How many ethnic groups?

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Counting languages isn't an easy task; in particular, it's hard to say whether two varieties are related languages or dialects of a single language. Making these decisions on linguistic grounds is difficult enough, but political, cultural, and social considerations often intervene, to compound the difficulty. The latest Ethnologue (16th ed., 2009) advertises itself as "an encyclopedic reference work cataloging all of the world's 6,909 known living languages", but the introduction lays out the problems in identifying and counting languages and acknowledges that the methods used in reaching this very exact number are not the only possible ones and that these methods involve judgment calls at several points.

Same thing in counting ethnic groups. But sometimes an authority just stipulates a figure, as in this report on school textbooks in China ("The fragility of truth", The Economist, October 10, p. 45):

The authorities have said that 56 columns erected on Tiananmen Square for the celebrations [the recent 60th anniversary celebrations] will stay put. They represent China's officially recognized 56 "ethnic groups". It is a number that few Chinese schoolchildren would dare to challenge. Yet when the communists came to power there were found to be more than 400. Officials eventually settled on the much lower figure and suppressed further debate.

(That's 55 official minority nationalities, plus Han Chinese.)

I don't see any official pronouncement on the number of languages in China. What the Ethnologue says is:

The number of individual languages listed for China is 293. Of those, 292 are living languages and 1 has no known speakers. (link)

Language and ethnicity are related in complex ways, but 291 languages (discarding the 2 special cases) seems to me to be an awful lot for only 56 ethnic groups.


  1. Leland Paul Kusmer said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    "I don't see any official pronouncement on the number of languages in China. "

    Unfortunately, official government policy is that no ethnicity can have more than one language, but that two distinct ethnicity can share a language; the official number of languages in China is thus exactly 54…

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    Ethnologue breaks "Chinese" as such down into13 languages (if my quick count was correct), but presumably those are all predominantly spoken by members of the Han ethnic group and perhaps that's 12 more "languages" than the PRC authorities would acknowledge. Beyond the special cases noted to get from 293 to 291, there are a few others in the Ethnologue list that are sign languages, and I assume the PRC isn't treating the deaf as an ethnic group or groups. But as for the rest, if the "right" number of non-Han ethnic groups could be anywhere in between 50ish and 400ish, 275ish languages sounds perfectly plausible without implying either undue lumping or undue splitting in trying to apply the fuzzy line between language and dialect.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    The current Ethnologue language list for China seems to have 296 entries, by my count…

    That's by doing
    egrep '<TR valign=' China.htm | wc
    and checking that the table entries really are "languages", from Achang to Zokhuo.

  4. mgh said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    on the topic of state strictures on language, it seems worth mentioning in this space that Slovakia recently made it criminal to use languages other than Slovak in "official" situations. (link)

    These newly criminalized circumstances apparently include "a fireman responding in Hungarian to a call for help from a person in a burning building; a civil servant discussing job opportunities with an unemployed Roma in Romany; a German book club discussing a book in German without first introducing it in Slovak; a [train] conductor addressing a passenger in Hungarian on a train from Slovakia to Hungary; a radio station broadcasting in English without Slovak translation; failure to re-carve a 50-year-old grave marker [into Slovak]".

    Apologies if this has been covered on LL previously.

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    Not to encourage thread drift, but a less agitated account of the Slovak legislation (by the only Bratislava-based linguablogger of whom I am personally aware) is here:

  6. mondain said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

    Here is a page at the Ministry of Education of China, where each minority group and their languages are listed. But I'm not sure whether it's an official document or not.

  7. Rob said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 12:19 am

    There was an interview on ABC Radio National earlier this year with an Australian linguist who contributed to the Chinese section of Ethnologue:

    He states, "they had a classification which took place in about a year in the middle '50s where they started with a list of several thousand groups that had said that they wanted to be recognised as national minorities, following the pattern of the Soviet Union from the 1920s. And they came up with a list in the end of 54 national minorities."

    Of course some of the claims would have been bogus, but he goes on to explain why limiting the number of minorities might have been good for the government of the time.

  8. Alexander said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 12:32 am

    Perhaps the highest densities of languages per official-ethnic-group are in what Ethnologue calls the "Ngwi"/"Loloish" branches of "Burmish" languages. Ethnologue gives 75 Ngwi languages, plus 19 under "Loloish", sometimes redundantly (e.g. Lisu, Hani). But all of these correspond, I think, to at most five of the official ethnic groups: Yi, Nu, Lahu, Hani, and Lisu. That's about a 17:1 ratio, in this subset of the data. Question: how far off is that from the number of languages one might have associated with "the Germans" in, say, 1841, when "Das Lied der Deutschen" was written?

  9. semuren said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 7:44 am

    This discussion, like the PRC's language and ethnicity policy and the simplistic critique of it implicit in the Economist article mentioned above, all seem the take the idea that an ethnic group, or 民族 (minzu) isn't a problematic concept in and of itself for granted. Are ethnic groups easier to distinguish I do not think it is a question of the Chinese just miscounting the minzu during the minzu shibie process (it started in the 50s, took more than a year and two more groups were added in the 80s). It is more apt to think about how the state, through the minzu shibie and subsequent ethnicity policy, brought made minzu. The creative force of state based re-organization (and its politics) also extended into linguistics, both in language classification and language planning.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 7:49 am

    @Alexander, in Ethnologue's view as of right now today (rather than 1841), there are over a dozen different indigenous "German" languages spoken within the boundaries of the present Bundesrepublik, without even counting other Germanic languages such as Danish and various types of Frisian (although also not worrying about whether some of the "German" languages are closer to Dutch than Hochdeutsch). But what the language:ethnicity ratio is obviously depends on whether you treat Germans-as-such as a single ethnicity or whether "ethnic group" means the level of specificity of, e.g., Westfalians and Swabians, at which point you get closer to 1:1.

    What I don't know is how consistently Ethnologue applies a single view of the language/dialect distinction from place to place. E.g., if their treatment of Germany or the Netherlands seems excessively toward the splitter end of the lumper/splitter continuum, does that carry over to their treatment of China, or is that not a sound inference to draw, given the lack of uniformity inherent in such a massive project involving numerous pairs of hands plus inherent differences in how the confounding non-linguistic historical/political/social factors will play out in different environments?

  11. Jay Lake: [links] Link salad for an LA Tuesday said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    […] How many ethnic groups? — Language Log on languages and ethnic groups. […]

  12. GAC said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    It's definitely worth pointing out that the languages falling under "Chinese languages" would be spoken natively by the Han majority. While likely most of those people would self-identify as Han, there are plenty of cultural differences to go along with the linguistic ones, so it might be logical to think of "Northern Han", "Southern Han", etc. (rough examples, I don't have enough knowledge to attempt making a realistic list).

  13. Fluxor said,

    October 14, 2009 @ 1:19 am

    It appears China's 54 official ethnic minority groups can be thought of as 54 families of ethnicities. For example, the 高山族 (lit: high mountain ethnicity) actually comprises of all of the aboriginals groups in Taiwan. Each individual aboriginal tribe in Taiwan would then be considered by the PRC gov't to be a sub-branch of that ethnicity.

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