Scandal: linguistics used horribly wrong in evaluation of immigrant/fugitive's stories


Ethnologue is a catalog of the worlds languages with information on their genealogical relationship, number of speakers and some more demographic information. It's by SIL, the holders of the ISO-codes for language names. Ethnologue is usually the first go-to source for anyone wanting to know number of speakers and family relations and ISO-codes, both linguists and non-linguists use it frequently. (You can also use Glottolog, which often has better genealogical trees, division of languages and A LOT of bibliographical data, but no info on number of speakers or all countries the language is spoken in.)

Basically, governments have been misusing Ethnologue by using it as the ultimate source on who speaks what where. 

In one case, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service used the fact that the Ethnologue had no listing for a language by the name a defendant was using for it, as evidence that the language didn't exist and therefore drew the conclusion that the defendant's case was entirely fabricated. In the more recent case, a person's request for asylum in another country was opposed on the grounds that there was no Ethnologue listing for the language he speaks in the country that he was fleeing from. Though in neither case was the language of the speaker the central issue, the discrepancies between a person's claims and the data reported by the Ethnologue were used as evidence to undermine the defendant's credibility. 
[...]
it would be a misuse of the Ethnologue to base a legal decision solely on something the Ethnologue says or especially, on what the Ethnologue doesn't say. We have a high degree of confidence that the Ethnologue has the best word on the state of the world's languages, but we are equally certain that we'll never have the last word.

Speakers move around, the immigrate to new places and they have a hundred names for their languages and a different division of varieties into languages than linguists sometimes might have. Using Ethnologue like this is extremely stupid and dangerous. I am really glad Lewis made this post, hopefully it will spread and immigration services all over the world will think twice before making any lazy, stupid, ignorant and dangerous errors like this again. 

I am in general very sceptical to linguistics being used in evaluation of stories of fugitives and immigrants, I know the arguments for and I understand that it might work at times but there are just so many stories of it going horribly wrong that I can't imagine why it would be worth it.

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