W  hat is it like to have trafficked every language ever spoken on earth? That is an experience I can more or less claim for the latter half of this year, editing language lists for the second edition of the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, to appear from Oxford University Press early in 2003.

     A sense of absurdist power, actually, dominated. Also a sort of childlike flight into another world: close your eyes and attempt to hear one of those exotic dialects spoken in a corner of Papua New Guinea. The lists gave careful directions how to find speakers: up the river, through the mountain pass, to the west a few miles, then here in these villages. Frequently the villages are named. Frequently the languages are dead or dying. In some instances one speaker remains with no one to preserve the language. Many such speakers are polyglots. What is it like to be the last speaker of a language? Worse than having studied dead languages like Greek and Latin and Hittite?

     I heard a song in Tagalog not long after editing a list that included it. As a linguist I like to hear familiar words interspersed with the exotic unknown, but in this case I understood nothing, meekly read the translation provided. Some form of deaf sign language is spoken in all the major countries on earth —though the Philippines speak one close to American Sign Language rather than Tagalog according to the encyclopedia— most having evolved in the last 150 years, most mutually unintelligible, though a great opportunity for a sort of Esperanto would seem to exist. The Native Americans had a sign language that functioned as an Esperanto when they needed to converse with "foreign" tribes. However, oddly, Portuguese sign language is intelligible with that spoken by Swedes and totally underived from the Portuguese language. Surely there is an explanation; a Swedish person brought it there, just as the first sign spoken on Martha's Vineyard was imported from England? More logically, Danish sign language is intelligible with Swedish and Norwegian sign. The encyclopedia documents some 115 different dialects of deaf sign. Martha's Vineyard sign language is documented as early as 1692. It was replaced by French Sign Language in 1817. The encyclopedia further documents that "from 1692 to 1910 nearly all hearing people on Martha's Vineyard were bilingual in English and sign language."

     I came across the "click" phoneme in central Africa, I believe Kenya; I came across languages spoken at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro and immediately glamorous Hemingwayesque imagery flew into my mind: strong Anglo Saxon men in safari suits with guns and jeeps, that sort of thing. I came across both positive and negative attitudes among speakers: some hating their diminishing language, others struggling fiercely to keep them alive. I came across derogatory names for languages, but rarely the inverse (as in "Devanagari" of the ancient Sanskrit alphabet, deva meaning "divine"). English is spoken in the most countries, but Spanish by the most people as a first language, Chinese ranking second in this category. Is you'd like to know what countries don't speak English, I'd say offhand Greenland, but it is far easier to list those that do, if you have the time:

American Samoa



Antigua and Barbuda








British Indian Ocean


British Virgin Islands





Cayman Islands

Cook Islands




Falkland Islands
























Midway Islands




Netherlands Antilles

New Zealand



Norfolk Island

Northern Mariana Islands



Papua New Guinea



Puerto Rico



Sierra Leone


Solomon Islands



South Africa

St. Helena

St. Kitts-Nevis

St. Lucia

St. Vincent and the Grenadines





Trinidad and Tobago

Turks and Caicos Islands

U.S. Virgin Islands


United Kingdom



Wake Island

Western Samoa



     Notice that Anguilla is listed, that Caribbean country singled out by V. S. Naipaul in the 1960s as the smallest country on earth. English is spoken in 88 countries, as "official" language if not national language. USA has no national language. The rubric for English was far and away the largest among all the languages. I felt proud to be a speaker. I like to be in majorities, so used to the inverse distinction.

I estimate having edited around 430 different lists; we went through several rounds in the course of evolving a suitable cross between scientific notation and comprehensibility by the casual reader. To get an idea of how many languages I encountered, you could guess that each averaged around at least 10 languages, though many were shorter than that and many also longer, some up to 150 KB and 15 single-spaced pages. We alphabetized the languages on each list, but many also contained genetic charts showing interrelationships. Languages on a list range from completely unintelligible to nearly identical. Think about it: as speakers of a Germanic language, English, we can understand Cockney and creole versions but not Norwegian or Dutch. Tiny chunks of Danish (e.g. 'they are') may jump out at us as completely clear amid gibberish, because between 750 and 1000 CE Danes settled in the center and southeast of England and inevitable assimilation resulted. Edward Finegan's article on English for the second edition specifies, in the following order, the languages that have most influenced or "invaded" English: French, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek, German, Yiddish, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. Our basic vocabulary has evolved to number some 170,000 lemmas. The higher your social class, the more formal your idiolect tends to be; the more relaxed one is, the more one's speech is said to slide down the "social scale." Linguists cannot explain this correlation between degree of formality and amount of "pedigree." To cut off the –g of the progressive suffix –ing  is a feature of lower-class dialects in both this country and England and it also characterizes less formal English at every level of society.

     In eastern Sudan, speakers of Tennet use the language Toposa for ox names and songs. Speakers of Inari Sami (400 in Finland) use their language exclusively for their work as reindeer herdsmen. Otherwise they speak Standard Finnish. Among the Mon Khmer languages, one variety of Bru, spoken in India and SE Asia, holds the world's record for contrastive vocalic nuclei, 68  (that is, possible vowels in major syllables). Some 83 languages from all over the world are listed as "unclassified," many of them from Latin America, including Haitian Vodoun Culture Language, "also called Langay, Langaj. Spoken in Haiti. Used for religion, song, dance." Another unclassified language, Amerax, is spoken in USA "exclusively by Neo-Muslims in prisons. There are no mother tongue speakers." The Tangut-Qiang language Ersu, spoken by 4,000 in southern China (branch of Tibeto-Burman), "has a pictographic script, Ersu Shaba Picture Writing, in which the color used is reported to play a role in expressing meaning, used in religious ceremonies."

     I would lift my eyes from the extremely technical editing to try to project to the reality. Even as I sat at my desk, 21 people as of 1990 were speaking Guugu-Yimidhirr in Queensland, Australia, a branch of the Pama-Nyungan [controversial classification] family of Australian languages.  Say something in Guugu-Yimidhirr. The only surviving related language, Barrow Point, was spoken by one speaker the last time anyone checked. It was "formerly spoken on Cape York Peninsula, Barrow Point, on Princess Charlotte Bay and inland," the list specifies. Nothing I can do will bring back Barrow Point. I fancy myself traveling there to find the language and keep it alive. Surely the people there know some English and would at best smile and shrug their shoulders. "No more. Used to talk lots. Old people all dead now." Can you envision the Kiplingesque scenario? Me in Khakis with yellow pad and pencil surrounded by scantily clad natives all wanting to trade information for technological gismos or worse? I try to picture people pronouncing language names like Guugu-Yimidhirr, Gunwingguan, Djamindjungan, Galgadungic. Then there are languages like Fur and Gur (Gur being one of the longest lists I worked on).

     I came across the terms creole and pidgin and wondered what the difference was –both occur frequently as part of official language names— and how both differed from patois, the latter of which descended etymologically from the more primitive mode of rubbing paws to communicate. A Creole is defined as a person of European descent who migrated to the West Indies, and by extension the descendants of these people. Generically the term evolved to mean the resultant language after two disparate groups (speakers of two unintelligible languages) coexist for generations, with one of the two languages becoming "typically dominant." Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., defines pidgin as "a mixed language or jargon incorporating the vocabulary of one or more languages with a very simplified form of the grammatical system of one of them and not used as the main language of any of its speakers." A patois is defined as a "form of language differing generally from the accepted standard, as a provincial or local dialect."

     The very first language I tackled was at the start of the alphabet, Admiralty Islands. Here follows a portion of that list:

<ET>Admiralty Islands Languages <TXT>are spoken in Papua New Guinea, on the Admiralty Islands (to the north of the island of New Guinea); they constitute a top-level component of <sc>Oceanic </sc>.

<LNG>Language List

<A>Andra-Hus: also called Ahus, Ha'us. 810 speakers in Papua New Guinea. Manus Province, Andra and Hus Islands.

     <A>Elu: 215 speakers in Papua New Guinea. Manus Province, north coast of Manus Island. Most speakers are bilingual in Kurti.


<A>Ere: also called Nane, E. 1,030 speakers in Papua New Guinea. Manus Province, south coast, Drabitou, Lohe, Londru, Metawari, Pau, Piterait, Taui-Undrau, Hatwara, and Loi villages. Speakers are highly bilingual in Kele.


<A>Kele: also called Gele. 600 speakers in Papua New Guinea. Manus Province, south coast inland, Buyang, Droia, Kawaliap, Koruniat, Tingau. Bilingualism in Kurti, Ere.


<A>Koro: 400 speakers in Papua New Guinea. Manus Province. Close to, and possibly intelligible with, Papitalai. All ages. All or most domains. All, or nearly all the ethnic group speak Koro.


<A>Kurti: also called Kuruti, Kuruti-Pare, Ndrugul. 2,600 speakers in Papua New Guinea. Manus Province, north central coast. None are monolingual. 95% use Tok Pisin, 30% use English as second languages, 30% can use Kele or Mondropolon. All ages. All domains. Oral use in first 3 grades of school, singing and preaching in church, personal letters. Vigorous. Parents pass it on to children. Speakers have a positive attitude toward Kurti.







Figure. Subgrouping of Admiralty Islands Languages


Eastern Admiralty Islands


            East Manus

                  Andra-Hus, Elu, Ere, Kele, Koro, Kurti, Leipon, Lele, Nali, Papitalai, Ponam, Titan


                  Loniu, Mokerang


            West Manus

                  Bipi, Bohuai, Hermit, Khehek, Likum, Mondropolon, Nyindrou, Sori-Harengan

      Southeast Islands

            Baluan-Pam, Lenkau, Lou, Nauna, Penchal

Western Admiralty Islands

      Kaniet, Seimat, Wuvulu-Aua


It seemed to me that most of the lists I edited were of languages that came from Papua New Guinea and that if anywhere in the world could be called a Babel, that would be it. The encyclopedia confirms that "this [the island of New Guinea, which also includes West Papua, Indonesia] is linguistically the most complex region in the world, with approximately 1,200 languages — 25 percent of the world's total."[1] But consider how many languages are spoken in the USA these days and how fewer and fewer of the recent immigrants are bothering to learn English because they settle in ethnic enclaves. If Americans used to be condemned for their monolingualism, these days more and more polyglots abound here, though not necessarily the tourist population that tends to put off the characteristically polyglot Europeans.

     Then someone bombed all those tourists nightclubbing in Bali, not far from Papua New Guinea and even closer to Papua, Indonesia (the latter calls for a comma, the former not, for reasons I don't know). If any place in the world is safe since 9/ll, I don't know where it is. What distinguishes languages in paradise from those spoken in hell? Warm-weather languages from those spoken in places like Greenland and the Aleutian Islands? Does one find practices like cutting off the final –g from ing suffixes more often in paradise than a cluttered industrial district in Siberia, if such a thing exists? Or does economic status dominate more? The Eskimos have so many words for snow as people in Papua New Guinea have for ocean, perhaps? Certain varieties of fish or sand or trade winds?

     I traveled all over the world at my desk working on language lists without need of the Internet. Noam Chomsky has pointed out that we are at the dawn of discovering universal tendencies that transcend regionality; but he adds that we are light years away from understanding the languages of insects. The lower phyla have mastered all sorts of higher science, like the aeronautics of the butterfly, that still elude us. We have these gigantic, imperfect, noisy and klutzy concoctions that badly parody the perfected mobility of avians, more compact ones that attempt to reduplicate the human brain, but nothing to replace mother's milk or even come close to the love and kindness of the human heart at its best (though Spielberg's film A.I.  suggested a robot analog). Amoebas reproduce without pain. The ones who threaten constantly to destroy it all, or most of it, are at the top of the species chain, or so they think, and one of the main elevating factors is the faculty of language, or so we think. God created foreign languages as punishment – remember? The story is in Genesis. Before the Babel episode we all spoke one language. So elevation in a way was a punishment for attempted elevation. Are the languages of hell as a result far more advanced than those spoken in paradises? Language distinctions resulted from human ambition, our drive to approach God.

          Without language, where would we be? What do we take more for granted? We could not question life without language. We communicate, therefore we are.

Copyright © Marta Steele 2002-2016. All rights reserved.






Why has it taken me this long to figure out something blatantly obvious to anyone who has set foot in academe for the last several hundred years at least? I knew that I have returned myself to the academy for a reason: to grease the wheels of thought and generate fresh literary pursuits. Those wheels are grinding to a start with cantankerous reluctance, but grinding they are. I sat at my kitchen table today, gagging on breakfast, in that I can hardly eat a morsel until well after noon, thinking about directing research projects of my bewildered freshmen. Why do I not direct them toward monographs rather than trade paperbacks? How can I allow them to read books without footnotes to incorporate into their argumentative logic backed by secondary sources?


     Those who write those trade paperbacks, or whoever actually writes them, also succeed in selling them, while academic monographs grow dusty on warehouse shelves. It has something to do not so much with level of difficulty at all as level of enthusiasm and demand. Trade authors don't have to publish; academic authors do. Trade authors, or their ghostwriters anyway, have something to say and usually a receptive audience waiting to hear it. Trade authors write for us while academic authors write to maintain their tenure tracks. For this reason, the former category have a lot to say and don't need to couch it in obscure, inaccessible verbosity, viz.:

     but some such trichotomy would help to free him … from the dichotomous coils of "irreconcilable alternatives" of image and word in which he situates his own deferred and frustrated intervention….

     [H]e is like the critical theorist or "dogmatic idealogue" [sic] who whole-heartedly embraces the imaginative fiction of interpretation by spurning the vain epistemological impasse of the objectivist universality of truth versus the subjectivist relativity of culture.

     Some of the most reprehensible prose ever written, but who ever reads it? Why did I spend so much of my professional life attempting to make sense of it when that was not the point? Just convince some needy publisher to transpose the gibberish into a book format, be sure it is too obscure to be comprehensible, because if translated into everyday English it would make absolutely no sense, and voilà, another tenured professor emerges, someone who may, if we're lucky, be a skillful instructor if not writer; if so, all those trees may not have died completely in vain.

     Not to laud every trade published product, but to say, given the choice, that I will always choose trade over academic if I want to learn something and academic over trade to edit and earn a few spare nickels, because I never stop trying to translate the incomprehensible and never stop trying to improve what needs to be improved.

     The next time you come across a monograph worth reading that is not a reprint, let me know. Accidents always happen, and I have received a superb education as a result.

Marin X. Sickamore







AS AN AUTHOR,would you want someone editing your book who up front adm>itted he knew positively nothing about the subject matter? Suppose you were a specialist, a physician for instance, and had been told your editor had worked within the specific field for years. Then you hear from your amused editor that he knows utterly zilch about the content. He admits this, as a matter of fact, in front of a TV audience nationwide on one of the most popular game shows around, Jeopardy (12/7/00).

     As an editor myself, I habitually refuse books written on subjects I know nothing about. I have enough trouble editing books within my special field. There are times when details are such an overwhelming preoccupation that I never get beyond them to content, but in such instances the books have theoretically already been reviewed and corrected at other levels. I focus on the grids, the charts, the intricacies of ancient Greek and Latin down to each minute diacritic, checking for the accuracy of words and dialect…. so that there are enough obstacles between me and understanding at every level of even books in my special field.

     That editor who appeared on Jeopardy and, incidentally, lost his championship that same night, might have shifted his emphasis to say that he specialized in language and expression and articulation rather than specific scientific subjects. That might have shad a more dignified perspective on the way he spends 40 hours a week of his life. But to have laughed and admitted he pretends he knows what his authors are talking about when he doesn't and to speak as if he represented his entire profession was a huge blow to others of us who have profited immeasurably from the diverse reading opportunities we have been given as generalists as well as specialists. Whatever temporary madness seized this contestant, or honesty, he must have felt the consequences from his employers who were undoubtedly tuned in. I hope he lost his job, because to have represented his profession in such an irresponsible and offhand fashion is inexcusable. If he doesn't take it seriously, someone else will, and undoubtedly do a far better job at it.

All 3 essays above, copyright © Marta Steele 2016. All rights reserved.


[1]William A. Foley, "New Guinea Languages,"IEL 2d ed., p. 54. All quotations and extracts by permission of Oxford University Press. The International Encyclopedia of Linguistics is due out any day now.