EGIDS, SIL, and Language Documentation

About two or three weeks ago Gary Simons and Paul Lewis co-presented on an Extension to Fishman’s Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (Citation: et al., ) & (). Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman’s Gids. Revue roumaine de linguistique, 55(2). 103–120. Retrieved from . Fishman’s scale for measuring Language Vitality and Language Endangerment has been around for about 2 decades (almost longer than me ;-)). The Ethnologue in its most recent version has started to list the position of the language on the EGIDS scale. This is something that the editors are looking to expand to all languages in the Ethnologue. This has some bearing on Language Documentation globally (as grant writers and funders look at EGIDS as a pivot point for language vitality) and because Language Documentation efforts usually (and typically) focus on languages on a 7 or higher on the scale (Shifting, Moribund, Nearly Extinct, etc). Whereas, SIL has largely focused its efforts on languages in a position of 0-6a on the EGIDS scale. (Which it makes sense from the perspective of the Bible Translation movement, where funders of Bible Translation projects are looking at the return on investment for their monies or funds are acquired for very specific tasks in language development work. It also makes sense in terms of managing the human resources of large volunteer organizations Wycliffe and SIL, which are involved in both the Bible Translation Movement and the Language Development Movement – to optimize or economize the effort expended and to focus endeavors and services provided on languages with a higher language vitality [lower EGIDS score] seems a natural fit – languages with a higher EGIDS score are going to receive less Bible Translation dollars because it simply costs more. So herein lies the current conflict: What is recognized as a priority for Language Documentation (stemming from the Endangered Language Movement) is not a priority for other kinds of projects in SIL – the kinds of projects which are funded through SIL’s partners like WycliffeUSA and fundraising campaigns like Vision 2025.

If SIL says that “yes” we will engage in language documentation, and says “We will directly engage language communities”; will SIL start where it already has Bible Translation projects? Or will it start with endangered languages as defined by the EGIDS? Funding as an interesting way of adjusting the way people see their priorities. For pragmatic reasons it makes sense for SIL to start where it already has contacts and inroads to communities – even language documentation projects require successful relationships between linguists or language documentation program facilitators and community members. But this does not address how SIL will respond or create language development services for communities who speak languages on the EGIDS scale with a value of 7 or greater. This becomes a concern for SIL consultants and staff as they often have interests in or relationships with communities with an EGIDS score greater than 7.

As SIL moves from being an organization which has staff directly involved with activities in language communities, to becoming an organization which provides services to organizations working in communities there has been some discussion about SIL not being the solo organizational partner (where SIL partners directly with the community by sending an SIL staff person to live in the community) in any new start projects in language communities. This kind of strategy, shifts the responsibility for starting new projects to partner organizations and then shifts SIL responsibility to support them with services as it sees fit to provide. In terms of market place presence, this makes lots of sense for a services based company/organization/NGO. However, this also means that as the organization looks to change its involvement in the marketplace, that the market place will also respond and change. That is, the ways in which SIL used to be influential in both linguistics and language documentation, will change. SIL may still be a player but the other players in the larger marketplace of linguistics and language documentation (linguists and linguistic specialists both inside and outside SIL) will rely on SIL for linguistic expertise and data less (unless SIL can successfully provide a service which can offer linguistic expertise and linguistic data – which may be increasingly difficult to do provided the volunteerism basis of many SIL staff).

Therefore, this kind of EGIDS based decision making and finance steering might work well for focusing services and human resources efforts on Bible Translation projects but I do not see it working well with languages with an EGIDS score of 7 or greater. If SIL’s primary partners are evangelical partners, then on the large scale I do not see those partners as being interested in starting projects (particularly of the language documentation variety) in languages with an EGIDS value of 7 or greater, or the more endangered languages. This really then sets us up for the question: In an SIL framework what is Language Documentation? (including: How much documentation is sufficient for the purposes of the funding partners?, and What can the documentation be used for?) This first question(s) should be followed with a question of the nature: What does that mean for SIL and its operations (services) in other domains?


Lewis & Simons (2010)
& (). Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman’s Gids. Revue roumaine de linguistique, 55(2). 103–120. Retrieved from
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Hugh Paterson III
Hugh Paterson III
Collaborative Scholar

I specialize in bespoke research at the intersection of Linguistics, Law, Languages, and Technology; specifically utility and life-cycle management for information products in these spaces.