An online register of 21,000 languages provides a unique forum for linguists, writes David Dalby
English is becoming so world dominant that increasing concern is being voiced in London and elsewhere that other languages are being ignored to everyone's loss.
The issue is not just one of communication needs in major languages, but of the importance of all languages as a means of personal expression and communal identity. Languages represented only by hundreds of voices, rather than by millions, have their own role to play in the diversity of humankind and in the cultivation of respect for difference.
British universities once played a leading role in the study and exploration of the world's languages, but they have lost much of their expertise in those more localised languages suddenly in the limelight in areas of crisis, such as Sierra Leone.
Earlier this month, the Nuffield inquiry recommended strengthening the place of languages in the British education system, from primary school to university level. And this week, at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, a programme was unveiled for the documentation of the world's languages in which universities will play a key role.
This programme has a concrete foundation in the Linguasphere register of the world's languages and speech communities. The register, launched in an updatable online version, as well as in two printed volumes, provides the first comprehensive classification of the world's languages and dialects, based on a system of digital classification for the easy identification and location of all languages and their communities.
Two of Europe's leading geolinguists, Colin Williams of Cardiff University and Roland Breton of Paris VIII University, are closely involved in the programme. Professor Breton observes that the register "is founded not on hypotheses about humankind's linguistic prehistory, but on the conception of a new vision of the world's languages as a dynamic continuum of modern communication, the linguasphere".
Including more than 21,000 "inner languages" and dialects, and a classified index of more than 70,000 linguistic and ethnic names, the register was compiled for the Observatoire Linguistique, an independent non-profit research network created in Quebec in 1983, established in France and India, and coordinated from Wales.
By making the register available online to universities and libraries worldwide, the observatoire will gather improved and additional data from users, leading to the serial publication of updated versions at regular intervals.
Every interested researcher and academic institution is invited to participate directly in this global programme. This in itself is an experiment in new modes of academic organisation. With no superstructure and minimal financial resources, the affairs of the observatoire are the concern of all who contribute actively and freely to its collective research, regardless of their nationality or academic position.
The work of the observatoire is presented through its main site, a forum for information and ideas on the development of the world's languages, from Chinese and English to endangered Ameridian languages. It is now available in English and partially in French, with further options planned in Chinese and other languages.
The Linguasphere Press has a separate website, through which both the register and the licensed version of Linguasphere Online may be obtained.
As a transnational "roll-call" of languages and their speakers, the register provides a referential framework for monitoring the future welfare of individual communities and their languages, across all national frontiers.
The register encourages a shift away from the traditional idea that languages are independent compartments, like nation-states. Just as "biosphere" denotes the global mantle of living organisms, so linguasphere denotes the mantle of communication extended around the planet by humankind since speech first made human beings human.
A Decade of the Linguasphere was announced at February's Expolangues 2000 exhibition in Paris. From September, this will provide ten years of reflection on the collective development of the world's languages in an era of expanding telecommunications. It will include the promotion of transnational debate on global language strategies and of links among bilingual schools in different continents.
A significant role in this global debate has already been taken by some smaller language communities. The universities of Wales and of the Basque Country are involved in the launching of the Linguasphere programme and of Unesco's first world languages report, due to be published next year.
David Dalby is founding director of the Observatoire Linguistique, emeritus reader at SOAS and an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University.