In an effort to restructure the process for starting new Wikipedia editions, it was proposed last week that a group of experts screen requests for new languages. The current system, which involves community debates of requests for new languages and sometimes the use of a test Wikipedia to demonstrate feasibility, has been a source of ongoing friction.
On Tuesday, Jimmy Wales proposed a new system for approving the launch of Wikipedia in new languages. The system would involve creating a committee of experts to give advisory opinions on whether a proposal involves "an actual language or merely a dialect." An outside body could be used if a suitable one is available, although existing standards such as ISO 639 and the Ethnologue have been used more as a starting point and are not widely accepted as definitive.
In his comments, Wales also outlined some principles for deciding what language editions would be appropriate. First of all, he said that editions should be encouraged "in all legitimate living natural languages". Wales indicated that it should be made easy for fluent and especially native speakers of such languages to get started.
Dialects and constructed languages would be governed by different principles, and Wikipedia editions for these would be generally discouraged (although not forbidden). Wales stated that he was concerned about these being advanced primarily for political reasons, as well as the potential for hoaxes.
The addition of new languages has been controversial for some time. Many recent requests to start a new Wikipedia language edition have been for archaic languages (such as Gothic and Old English) or for languages closely related to an existing Wikipedia language. Requests of the latter type tend to raise questions about whether the language is not really just a dialect, along with the argument that anyone speaking it is adequately served by Wikipedia already.
This tension arises in part because of Wikipedia's stated goal of distributing an encyclopedia to everyone "in their own language." A few languages remain without a Wikipedia, but most of the easy cases are in parts of the world with limited internet access. Thus even if the wiki has been created, in many cases nobody has stepped forward to help start writing Wikipedia content in the language. Wales did indicate that using Wikipedia to preserve language and culture was acceptable in situations where few native speakers exist, citing Cornish as an example.
At the same time, creating a Wikipedia edition to advance a particular linguistic agenda arguably violates the neutral point of view policy. For example, the existence of four separate Wikipedias for Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Serbo-Croatian has frequently been criticized. Reliance on ISO 639 codes resulted in the creation of separate editions, but the question of whether these are distinct languages is heavily politicized.
A special case is the Chinese Wikipedia, since as a spoken language Chinese has several varieties that are often mutually unintelligible, but these nevertheless largely share the same written form based on the grammar of the Mandarin variety. As a result, repeated requests to start a Cantonese Wikipedia have never been acted upon, and an existing Wikipedia in Min Nan has never been fully accepted. The situation is further complicated by concerns among Chinese Wikipedia community members about their project's relatively small size considering its potential population base, leading some to argue that splitting efforts into multiple Wikipedias is undesirable for the time being. Again, political implications come into play, and the PRC's ongoing block of Wikipedia access in mainland China (see archived stories) also exacerbates the problem.