The Ethnologue is one of the most satisfying and evocative global snapshots I’ve ever come across. Compiled by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a global Bible-translation organization, the Ethnologue is an attempt to inventory and describe all extant (and many dying) languages around the world–in two fat, complete volumes. Open up to the “Language Family Index” and you can test your knowledge of the relationships between ethnic groups in your favorite part of the world. How about the various writing systems for Batak Toba, or the total number of languages in Papua New Guinea, or the population of Swahili speakers in the United States? I often find myself roaming through it, wandering imaginatively across the tangled pathways of evolutionary, political, and economic history that these 7,000 languages represent.
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