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Introduction to the First Edition

International Encyclopedia of Linguistics

Introduction to the First Edition

The intention of the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (IEL) is to provide a comprehensive source of up-to-date information on all branches of linguistics, aimed primarily at an audience of students and professional scholars in linguistics and adjacent fields. The publisher, Oxford University Press, has given me the fullest support in my effort to produce a reference work oriented toward the broadest possible view of linguistics, toward the importance of interdisciplinary studies, and toward open-minded attitudes toward theoretical controversies.

This work is designed to embrace the full range of linguistics, including descriptive, historical, comparative, typological, functionalist, and formalist specialties. Special attention is given to interrelations within branches of linguistics— with articles on the interface of, e.g., syntax and semantics— and to relations of linguistics with other disciplines. Areas of intersection with the social and behavioral sciences (such as ethnolinguistics, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics) receive major coverage, as does interdisciplinary work in language and literature, language and philosophy, mathematical linguistics, computational linguistics, and applied linguistics, in particular as concerned with language education.

The work is alphabetically, rather than topically, ordered. We have nevertheless attempted to preserve topical cohesion through three devices: (a) extensive cross-references between related articles; (b) a detailed index, including topical labels, technical terms, personal names, and geographical names; and (c) the organization of some articles in terms of composite entries— e.g. entries with subentries, as in ‘Acquisition of Language’, which is discussed with reference to first-language development under the headings (a) ‘Meanings and Forms’ and (b) ‘Phonology’, and then with reference to (c) ‘Second-language Acquisition’. Note that such subentries are ordered alphabetically except under ‘History of Linguistics’, where they are arranged chronologically.

The longer articles consist of signed essays of up to five thousand words in length, surveying large fields of study— e.g. phonetics, formal grammar, or anthropological linguistics. Shorter essays (also signed) deal with more specific topics within those fields; or with particular languages and language families which have been topics of extensive linguistic research; or with important scholars in the history of linguistics. A category of unsigned articles provides information on less-studied language families. Appended to both types of article on language families are ‘language lists’, which as a group give specific information on all the living languages of the world. The work concludes with a glossary and an extensive index.

The primary audience is seen as academic and professional, but interdisciplinary; thus articles are designed to be intelligible and useful to people in related disciplines, including teachers and advanced students in computer science, mathematics, philosophy, the social and behavioral sciences, and literary studies. It is hoped that readers will find the IEL to be unique in its comprehensive and authoritative coverage of all significant topics and viewpoints in linguistics, with attention both to ‘accumulated wisdom’ and to current research findings, at the professional academic level.

Some articles in this encyclopedia contain new research findings, not yet published elsewhere in comparable form. Most of them, however, are intended as research tools, serving to bring together timely information on the diverse subject matter and interdisciplinary connections which characterize the study of human language and languages. Because of the rapid development of linguistics, few individuals can control the current scholarly literature in all branches of the field; the goal of the IEL, then, is to give summaries of research, with detailed cross-references and bibliographies, to provide convenient access to the broadest possible spectrum of specialties.

Details on various aspects of the IEL’s background, policies, and practices are given in the following paragraphs.

Models and motivations

In many ways, a model for the present work was provided by the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (ed. by David L. Sills, 1968). That work featured important coverage of linguistic topics, in particular as related to cultural anthropology. I was a contributor to it, and I have frequently consulted it for my research in anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics. Some twenty years later, it seemed to me that linguistics had arrived at a stage of maturity and complexity to justify an encyclopedic reference work of its own, incorporating many features of the IESS.

Another factor in the planning of this encyclopedia has been my personal experience as an editor in the linguistic field. From 1966 to 1988, I served as editor of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America; before and during that period, I also edited several books. In my editorial capacity, I dealt with scholars from all over the world, working in every subfield and school of linguistics, and I exercised the responsibility of holding their work to high standards of validity, originality, and clarity. As an officer of a major international scholarly organization, I also took pains to avoid partisanship, and I strove to give full consideration to quality research of all theoretical orientations. Finally, as a linguist having strong links with the social and behavioral sciences, I maintained a broad interdisciplinary outlook as to what could properly be considered as ‘linguistics’. With this background, my goals for the IEL have been to maintain the same academic standards and interdisciplinary breadth, while nevertheless focusing the work toward the needs of reference users.

Until recently, no publication of encyclopedic scope has existed for the field of linguistics. However, such works clearly constitute ‘an idea whose time has come’. During the period that the IEL has been in preparation, two such publications have appeared— and the scholars responsible for both are, in fact, also valued contributors to the IEL! One is The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, a one-volume work written by a single author (David Crystal, 1987) and aimed at a general audience; the other is Linguistics: The Cambridge Survey (ed. by F. J. Newmeyer, 1987), a four-volume collection of ‘state of the art’ papers, written for professionals and emphasizing formal approaches to language. Still other publications have been announced: another one-volume, topically arranged work (but aimed at a more specialized audience than Crystal's); a work focusing primarily on language teaching; and a very ambitious, multivolume compendium on an advanced scholarly level.

It is clear that a rich choice will be available to the reading public. Nevertheless, I believe that the IEL makes a contribution not duplicated by any other work. Shorter encyclopedias are less expensive, and are easy to handle, but are limited not only in their subject coverage but in their diversity of viewpoint. Larger works overcome those defects; however, apart from their bulk and expense, the greater period required for their preparation increases the risk that their contents will become outdated during that time— especially in a field which changes as rapidly as modern linguistics. A work which is organized topically, rather than alphabetically, can give a more unified view of individual subfields; nevertheless, the IEL’s use of composite entries and extensive cross-references allows readers to integrate subfields, and at the same time preserves the convenience of alphabetical reference. More specialized works of reference will serve specialist audiences; however, I believe that the distinctive qualities of the IEL will meet the needs of a large core of students and scholars, in linguistics and adjacent disciplines, who are interested in the diversity of subfields and approaches which characterize the present-day study of language.


The aim of the IEL, and of individual articles within it, is not to say everything about any topic, but rather to give readers an appropriate orientation. For this reason, cross-references are used extensively, to avoid excessive repetition between articles. In addition, authors were asked to provide key bibliographical references for their articles, which will enable readers to pursue topics of interest as far as they desire.

It has been considered important that articles should be open to alternative viewpoints, and that they should avoid dogmatism. We have thought it especially desirable to maintain an even-handed approach in the IEL— considering the diverse intended readership, and considering too how rapidly orthodoxies can change in linguistics. Authors and topic editors (and indeed, the editor in chief) all have very definite opinions on particular matters of theory and methodology; but we have taken seriously our responsibility to let readers know what major viewpoints exist, and what the values of each may be. When topics involve a history of dispute, our desideratum has been that the relevant articles should reflect current consensus or its lack, whichever the case may be. We have felt that an encyclopedia is a place to explain unresolved issues, not to debate them.

How well have the IEL’s goals been achieved? What might have been done differently? As we go to press, I feel satisfied that we have met the goals of being wideranging, of representing a fair diversity of opinions, and of being as up-to-date as publication schedules will allow. My main autocriticism is that, although our articles on particular languages or language families contain abundant examples, I wish I had asked the authors of the other articles to put more emphasis on concrete exemplification. But reviewers and readers will have their own opinions; I hope they will let me know about them, in as much detail as possible.

Personnel and procedures

The board of editorial advisers, broad-based and international in scope, has provided top-level counsel both to the publisher and to myself as editor in chief. Its members have worked closely with me to determine the contents of the IEL, and to determine what individuals should serve as topic editors and as authors of articles. A number of these scholars have also agreed to serve as topic editors.

The topic editors, twenty-five in number, were appointed by me; each one has taken responsibility for a major subject area. I consulted them in order to determine the articles to be commissioned, the projected length of each, and the scholars who should be requested to write them. The topic editors then provided editorial supervision of the articles as they were written, and approved the manuscripts before sending them to me for final coordination and copyediting; I also continued to rely on their advice with regard to problems which arose during copyediting and proofreading. In some cases, topic editors nominated themselves to write specific articles in their areas of responsibility.

The authors, over four hundred in number, were chosen from around the world, on the basis of their reputation and expertise as known both to the topic editors and to me. Efforts were made to recruit authors who were not only recognized authorities on their subjects but who could also be relied on for clarity and definitiveness of statement.

After all bibliographical references were checked, copyediting of the articles was carried out by me and my assistants. Clarifications were sought, as necessary, through correspondence with authors— during the copyediting process, into the stage of reading galley proofs, and in some cases even beyond, to the stage of revised proofs.

Entry terms

Keeping in mind that the IEL will be consulted by readers who have some sophistication in linguistics but who nevertheless come from varying backgrounds, we have made an effort to choose entry terms (article titles) based on specific but relatively established concepts, and the articles themselves are organized with consideration for those concepts. We avoid entry terms beginning with the word ‘Language’ or ‘Linguistics’; rather, we use terms such as ‘Law and Language’ (instead of ‘Language of the Law’). Access to topics not chosen as entry terms is, of course, made possible through the index.

Spelling and alphabets

For consistency, American standard spellings have been used (e.g. color, recognize). Phonetic transcriptions follow either the International Phonetic Alphabet or conventional ‘American usage’, following authors' preference (see Pullum & Ladusaw 1986). Material from languages written in non-Latin alphabets is, in general, transliterated in the systems most used by international scholars of those languages; e.g., Cyrillic is transcribed with š ž č j, rather than sh zh ch y. Greek is also transliterated. Mandarin Chinese is written in pinyin spellings with tone marks.

Illustrative material

Care has been taken to make the content of articles as useful as possible through the inclusion of two types of illustrative material. One type consists of linguistic examples: words, phrases, and sentences in a wide range of natural languages. We follow the general practice of scholarly literature in linguistics by setting these off from the main text, for improved readability, and by numbering them for cross-reference. In complex examples, we give interlinear glosses for each morpheme or word, in addition to a freer translation.

The second type of illustrative material consists of graphic aids of several kinds, including hierarchical outlines, paradigmatic tables, graphs, sound spectrograms, and charts of writing systems, as well as maps to show the geographical distributions of dialects, languages, or language families. In complex illustrations, especially in the maps, the basic material was provided by authors in the form of informal sketches; these have then been reworked by professional graphic artists and cartographers, and checked by the authors and editors.


Short biographical articles are included for a limited number of major linguists now deceased. The scholars for whom such articles have been written are ones who made contributions ‘across the board’ in linguistics, e.g. Edward Sapir and Roman Jakobson. Information on the work of other scholars, past and present, can be found in entries relating to their specialties or their schools of thought; e.g., contributions made to the field by J. R. Firth and by Noam Chomsky, respectively, are discussed under ‘History of Linguistics’ (in the article on ‘The London School’) and under ‘Generative Grammar’.


Since an encyclopedia article cannot possibly say everything that is relevant about a topic, an important function of each essay is to direct readers to sources. All essays therefore end with a bibliographical listing of works cited, alphabetically arranged; typically, these include not only citations relevant to particular points but also works useful for general reference on a topic. Preference is given (other things being equal) to books rather than articles; to works in western European languages, especially English, rather than others; and to easily available rather than hard-to-find works such as unpublished dissertations. It is realized that linguistic research has progressed so rapidly in recent years that authors must often make reference to work which was not scheduled for publication at the time the articles were written; in such cases, however, acknowledgment is made by in-text reference, rather than by bibliographical citation of unpublished research.

In cases where publications are more accessible in reprinted form, we give information on the original publication first, because of its historical relevance, and then data on later and more available versions.

Language lists

Appended to the articles on language families are ‘language lists’ which represent an attempt to provide geographical, statistical, nomenclatural, and sociolinguistic information, to the extent that data are available for all living languages of the world, as well as for a selection of extinct languages. (Language names not used as headwords in these lists can be accessed through the index.) These lists have been prepared by Joseph and Barbara Grimes, based on the computerized files of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, with the permission of that organization (see also Grimes 1988). Additional information and corrections have been obtained from the authors of articles and from other reference sources, but the final form of the lists is my own responsibility. Readers should appreciate that the nomenclature and classification of languages are often controversial, and that data from different sources vary greatly in reliability; suggestions for further improvements will be welcome.


A list of technical linguistic terms, prepared by David Crystal, is found at the end of this work. It is based both on definitions of technical terms given by IEL authors, in their respective articles, and on the files prepared by Crystal for his 1985 Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics.


Thanks for essential help of many kinds go to the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles; to the Department of Linguistics and the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder; to Professor Akio Kamio and the Department of English, Dokkyo University, Soka City, Japan, who provided me with an academic home during two periods in that country; to the members of the editorial board; to the topic editors; to all the authors; to Lise Menn, for constant supportiveness as both wife and colleague; to Claude Conyers and Jeffrey Edelstein at Oxford University Press, New York, who saw the project through to the end; to my indispensable editorial associate, Jane McGary; and to Gale Arce, David Attwooll, Melissa Axelrod, Kathleen M. Fenton, Daniel Hack, Philomena Mariani, William Mitchell, Susan Remkus, and Kenneth Wright.

William Bright, Editor in Chief


  • Crystal, David. 1985. A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Crystal, David. 1987. The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Grimes, Barbara (ed.) 1988. Ethnologue: Languages of the world. 11th edition. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

  • Newmeyer, Frederick J. (ed.) 1987. Linguistics: The Cambridge survey. 4 vols. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Pullum, Geoffrey K., and William A. Ladusaw. 1986. Phonetic symbol guide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Sills, David L. (ed.) 1968. International encyclopedia of the social sciences. 17 vols. New York: Macmillan and Free Press.