Languages, Terminologies, and Mind-Sets

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Previously published in International Associations 26, 1974, 4, pp. 219-225. Also in: Les Problèmes du Langage dans la Société Internationale (Compte rendu du colloque, Paris 28-29 mars 1974). Bruxelles, Union des Associations Internationales, 1975, pp. 222-228


It is healthy to be reminded of the lack of homogeneity in international discourse. In particular it seemed to be a useful exercise to assemble together some data on the world's main languages, terminologies, and what, for want of a better word, may be called mind-sets.

Languages of the world

Somewhat surprisingly, up to date information on the number of languages spoken, their interrelationship, and the number of speakers of each language is not easily available (One would have thought that these would be regularly reported in the Unesco Statistical Yearbook). The exact number of languages is not known, mainly because there is disagreement among linguists over what constitutes a language and what constitutes a dialect. The figure of 2,700 to 3,000 languages is however frequently encountered.

There is also much difficulty in breaking the languages down into interrelated groups. A portion of linguistic debate is concerned with allocating particular languages to new parts of the currently favoured classification scheme. There are many differences of opinion on subgroupings. For this reason, it would seem, there is a tendency on the part of linguists to avoid presenting comprehensive listings. Information on the number of speakers of each language is equally elusive. The table (on pp. 222-223) is therefore a compromise among a number of different sources (The figures were obtained from Whittakers Almanac 1974; the presentation is strictly a compromise based on other sources.). It should be considered indicative only. An attempt has been made to include all languages with over one million speakers. One first important conclusion is the number of languages spoken by less than one million people (over 2.500).

The number of speakers of a particular language is frequently a matter of national or cultural prestige to the degree that one questions the objectivity of comparative statistics (For example French language sources cite 100 m, compared to the 85m given in the table where the English figure is probably inflated.). One reason for discrepancy is putting "second language " speakers together with " first language " speakers. It is difficult to locate information on the conceptual restrictions imposed by a particular language, since most studies are word-oriented. Since each language provides a conceptual framework, an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of different frameworks could be extremely enriching for international discourse.


The exercise of collecting data on languages suggested that it might be equally useful to present information on the variety of terminological systems currently in use. The argument here is that each discipline, which is the subject of education, has its own special vocabulary and conceptual framework. Communication between disciplines is a matter of considerable difficulty. There is no profession of interdisciplinary translators as there is for languages - nor is there any interdisciplinary "Esperanto". It seemed useful therefore to see whether any answer could be given to such questions as " how many people speak sociology ? " However, as with languages, there are those who speak the jargon fluently, others who make use of some of it, and finally there are those who can understand it but do not speak it. Clearly this type of information is very hard to obtain. However, by making a number of assumptions, it is possible to obtain an indication of how many speakers of each jargon there might be. While the assumptions may be weak, no other course is currently open to us. Readers must judge for themselves from the table (see page 224-225); whether the information presented raises useful questions. As with the languages, there is a problem of distinguishing between terminological "languages " and " dialects ". Many of the languages/dialects, used by highly specialized groups could not of course be detected by the method used here. One can speculate that there may be as many as several thousand.

Since a listing of this type has apparently not been attempted before, some procedural notes are in order. Some readers may prefer to continue at the next heading and omit the following paragraphs,

1. A preliminary breakdown and grouping of disciplines was obtained from an Abridged UDC List.

2. It was assumed that the speakers of each jargon must have received a third level or university education. A useful method of distinguishing between the degree of fluency was to base it on the achievements at this level: Unesco distinguishes three stages at the third level.

A. Diplomas and certificates lower than the first degree (generally less than 3 years)

B. Diplomas and certificates equivalent to a first degree (generally 4-5 years)

C. Diplomas and certificates equivalent to a higher degree (including masler's and doctorates).

It was decided to consider the Cs as fluent, primary users; the As and Bs together as secondary users with apartial knowledge; those enrolling but not qualifying as having a limited understanding of the jargon in question.

3. The Unesco Statistical Yearbook gives number of students reaching the above levels each year, for recent years, for the majority of countries. (The question of the international comparability of diplomas is explicitly set aside in presentig this information) - data for the majority of countries, for recent years, on enrollments, students and graduates broken down by the following disciplines: humanities,education, fine arts, law, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, medical sciences, agriculture.

4. The Unesco discipline breakdown was not detailed enough, so a means was required to obtain data on the achievement with respect to more specialized jargons. The assumption was made that data available at a more detailed level in the USA could be used as a means of establishing the relative number of speakers within any of the Unesco groupings. This assumption is especially weak in the case of the highly advanced technology jargons (e.g. computer design).

5. The Unesco data only indicated the recent graduates. Up to date estimates of the total number of graduates in each country seem to be unavailable. A means was therefore required of establishing a relationship between the number of current graduates and the total number of graduates. Again the assumption was made that data available for the USA could be used il a correction (or the relative development of the USA was made. It was assumed that the relative GNPs could be used for this purpose. The source used for the USA data were: American Scientific Man power Report 1970. Washington, National Science Foundation; and W.T. Furniss (Ed.) American Universities and Colleges. Washington. American Council on Education. 1973, pp. 19 and p. 1773-4. The NSF reports on active scientists of whom an estimated 64 % answered a questionnaire. The second source indicates how many people graduated since 1930 (an assumed arbitrary cut-off date).

6. A limited degree of cross-checking was possible by comparing totals for disciplinary groups obtained by extrapolating from USA to work data, and by extrapolating back Unesco current data frorn 1970 to 1930 (on the assumption of 10% average decrease per year, indicated in the U.N. World Social Situation Report for 1970, which was assumed to hold for the whole period). The use of USA data did not cross-check sufficiently in the case of medical sciences and law (not adequately covered in the NSF report) so the Unesco data only were used. In addition, for medicine, contrary to Unesco practice, doctorates were treated as type C rather than B.

7. An assumption had to be made about the average number of years at each stage in order to correct the Unesco enrollment figures for re-enrollments.

8. The disciplinary breakdowns were different in the different sources. Adjustments had to be made for this. For this reason, the totals ways correspond with the real total of the items included below. This however conforms with NSF practice, since some items may be another category.


There are clearly many defects and weaknesses in the above approach but, at least in the case of primary users, it does provide a systematic presentation of data which could be corrected by international professional bodies. The primary users are essentially the "professionals " in each jargon area whereas the secondary users are the " technicians " or "appliers ". The special weakness of the data presented on the secondary and tertiary levels is that it does not allow for people who have acquired the ability to use the jargon, either through practical work experience (e.g. a lawyer's clerk) or through private reading on the mass media.

In addition, an attempt should be made to correct the two lower levels by data on employees in occupations using a particular jargon. The ILO data in the Yearbook of Labour Statistics is however unfortunately presented by industrial sector and not by discipline and does not distinguish between the different grades of employee (professional, technician, operative) (Of particular interest is the U.S. Department of Labour coding system for the etassification of all occupations. This distinguishes occupations by 7 possible relationships to data, 9 to people, and 9 to things. ). However there may be some validity in the assumption that only people who have been exposed to a jargon in formal education acquire more than a limited understanding of it, which would maintain the validity of the data on the second level of users. Another weakness, which is difficult to correct, is that educational courses tend to spread to cover a variety of disciplines, although Unesco data would only cover the major discipline for which the student registered. Thus particularly within a major grouping like the " social sciences ",students of any of the sub-groupings would acquire a " limited understanding " ifnot the ability to make a " partial use ", of the terminologies of other sub-groupings

The data on developing countries (Africa, Latin-America, Asia, excluding Israel, Turkey and Japan) is of course especially subject to the reserves concerning the equivalence of diplomas. The graduates from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa considerably inflate the developing country figures.

Figure 1: Comparison of different methods of communicating concepts







direct and to the point; dramatic impact

no abstraction possible


personalized, subtle, poetic, imageful, analogy-full, adjusted to audience

no permanent record, meanings and models shift from phrase to phrase


permanent record; words weighed and compared in context; document forms an intelligible whole

meaning of words undefinec or differ between documents) definitions become concretized and language dependent; complexity of abstractions limited by syntax of language; problem of jargon


provides context in physical terms; involving, highly complex, high information content, high interrelationship

superficial and unstructured

loss of intuitive appreciation of the concepts involved; impenetrable without lengthy initiation; system of nota-


handles very complex abstractions and relations and a multiplicity of dimensions

tion becomes more complex than the concepts described; impersonal

Diagram (exhibit charts)

structured to make a specific point

over-simplification; exagération of some festures at expense of others; processes only displayed statically

Artistic mobiles

complex, new and unpredictable relationships

experience primarily incommunicable

Diagram {flow charts/ graphs)

portray all detectable inter-relationships in precise manner; panoramic view of system

visually complex to the point of impenetrability; processes still conveyed statically; difficult to modify

Interactive graphics (alphascope)

precise messages; responsive; contents can be oriented to suit user

no structured overview; bounded by language mode of program; processes conveyed as a sequence of isolated messages (or as a game experience)

Psychedelic environment

very subtle and complex imagery and relationships; process oriented; integration of visual and audio; psychologically involving

no scientific content; no significant invariants; experience primarily incommunicable

Interactive graphics (structured Image)

greater user selectivity and control on content and form of presentation; complex abstractions held on display; processes displayed as flows; dynamic; enhanced creativity; 2-4 dimensions.

highly structured without the subtle relationships characteristic of arts; user still centred " outside the structure looking in "


In this last section we touch upon areas which are much less understood. They concern the pre-logical biases or dispositions which govern an individual's (or a culture's) preference for particular types of information or concepts. A striking concrete example of one aspect of this is the American preference for grid organization of roads, with systematic numbering along each road, compared to the Japanese area/time concept whereby buildings are numbered in date order of their construction in a given area. More obviously, there is the difference between those who wish to read about a topic before deciding whether to listen to a verbal presentation, and those who wish to listen to the presentation before deciding whether to read the documentation. There seemes to be very little information on these individual and cultural preferences. We do not know what range of preferences is involved, so it is not even possible to present indicative data.

As an indication of this range, however, two dimensions are considered below. The first covers a variety of forms of information presentation; the second covers a set of pre-logical biases. It may be that the intersections of these two sets cover a major portion of the range of orientations of interest to international discourse. A tentative list of the variety of forms of information organization and presentation would include the following (in no particular order) :

A. Mime, gesture, ritual, drama, ceremonial dance. B. Speech: monologue, dialogue, discussion, poetry, song. C. Sound: signals, music. D. Symbols, monuments. E. Writing: characters, cursive script, ideogrammatic characters. F. Images (in two dimensions): artistic, religious, publicity, photographs. G. Images (dynamic in two dimensions): display panels, psychedelic lighting, film/TV. H. Logically, interconnected symbols: equations, notations. I. Graphs (static and in two dimensions), charts. J. Graphs (dynamic in two dimensions): oscilloscope displays, instrument plots. K. Graphs (static in three dimensions). K. Graphs (dynamic in simulated three dimensions): computer graphics displays. M. Maps, plans, flow-charts, circuit diagrams. N. Structures (static 'in three dimensions): sculpture, models, maquettes. O. Structures (dynamic in three dimensions): mobiles, working models. P. Computer outputs (non-interactive) line print-out or display. Q. Computer output (interactive): line printout or display. R. Computer graphics (dynamic in simulated three dimensions) in colour. S. Simulators. (An earlier version of this list, together with the detailed advantages and disadvantages of each mode, was first presented by the author in Working Paper N° 3 of the IPSA Committee on Conceptual and Terminological Analysis entitled: Relationships between elements of knowledge. Hawaii/Brussels, 1971.)

The felt need for information on a particular topic, the preference for any of the above forms of information presentation, and (in the case of those selected) the preference for the nature and organization of the information presented, may each depend upon the individual's (or culture's) position respect to each of the following prelogical axes of bias elaborated by W.T. Jones (The Romantic Syndrome; toward a new method in cultural anthropology and history of ideas. The Hague Martinus Nijhoff. 1961) :

A. Order/Disorder axis, which consists of the range of attitudes lying between a strong preference for fluidity, muddle and chaos and a strong preference for system, clarity, and conceptual analysis.
B. Static /Dynamic axis, in which, at one pole, there is a preference for the changeless and eternal and, at the other pole, a preference for movement and for explanation in genetic terms.
C. Continuity/Discreteness axis, which consists of the range of attitudes between a preference for wholeness and completeness and a preference for diversity.
D. Inner/Outer axis, which consists of the range of attitudes between a demand to " get inside " the objects of one's experience and a tendency to " be satisfied with an external view of them.
E. Sharp-focus /Soft-focus axis, in which the contrast is between a preference for clear and distinct experiences and a preference for threshold experiences.
F. This-world / Other-world axis, in which readiness to believe that the spatio-temporal world is self-explanatory is contrasted with a refusal to believe it is self-explanatory (and a contententment with the here-andnow is opposed to a preference for the other-in-time and the other-inspace).
G. Spontaneity/Process axis, in which at one extreme there is a strong preferency for chance and novelty and at the other extreme, an equally strong disposition to believe in duly established procedure.

Jones makes the point that the influence of such biases structure the conception of explanation that predominates in a society; that is, they define, not the particular explanations, but the kinds of explanations that are felt to be satisfactory. " As such, they characterize not merely the physical theory that a society develops but also much of the legal, political, and social behaviour of that society " (p. 13).


The above sections have attempted to survey some of the " conceptual cages " in which different sectors of human society are emprisoned, mostly without choice and often with much self-satisfaction. These cages constitute barriers to international, interdisciplinary and intercultural discourse. The question is whether the solution to the problem (if it is really a problem) is to get as many people as possible to subscribe to a particular approach, namely to get them all into one cage, or whether there is not some other means of benefitting from the perspectives through the windows of all the cages.

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