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Peoples and Cultures

Peoples and Languages
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

What is the difference between a "language group" and a "people group"?

I understand the term "language group" to refer to all speakers (communities of speakers) of one "language."  As linguists, we are aware, of course, of the vagueness of the term "language," which, along with "dialect," serves as a broad working term.

Along a continuum of related speech varieties, linguists have defined certain characteristics of similarity by which they would group certain speech forms together as one "language."  In general the speech varieties along a continuum fitting the criteria defined for grouping as a "language," would be the reference determination for which speakers of certain varieties would be grouped together as speaking one "language."

It appears that the term "people group" has been used more in the Christian Missions Community than in any other single arena. I'm not certain, but it may even be that this term is associated primarily with missions literature.  Equivalent terms are people, ethnicity or ethnic group.  In some contexts they are also equivalent to the usages of the basic word nation.

Language Definition
For the technical definition and catagorization of "languages" of the world, a primary world standard used by universities and government agencies all over the world is SIL International. This agency publishes a compendium of languages of the world called the Ethnologue.

The SIL definition of a "language" is a grouping of speech varieties similar enough to enable speakers/readers to use the same written form within the expected range of variations in their speech forms.  It seems the term language group refers to the total of speakers of any one speech form defined in the Ethnologue as a language

People Definition
The term people group is more specific, defining ethnicity, with priority in the definition given to self-identity.  We find that many groups and societies of humans speaking forms of speech that are mutually intelligible who for various other reasons consider themselves separate ethnicities.

Sometimes it is even what outsiders can see as only minor differences in speech, still mutually intelligible, that a society (village, tribe, family, etc.) will still consider enough of a difference to distinguish themselves as a separate group.  I know translators run into this in determining how broadly one written form and translation may be used.

This in itself is a cultural (ethnic) characteristic -- how inclusive or exclusive the self-identity is, and how "hard" the ethnic boundaries are.

People Profiles
Over many years working with ethnic researchers and linguists in Africa, I cooperated with personnel of the SIL Africa office to clarify terminology and profiling approaches.  We worked in our respective spheres to clarify the distinction between the "people" and the language, so that profiles were more people-oriented, that is, descriptive of ethnic groups.

Often this coincides with language boundaries, sometimes not.  Sometimes it is a toss-up in the formal analysis and descriptive listings.  Ethnographers and agencies such as mission groups needed people profiles, meaning more specific cultural descriptions of the individual ethnic groups.

Earlier profiles on file in the SIL Africa office were profiles of language groups -- a description of the community or communities that spoke what was classified as one language.  Ethnic researchers, on the other hand, (as well as Mission strategists) were committed to a definition of "peoples" that entailed unique worldviews and self-identity as a unique ethnicity.

I find in my correspondence with SIL personnel that some tend to use the terms people group and language group interchangeably. SIL's standard profile form is entitled "People Profile," but in their context, the focus is on the boundaries of language forms, which often are different than boundaries of ethnic self-identity.

Ethnolinguistic Definition
The dominant concept of "people" or "people group" is an ethnolinguistic view, not the same thing as a language group (all communities speaking one language).  Language is a major ethnic identifier, since all humans have language.  But it is not the only one, and the people's own culture and worldview determine what ethnic factors are more weighty in determining ethnicity.

This means that, while inpractice a langue and an ethnicity often coincide, inprinciple they are two focuses or entities. The concept of "language" generally followed is that of SIL -- the range of speech varieties that are similar enough to use the same written form and translation.  The understanding of this language concept and the concept of unique peoples is fairly common, and has been facilitated by SIL, IMB and other partners in HIS.

Confusing Usages
Some circles have confused matters somewhat, especially among unsophisticated audiences, by using the term "ethnolinguistic" with the usage of all people(s) speaking one language.  This is redundant since this is the meaning of the terms "linguistic" or "language." Or it can even be deemed inaccurate, since this usage appears to ignore the "ethno" part, that is other non-lingusitic factors.

We use the term ethnolinguistic to mean a unique ethnic entity (people, people group, ethnicity) with their speech form, which is one prominent cultural or ethnic characteristic.

People Group Definition
You will find a discussion of factors involved in of the definition people groups in my paper What is a People Group?  My definitions have been cited or quoted on many mission web sites and in various publications.  Many websites have also requested to repost or use portions of my paper.

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
Dialects, Peoples and Cultural Change
Early Greek Ethnicity and Politics
Ethnicities and Names
Ethnicity in a Multi-cultural Society:  What is meant by "Hispanic" or "Latino" in the United States?
Germanic and Celtic
Hamyan Bedouin:  The Phantom People
Italians and Race
Italian and Caucasian
Language and Identity
Multi-Level Ethnicity:  Illustrating Different Views of the Same Ethnic Group at Different Levels
Race and Ethnicity
Scots, Irish and English
Vernaculars, Pidgins, Creoles and Lingua Francas
What is a People Group?


First written 25 November 2005 as a reply to an email query from another linguist
Finalized and posted on Thoughts and Resources 27 January 2006
Last updated 10 January 2013

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
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.

Email:  researchguy@iname.com
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