Like many web users, I’m a frequent user of the variously reliable wonders of wikipedia (not least as a topic for blog posts). Or rather, I’m a frequent user of the English version. For there are a quite astonishing number of wikipedias in other languages that are, by definition, opaque not only to myself but to most English-speaking users of the web: 253 at the time of typing, ranging from Afrikaans to Zulu via Kashubian. And because most wikipedias are generated from scratch, they represent an intriguingly autonomyous, if overlapping, compendium of web worldviews.
As you might expect, the oldest and largest wikipedia is the English language one—founded on the 15th January 2001, it reached the two million articles mark in September 2007, although its share of total articles is down 3% on last year. The German and French editions come next with, respectively, 660,000 and 580,000; then you move on to Polish (440,000), Japanese (430,000), Dutch (370,000), Italian (370,000), Portuguese (340,000), Spanish (300,000) and Swedish (260,000). And then you’re below a quarter of a million, in the realms of Russian, Mandarin, Finnish and Norwegian.
But what of the smallest wikis? According to wikipedia’s language proposal policy, the central criterion is that there should be “enough speakers to form a viable community and audience” for a language that is “sufficiently unique” not to be a dialect: conditions which permit the existence of Old Church Slavonic (304), Greenlandic (61) and even Muscogee (2) versions. Klingon, lamentably, has been stripped of its wikipedia rights; but you can read over 90,000 articles in Esperanto. And for those who don’t get enough of a certain kind of silliness in Private Eye, the Latin wikipedia contains no less than 16,500 accounts of great and good figures including Rupertus Murdoch, Antonius Blair and Georgius Orwell.
It’s impressive stuff—and a statistical lesson in the information gap between wealthy, wired cultures and those in which literacy and basic freedoms, let alone internet access, are the province of a tiny minority. In fact, the smaller wikis—when they’re not being constructed by crazed translation robots, like the bizarrely huge and useless Volapük one—are almost always the work of an enlightened few, often in the US and Europe, hoping to create a resource that will be widely used in a more inclusive future. It’s a Reithian project; but one that may just be utopian enough to work.