Laura Spinney in More Intelligent Life:
In 1963 Barbara and Joseph Grimes sat down with their Huichol neighbours to discuss what to do about the bandits terrorising their remote community. It was clear to everyone that the Grimes themselves were the problem. Seeing Americans living there, at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, the bandits assumed the community was rich. The Grimes recognised that it would be best for everyone if they left.
So ended a productive decade for the couple. As young newlyweds in 1952, they had gone to live among the Huichol in the Mexican state of Nayarit, far from shops, roads, electricity and comforts of modern civilisation. Joseph had produced a dictionary of the Huichol language and started work on a translation of the New Testament, and Barbara had brought three children into the world.
But the Grimes soon found a new outlet for their energy. Back in America, Richard Pittman of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), the Protestant missionary organisation that had sent the couple to Mexico, recruited them to his pet project. The mission of SIL, now SIL International, is to research and document languages in order to translate the Bible into as many of them as possible. In 1951 Pittman had started interviewing missionaries and linguists about the languages that were spoken in the parts of the world where they worked. The result was a language catalogue called Ethnologue, the first mimeographed edition of which ran to ten pages. The Grimes threw themselves into the project, and Ethnologue grew and grew. By the time Barbara took over as editor in 1974, the next step seemed logical, if daunting. “I made the decision to try to include all the countries and languages of the world,” she told me over the phone from Hawaii, where she and Joseph live now that they are retired.
As is often the case, the true value of Pittman’s idea, and Barbara Grimes’s contribution to it, only became clear much later. In 1951 nobody anticipated the death of languages, explains Paul Lewis, Ethnologue’s current editor. Like old sailors, languages were just thought to live on and on. Now we know that’s not true.