Thursday, November 19, 2009

Look it up before you speak up!

On November 7 I posted about World Communication Week, and got a comment about the Esperanto language from Brian Barker (in London) which, among other things, mentioned that:

“After a short period of 122 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook.”

Wow! That sounds very authoritative. But, wait a minute, why is it just somewhere in the top 100? Shouldn’t there be a specific number, like #73, or #97? I got curious and looked up the word Esperanto on the CIA web site, via the current version of the CIA World Factbook. There was nothing about Esperanto there! In the World section, under the heading of People and the Subheading of Languages there just was a brief list with the following languages, and percent of first language speakers (estimates from 2005):

Mandarin Chinese 13.22%

Spanish 4.88%

English 4.68%

Arabic 3.12%

Hindi 2.74%

Portuguese 2.69%

Bengali 2.59%

Russian 2.2%

Japanese 1.85%

Standard German 1.44%

French 1.2%

Later on I looked in the older hard copy versions of the World Factbook from 1994 to 2007 down at my friendly local university library. There were similar short lists with estimates from 2000 (in the 2003 edition) and 2004 (in the 2007 edition). I couldn’t find anything listed about Esperanto, and there was no list of the top 100.

So, Brian was barking up the wrong tree and spouting an urban legend. The moral of this story is to not trust secondhand statistics if you value your credibility. Check out the primary source before you speak up.

No comments: