SIL International (current name of the former Summer Institute of Linguistics) is a U.S.-based, worldwide non-profit organization, whose main purpose is to study, develop and document languages, especially those that are lesser-known, in order to expand linguistic knowledge, promote literacy and aid minority language development. SIL provides a database, Ethnologue, of its research into the world's languages. SIL has more than 6,000 members from over 50 countries.

SIL International is a partner organization of Wycliffe Bible Translators, an agency dedicated to translating the Bible into minority languages.


SIL International started as a small summer training session in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas in 1934 to train missionaries of what later became Wycliffe Bible Translators in basic linguistic, anthropological and translation principles. The founder was William Cameron Townsend (1896-1982), a former Disciples of Christ missionary to Guatemala. Its headquarters are located in the southern section of Dallas, Texas.

From the 1950s to 1987, SIL training was hosted by the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The agreement between the university and SIL was terminated in 1987 after a controversy about SIL being involved in missionary activities and its relationship with Latin American governments. SIL training is now offered in many locations around the world.

One of the students at the first summer institute in its second year 1935 was Kenneth Lee Pike (1912–2000), who was to become the foremost figure in the history of SIL. He served as SIL's president from 1942 to 1979, then as president emeritus until his death in 2000. He worked at the University of Michigan for many years. SIL's current president is Dr. John Watters, who took the office in 2008, after serving as executive director from 2000 to 2007.

Affiliated bodies and other offices

Besides the headquarters in Dallas, SIL has offices and locally incorporated affiliated organizations in several countries:[1]






SIL's principal contribution to linguistics has been the data that has been gathered and analysed from over 1,000 minority and endangered languages,[4] many of which had not been previously studied academically. SIL endeavors to share both the data and the results of analysis in order to contribute to the overall knowledge of language. This has resulted in publications on languages such as Hixkaryana and Pirahã which have challenged the universality of some linguistic theories. SIL's work has resulted in over 20,000 technical publications, all of which are listed in the SIL Bibliography.[5] Most of these are a reflection of linguistic fieldwork.[6]

SIL's focus has not been on the development of new linguistic theories, but tagmemics, though no longer promoted by SIL, was developed by Kenneth Pike, who also coined the words emic and etic, more widely used today in anthropology.

Another focus of SIL is literacy work, particularly in indigenous languages. SIL assists local, regional and national agencies that are developing formal and informal education in vernacular languages. These cooperative efforts enable new advances in the complex field of educational development in multilingual and multicultural societies.[7]

SIL provides instructors and instructional materials for linguistics programs at several major institutions of higher learning around the world. In the United States, these include Biola University, Moody Bible Institute, Houghton College, University of North Dakota, Bryan College, the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics and Dallas Theological Seminary. Other universities with SIL programmes include Trinity Western University in Canada, Charles Darwin University in Australia, and Universidad Ricardo Palma in Lima, Peru.

SIL also presents the fruits of some its research through the International Museum of Culture.[8] Located in Dallas, it was developed by linguists and anthropologists associated with SIL International for the purpose of celebrating peoples of diverse cultures in an effort to promote greater appreciation and understanding of cultural differences.

International recognition

SIL holds formal consultative status with UNESCO and United Nations, and has been publicly recognized by UNESCO for their work in many parts of Asia.[9] SIL also holds non-governmental organization status in many countries.

SIL's work has received appreciation and recognition in a number of international settings. In 1973, SIL was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding. This foundation honors outstanding individuals and organizations working in Asia who manifest greatness of spirit in service to the peoples of Asia.[10] Other notable examples include a UNESCO award and the 1979 International Reading Association Literacy Award for the literacy work in Papua New Guinea.[11]

Ethnologue and the SIL code

The Ethnologue, a guide to the world's languages, is published by SIL. It assigns three-letter codes to languages, which are widely used by other linguists. The 16th edition of the Ethnologue was published in 2009 and generally uses the ISO 639-3 standard. SIL is the registrar for the ISO 639-3 standard.


Missionary activities

At a conference of the Inter-American Indian Institute in Mérida, Yucatán, in November 1980, delegates denounced the Summer Institute of Linguistics for using a scientific name to conceal its religious agenda and capitalist view that was alien to indigenous traditions.[12]

In 1979, SIL's agreement with the Mexican government was officially terminated, but it continued to be active in that country.[13] The same happened in 1980 in Ecuador,[14] although a token presence remained. In the early 1990s, the newly-formed organisation of indigenous people of Ecuador CONAIE once more demanded the expulsion of SIL from the country.[15] By the 1980s, SIL was expelled from Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama, and restricted in Colombia and Peru.[16]

Today, according to SIL's annual report, it is funded by donations from individuals, churches, and other organizations, channeled to SIL by the Wycliffe Bible Translators.[17]



  • Bonner, Arthur: We Will Not Be Stopped: Evangelical Persecution, Catholicism, and Zapatismo in Chiapas, Mexico (Universal Publishers 1999), ISBN 1-58112-864-9.
  • Brend, Ruth Margaret, and Kenneth Lee Pike (eds.): The Summer Institute of Linguistics: Its Works and Contributions (Walter De Gruyter 1977), ISBN 90-279-3355-3.
  • Clarke, Colin: Class, Ethnicity, and Community in Southern Mexico: Oaxaca's Peasentries (Oxford University Press 2001), ISBN 0-19-823387-6.[1]
  • Cleary, Edward L., and Timothy J. Steigenga: Resurgent Voice in Latin America: Indigenous Peoples, Political Mobilization, and Religious Change (Rutgers University Press 2004), ISBN 0-8135-3461-5.
  • Cobbs, Elizabeth A. "Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil - book reviews" (Christian Century, Nov 1, 1995)[2]
  • Colby, Gerard, and Charlotte Dennett: Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil (Harper Collins 1995), ISBN 0-06-016764-5. This book contains allegations of Rockefeller's use of American missionaries, and in particular, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, who cooperated in conducting surveys, transporting CIA agents and indirectly assisting in the genocide of tribes in the Amazon basin.
  • Erard, Michael: How Linguists and Missionaries Share a Bible of 6,912 Languages. In: New York Times, July 19, 2005.
  • Gow, Peter: An Amazonian Myth and Its History (Oxford University Press 2001), ISBN 0-19-924195-3 / ISBN 0-19-924196-1.
  • Hart, Laurie K.: "The Story of the Wycliffe Translators: Pacifying the Last Frontiers". In: NACLA's Latin America & Empire Report, vol. VII, no. 10 (1973). This article describes SIL's collaboration with US oil corporations and military governments in South America in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Hvalkof, Soren, and Peter Aaby (eds.): Is God an American? An Anthropological Perspective on the Missionary Work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (A Survival International Document, International Workgroup for Indigenous Affairs, Copenhagen/London 1981), ISBN 87-980717-2-6.
  • Lewis, Norman: The Missionaries (London, Secker and Warburg 1988; McGraw-Hill Companies 1989), ISBN 0-07-037613-1.
  • Mantilla, Castro, and Maria Dolores: El Trabajo del ILV en Bolivia, 1954—1980, Informe Final (The Work of SIL in Bolivia, 1954-1980, Final Report; La Paz, Ministerio de Desarollo Humano 1996). This report in Spanish contains a detailed chart of SIL activities in Latin American countries.
  • Orlandi, Eni Pucinelli: Sprache, Glaube, Macht: "Ethik und Sprachenpolitik / Language, Faith, Power: Ethics and Language Policy", in: Brigitte Schlieben-Lange (ed.): Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik 116, Katechese, Sprache, Schrift (University of Siegen / J.B. Metzler 1999) The author presents a discourse analysis of the practices of SIL.
  • Perkins, John: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Plume Publishers 2006), ISBN 0-452-28708-1. Contains several references to SIL missionary activities and displacement of indigenous peoples in South America.
  • Pettifer, Richard, and Julian Bradley: Missionaries (BBC Publications 1991), ISBN 0-563-20702-7.
  • Stoll, David: Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? The Wycliffe Bible Translators in Latin America. A US Evangelical Mission in the Third World (London, Zed Press 1983), ISBN 0-86232-111-5. Criticism of SIL missionary activities.
  • Willibrand, W. A: Oklahoma Indians and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (1953).
  • Yashar, Deborah J.: Contesting Citizenship In Latin America. The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Postliberal Challenge (Cambridge University Press 2005), ISBN 0-521-82746-9.

See also

External links

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