Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Saving the Largest Online Linguistics Database

In 2015, spare funds started to dry up at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a Bible translation group that revolutionized the documentation of endangered languages in the mid–20th century. SIL’s budget had long supported a massive online database considered by many to be the definitive source for information on the world’s languages.

The SIL Ethnologue has served anthropological and linguistic research for decades, but it has become to expense for many researchers.

Simon Greenhill, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said, “In the last few years, [Ethnologue has] gotten increasingly expensive and locked down."

Since 2013, SIL Chief Innovation Development Officer Stephen Moitozo has been trying to grow Ethnologue and make it self-sustaining. After the first paywall went up, interactive maps and customer service chatbots were added. Ongoing costs include website maintenance, security, and paying researchers to update the databases whenever new information comes in from independent researchers or SIL’s 5000 field linguists.

To pay for its valuable data, SIL is counting on institutions and corporations, as well as individual subscribers. SIL is planning to sell tailored access to corporations, including business intelligence firms, and Fortune 500 companies.

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