We currently have 6,000 languages in active use across the world; by 2050 we will have lost half of them.  Peter K. Austin, in — One Thousand Languages — takes us on a multicultural tour of the most interesting remaining languages.

Not every writing effort is magnificently rewarded.

Witness one review of the book on Amazon.com:

The real problem I have with the book, though, comes down to accuracy
and editing. I don’t know to what extent Prof. Austin supervised the
entirety of the book, but I was very disappointed with lack of
fact-checking and some egregious omissions. For example, some (but
sadly, not all) of the languages include a small inset with the numbers
from one to ten in that language.

For the section on Arabic, one of the
eleven “world languages” given their own section, the Arabic script is
not only backwards (read from left to right) but each letter is left
unconnected to others in the word. Arabic is NEVER written this way,
and there are 200+ million people in the world who could have corrected
this. Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, has 20 million speakers,
not 10 million (as the book claims). The Russian word for “one” (in
counting) is raz, not odin (in Cyrillic, of course). Et cetera.

In addition, most of the later languages in the book (ie, the
non-“world” languages) get short shrift. Languages are presented
individually as rather random collections of facts, with no real
consistency in how each language is described (eg, sample
words/phrases, grammar, geographical spread, linguistic history) – it’s
a crapshoot for any given language. Some of this is probably due to
lack of knowledge, but it would have been nice, for example, to have
the numbers from 1-10 for each language, just to get a feel for it.

How many people would blindly accept what is printed in the book without questioning the content or the intention?

The fact that one reviewer took major issue with the accuracy of the book proves just how important feedback and consideration is in the writing and editing process. 

My philosophy as an author and publisher is — “more eyes on the page, more errors caught” — and Peter K. Austin, it appears, was not only snared, but also impaled by his lack of extra eyes.


  1. Hi David,
    The book sounds very interesting but an incorrect fact probably ruined the entire effort.
    I agree more eyes mean more filter, the author should have been careful.

  2. I wonder how many people were involved with fact checking and editing the book. If Al Franken gets a team of fact checkers, this author surely should have had one as well.

  3. That’s the risk in such a project, Katha. One, big, glaring error can ruin the entire effort. It’s unfortunate because the idea of the book is grand.

  4. Publishing is rapidly changing industry, Gordon. Instead of having in-house teams that worry a book from start to finish, lots of the work is farmed out to freelancers. That means there’s a loss of directionality if you aren’t careful and mistakes happen that don’t get caught until after publication.

  5. You’re right, Nicola, that one little slip appears to have marred an entire effort — but the mistakes were so basic, it throws everything else into question.

  6. I am curious – did they include sign language at all ? It would have been great if they had included a picture of someone signing on the front cover as well.

  7. That’s a good question about ASL, Nicola. I’m still waiting for the book to arrive. It is definitely a language worth covering. It would be great to see hands on that cover, too!

  8. My thanks for all your comments — there are a number of other errors that were introduced between final proof-reading and printing due to font substitution problems with the printers. These were totally beyond my control as editor and came about due to the production process. They are incredibly regrettable and I hope that when the book goes to a second edition we can pick them all up (all were fixed in the German translation which is to appear in June, published by Springer Verlag).
    Sign languages were not included in the book due to the way the original authors’ brief was written — next edition will definitely include them (and not just ASL but endangered sign languages of Africa and Asia that are themselves threatened by ASL and other western sign languages).
    If you email suggestions for improvements to me I will attempt to include them in the second edition (pa2 AT soas.ac.uk).
    Best wishes,
    Peter K. Austin

  9. Hi Peter!
    You’re a brave man to step up and post a comment here! Fantastic! We have tremendous admiration for your guts and your work ethic. Thank you!
    We also thank you for sharing the perils of publication.
    I wrote four books in the last year that contractually required the Copyright to be in my name and, though ineptitude — or cruelty — on the publisher’s side, two of the books were published without the Copyright in my name. That sort of error is difficult to abide and it can perniciously ruin your good mood every single day, but it is our job as authors to recant the negativity and move on to the next project.
    Please keep us updated on the second edition — we’ve loved to review it here for you — and all the other projects you are working on for we are ready and willing to celebrate you.
    The Sign Language sections will prove to be particularly fascinating.

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