's languages

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  1. Karen S. Chung, Survey of the World's Languages

Message 1: Survey of the World's Languages

Date: Sun, 10 Oct 93 11:21:45 CSSurvey of the World's Languages
From: Karen S. Chung <>
Subject: Survey of the World's Languages

Dear LINGUIST netters:
 The following summarizes the messages I received from the six people
who responded to my inquiry regarding references and ideas for teaching a
survey course on the world's languages.
 Some respondents said they offer an overview of all the world's
language families; some, particularly if it is only a one semester course, try
to cover only a few families more thoroughly, then just touch on the others.
One introduces a different language every 1-2 weeks, and covers a total of
about 12 in the course.
 In addition to introducing the linguistic structures of the various
languages, some also give background information on writing systems and culture;
some even teach a little of several languages in the course. Course titles
range from 'Introduction to the Study of Language' to 'Immigrant Languages'
(this one can fulfill a non-Indo-European language requirement for Ph.D.
students, and tends to attract ESL people). One respondent is proposing a
survey of East European languages.
 The course tends to be oriented mainly toward linguistics majors, since
there is usually an Intro to Linguistics prerequisite. Some teach it every other
year or so, and have an average of 8-20 students in the course. All seem to
make an active effort at preventing the course from becoming too technical and
dry; one mentioned that the course tends to bog down about the middle of the
 The standard approach seems to be family-by-family, but some respondents
noted that language typology has emerged as a major theme; one suggested using
typology as a basis for organizing the course.
 I am pleased with the references suggested (there are of course many
more for individual languages), but was a little disappointed at not hearing
from more people regarding their feelings about the position of such a course
in a university linguistics curriculum. One respondent said he felt some of his
colleagues were 'suspicious' of the course, perhpas because it lacks a
 tradition. He also mentioned that it is a difficult course to teach.
 My personal feeling is that a world language survey is a solid back-
ground course that should be included in any linguistics program. It can help
give students an idea of both the possibilities of human language and the actual
situation of language use in the world, while also offering a macro view of
language to put their linguistic studies in better perspective, regardless of
the students' area of specialization. I'd be interested in hearing from
anybody who either agrees or disagrees, or has other feelings on this.

 Suggested references:
(1) Comrie, Bernard. 1990. The world's major languages. New York and Oxford:
Oxford University Press. Technical; for linguists.
(Miner, Pensalfini)
(2) Grimes, Barbara A., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: languages of the world (12th ed.).
Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics. An index is published to Ethnologue
as a separate companion volume. Listings and information on genetic classifica-
tion, geographical distribution, number of speakers, etc. of 6,528 of the
 world's languages. Particularly good for identifying obscure languages.
(3) Katzner, Kenneth. 1977. The languages of the world. London and New York:
Routledge and Kegal Paul. Paper. Written specimens of many languages, minimal
information about each, short sketch of Indo-European, country-by-country
language survey. (Miner)
(4) Ruhlen, Merritt. 1987; 1991. A guide to the world's languages. Volume 1:
classification. London: Edward Arnold. Paper. Family-by-family account.
'Unorthodox' position on language relationships, but useful. (Miner)
(5) Shopen, Timothy, ed. 1979. (a) Languages and their speakers. Offers sketches
of selected languages, including Jacaltec, Maninka, Malagasy, Guugu, Yimidhirr,
and Japanese. (b) Languages and their status. Includes sketches of Mohawk, Hua
(Papuan), Russian, Cape York Creole, Swahili, and Chinese. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press. Paper.

 Also, the Cambridge Linguistic Surveys, Cambridge University Press
(Pensalfini). Already published: (1) Dixon, R.M.W. The languages of Australia
(out of print). (2) Comrie, Bernard. The languages of the Soviet Union (out of
print). (3) Suarez, Jorge. The Mesoamerican Indian languages. (4) Foley, William
A. The Papuan languages of New Guinea. (5) Holm, John A. Pidgins and creoles,
vol. I: Theory and structure; vol. II: Reference survey. (6) Shibatani, M. The
languages of Japan. (7) Norman, Jerry. Chinese. (8) Masica, C.P. The Indo-
Aryan languages.

 The following is a Russian language reference billed as a survey of all
known languages of the world:
Iartseva, V.N., ed. 1982. Iazyki i dialekty mira. Moscow: Nauka. (Feldstein)

 References on written languages:
(1) Coulmas, Florian. 1989. The writing systems of the world. Oxford: Basil
Blackwell. Paper. (Miner)
(2) Nakanishi, Akira. 1980. Writing systems of the world: alphabets,
, pictograms. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle. Paper. (English version of: Sekai no
moji. 1975. Kyoto) (Miner)

 Many thanks to:
 Ronald F. Feldstein <>
 Jim Holbrook <>
 Alan Huffman <AAHNYCUNYVM.Bitnet>
 Ken Miner <MINERUKANVAX.Bitnet>
 Zev bar-Lev <>
 Rob Pensalfini <rjpensalMIT.EDU>

 Karen Steffen Chung
 National Taiwan University
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