to the Linguasphere Register 1999/2000
Emeritus Professeur Roland Breton
Université de Paris (Vincennes-St.Denis)
This Register of the World's Languages and Speech Communities is a product of the Linguasphere programme, initiated by the Observatoire Linguistique (Linguasphere Observatory).
It must be stressed at the outset that this encyclopedic work of 700 pages, accompanied by an introductory volume, has been carried out by one man, David Dalby, who has borne it on his own shoulders, just as the idea of the Linguasphere was his own conception and development, and just as he has remained, up till now, the rock on which the Observatory stands.
For those who may not know him well, we should say that David Dalby has devoted himself for the last fifty years to the comparative study of languages. From European languages (beginning with the study of medieval German) via African languages (culminating in the Language Map of Africa), he has made his way towards the gradual construction of the present general classification of the languages and speech communities of the world.
His planetary referential system differs from preceding classifications in several ways. Firstly, it is far more detailed, as much in terms of small rural idioms as of prestigious written languages.
Secondly, it is founded not on the construction of hyopotheses 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.
Thirdly, and most importantly, David Dalby is careful to present the use of languages as a means of social and communal identification, as the framework for the survival for thousands of interdependent linguistic communities. The Linguasphere Register, launched to mark the end of the 20th century, provides the first classification of planetary society in terms of overlapping ancestral speech communities, rather than of modern, rigid nation-states.
It is natural that the work of constructing the Linguasphere Register should have fallen essentially on the shoulders of one person, since this was the only way of guaranteeing a common approach towards the languages of all parts of the world. This has been achieved through the creation of a fundamentally planetary system.
From here on, nevertheless, the task of improving and extending the Linguasphere Register becomes a collective task, and it becomes the responsibility of members of ethno-linguistic communities throughout the world to ensure that the information presented on their own languages is both correct in all its details and as complete as possible.
So that a planetary process of documentation and research may be launched in parallel to this Register, a research network known as the Observatoire Linguistique or Linguasphere Observatory, has been created over the last fifteen years from bases in France and Wales, and soon also in India. As an independent "viewing platform in cyber-space", this Observatory is now accessible everywhere in the form of a website www.linguasphere.org
And the Observatory's global network for the collection, exchange and distribution of data on the languages and speech communities of the world is being activated in the year 2000 with the address @linguasphere.net [.info]
Of fundamental importance in the establishment of the Linguasphere Observatory has been its independence from any governmental, political or religious ties, and from any commercial interest. Its capacity to serve as a transnational meeting-place and open resource centre, for the discussion and documentation of linguistic and communicational strategies in the 21st century will depend on the quality, independence and informal nature of its services, rather than from the prestige or complexity of any formal structure.
As far as the compiler of the Register and founding director of the Observatory is concerned, the task presented in this volume marks the completion of a voyage of discovery. This has been a personal journey to track down the realities of the linguasphere, which David Dalby describes as "the global system of human speech, created, stored and relayed within the cerebral network of humankind, embracing the words, sounds and rules of every language and the voice and mind of each person".
In its last stages, his voyage has become a quickening race against time, a race to complete and publish this framework edition of the Linguasphere Register before the beginning of the year 2000.
Of course there is nothing fundamental about this date. It is only an accident of cultural history which from a mathematical standpoint would have been better celebrated on 1st January 2001. But on the other hand, since the opening of the year 2000 is considered as a "new beginning" in so many communities around the world, it can be regarded as the symbolic date marking humankind's entry into a new era of global communication – even, and why not? – of peace, justice, an equitable balance of powers, preservation of the biosphere, and improvement in the development of all the communities which make up humankind.
The publication of the Linguasphere Register may thus be linked directly to the way in which we intend to adapt ourselves to this new era, in relation not only to its complex cultural heritage, but also to the possibilities and opportunities which can now, undoubtedly, be expected to open up more than ever in the past.
This monumental enterprise, which I am delighted to present, is the result of the quite exceptional capacity for work and perseverance of a man who has been able to devote himself to this enormous and long awaited task.
For this is a project which concerns so many researchers and responds to a demand from such a wide audience that one is surprised it has not been embarked upon before. Just as one may regret that the breadth of the subject should not have impelled a greater number of people and institutions to take part in it.
Nevertheless, this is where we now are: no other individual or competent organisation had until now planned, organised or prepared the classification and cartography of all the world's languages.
It is on the eve of the 21st century that Unesco has come to understand that this amazing scientific void needs to be systematically filled, so that we may at last have a first detailed picture of the complex and shifting landscape that is the totality of the world's languages - a vision developed, established, quantified and mapped out with precision and method. Many of us had achieved a variety of detailed views of this landscape, and produced many worthwhile perspectives…
But these were always fragmented, relating to greater or lesser sections of the planet, and without anyone managing to supply the complete kaleidoscope which the public has desired and awaited. The appearance, therefore, of the Linguasphere Register of the world's languages - together with its index of languages and communities - constitutes a great “first”, which demands the critical attention of the whole human science community.
The recently initiated complementary product of the Linguasphere programme, the Mapbase of the World's Languages, is being established on the basis of an original GIS (computerised Geographical Information System), and constitutes an invitation to all who consider the time has now come for its global coverage to be completed systematically.
The art of synthesis is both difficult and controversial, which puts people off from attempting it. It does not guarantee those gradual, step-by-step advances in knowledge which are so reassuring for the researcher writing monographs. For creating a synthesis means constantly bumping up against gaps in our information. Hence that art is all the more neglected and disputed, and even, it would seem, reprehensible, since it lays claim to treat an incomplete range of knowledge, many elements of which are only partly worked out; and since in this way it strives to anticipate a projected goal, a completed state which is still out of reach.
Is it indeed reasonable to give an overview of thousands of languages, some of which are still to be deciphered, while others are unknown, and of which so many are not confined to a precise location in space or population? Or to publish a catalogue that still includes so many shadowy and uncertain areas? David Dalby has given a firm and positive answer, affirming that this is precisely the way in which the shadows can best be dispelled, and the uncertainties cleared up. And so he has tried, and evidently succeeded, in providing a complete picture of the world's languages.
For the picture he is offering us in all modesty is, above all, a presentation of the state of the art, covering the whole planet in fact and all languages - for such is the scope of the project. He has brought all the elements together in terms of linguistic, geographical, and demographic reference points, thus providing a universal key to classification in which every form of spoken language and every linguistic community can readily find its place.
And, of course, by leaving the way open for any future additions, and by calling on everyone to suggest any necessary amendments. For the Linguasphere Register today is a first assessment, open to continual improvements.
The Linguasphere construction site will never be closed: for not only is the linguistic scene far from having been completely explored, but - even if it had been - linguistic situations would continue to be driven by their own ceaseless dynamic, as much with regard to linguistic facts themselves, as to their human and spatial distribution.
The task carried out by David Dalby is a standing call for contributions from all, researchers and institutions throughout the world, so that everyone may have access to the truly universal tool which, progressively, the Register has set itself to become.