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Peoples and Cultures

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

What is the origin of the term "Ethnolinguistic Group?"  I have found it only in books published since 1990.

I am not certain of the origin of the term "ethnolinguistic group," but am surprised you have found it occurring only in books published since 1990.  Very interesting.

The term is a commonly used term in ethnic studies, in disciplines such as anthropology and linguistics and cross-cultural communications.  Definitions are similar from one writer to the other, I think.  My definition is my expression of a fairly common formulation.

I noticed if I run an Internet search on the term, quoting to be sure I get the complete term reference only, "ethnolinguistic group," I get a lot of links to documents from various sources, including universities, publishers, mission agencies, etc.  For example, use this link to bring up a search list from Yahoo:

An interesting Internet source has the following use and comment about the concept of "ethnolinguistic group" which might be of interest.  This quote is from a source I can n longer find online, discussing a World Wildlife Federation ecosystem mapping project called G200 map that focuses on the ethnic units involved in the various ecosystems:

"In carrying out the cross-mapping of indigenous peoples onto the G200 map, the main operational criterion was reference to the concept of "ethnolinguistic group" [highlighting mine].  This concept has been used in the literature to define a human social unit that shares the same language and culture and uses the same criteria to differentiate itself from other social groups.  While in reality one cannot expect to find human societies perfectly matching this theoretical construct, in many cases — especially in small-scale indigenous and tribal societies and other traditional local communities — actual social units do approximate the theoretical ethnolinguistic unit.  Linguistic affiliation is commonly one major and salient component of ethnic identification (including self-identification) — although not the only one, and not invariably.  Often (though by no means always), this coincidence of ethnicity and language is marked by a people calling themselves and their language by the same unique name.

"For the purposes of the present project it was considered that adhering to the concept of ethnolinguistic group (as also done in previous studies mentioned above) would provide a reasonable, if not infallible, means of identifying indigenous and tribal societies, as well as ethnolinguistically distinct traditional communities.  At the same time, it is necessary to acknowledge the degree of indeterminacy implied in concepts of language and ethnicity for the reasons indicated above, and therefore that data elaborated on such bases should be taken as approximations".

I am enclosing here a section from the documentation of the Registry of Peoples, which I edit on behalf of the Harvest Information System, which explains how the concept of people is defined.  This will explain some of the considerations involved in researching and determining listings.

A Practical Definition of Peoples of the World
Excerpt from the Registry of Peoples
by Orville Boyd Jenkins

Harvest Information System


The function of the Registry of Peoples is to document the standardized codes used for identifying the primary peoples (people groups) of the world.  The ROP provides a reference list of ethnic identifiers representing the discrete human aggregations of the world.

1.1  Identifiers
The Registry provides a unique code and definitive name for each people.

1.1.1  ROP Code
ROP Codes are 6-digit, alphanumeric fields that provide a unique identifier for each ethnic entity.  Each code is perpetual – it will not be used more than once, even if the entity it identifies is removed from the database.

1.1.2  ROP Name
ROP Names are definitive, standardized identifiers based on the self-name or a representative construct name of an ethnic identity as determined by the Registry Editor.  Each name represents the largest cohesive group of individuals considering themselves related and speaking one or more languages.

1.2  Descriptors
A minimum of two descriptors is necessary to accurately define a people.

1.2.1  Location Descriptor
Each person in every people group lives in an identifiable location.  Thus each people group record will reference at least one location descriptor, although it will likely reference more, since many people groups of the world are spread across geo-political boundaries.

1.2.2  Language Descriptor
Each person in every people group speaks a language.  A people group record includes at least one language descriptor, and more if the people group is multi-lingual.

1.3 Criteria for Ethnic Entity Identification

1.3.1  Ethnic Entities
A distinction between two ethnic groups, given a separate entry and assigned a separate code, derives from a large set of cultural characteristics that vary in importance among human cultures and societies.  Further detail on these characteristics may be found in wide circulation in various academic disciplines.

1.3.2  Determinations
Specific determinations result from extensive research at various levels, and are intended to represent the self-identity of each listed ethnic entity.  In addition, naming conventions and grouping are considered to take into account common terminology and conventions for descriptions of human culture from relevant disciplines.

1.3.3  Self-Identity
In general the term “ethnic entity” refers to the largest cohesive group of individuals considering themselves related through biological kinship, shared history, customs and self-identity and speaking one or more languages.

A people is defined by the combination of these and other factors referred to as “ethnicity” or “culture.”  The definition of a discrete “people” requires a minimum of the two descriptors location and language.  As we investigate the real-life situations of human existence, we find no one-to-one correspondence of peoples to languages or of people names to language names.

1.3.5  Religion
Every people is associated with at least one religion.  Religion may be a significant enough factor to separate otherwise identical people groups, constituting sufficient reason to create a separate entry for each in the ROP.  The ROP, however, does not attempt to provide a full reference of each people group to all known religions.

1.3.6  Sub-groupings
It is often possible to identify smaller subgroupings in any of the ethnic entities defined in the ROP.  The ROP code for the larger entity would be applicable to all these subgroups.

1.3.7  Social Strata
Additionally, social strata or categories may be identified which include segments of multiple people groups and may be useful for communication and cultural access strategies.  Users of the ROP codes may want to link a variety of additional data to the provided ethnic codes in any dynamic combination.

See Related Article
Classifying Ethnicity:  Coding and Comparing Ethnic Information:
        How the Peoples and Languages Codes of the Harvest Information System Facilitate a Broader Knowledge Base of World Ethnicity
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Ethnic Names and Codes — Correlating People Lists:
        How Codes in the Registry of Peoples Enrich the Exchange of Ethnic Information
Ethnicities and Names
Peoples and Languages
Race and Ethnicity
Rough Edges of Ethnicity:
        Determining Ethnicity in the Changing Streams of Language and Culture
What is a People Group?


Topic first addressed in February 2006 in answer to an email query
Finalized as an article and posted 16 March 2006
Last edited 4 July 2012

Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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