SIL describes itself thus: “SIL International is a non-profit, scientific educational organization of Christian volunteers that specializes in serving the lesser-known language communities of the world. Its members live among the people of these communities while seeking to understand their cultures and learn their languages. SIL specializes in the application of linguistic research to the literacy and translation needs of the minority language community. In partnership with these communities, SIL helps to develop in them the skills and capacity to preserve their cultures and languages in a way that serves the people best.”
The origins of the organization go back to 1934, when the linguist William Cameron Townsend started a summer training program from a farm in Arkansas. From 1941 to 1987, after impressing a professor, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (as it became known), cooperated with the University in Norman, Oklahoma and held its sessions there. The course was a step on from what Townsend had been doing earlier: without formal training as a linguist, he would live in a village, learn the people’s language, develop an alphabet, start an education program and eventually translate the New Testament.
Now, SIL International is recognized as a significant contributor in major areas related to linguistics, notably literacy, sociolinguistics, anthropology and translation. SIL publishes the Ethnologue, a large and frequently updated database of information about the world’s languages, available on the web.
As part of the commitment to minority and previously unwritten languages, SIL volunteers have created fonts to represent languages that need special symbols for their phonetics, and those whose scripts have complex behaviour. The former task involves creating extensions to the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). The latter is responsible for SIL’s development of an advanced typographic layout engine known as Graphite.