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Language Books Organized in 4 Easy Steps

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You already know if you have a lot of language books in your collection. The question is: how should they be organized?

This section, along with Religion, highlights the nineteenth-century worldview of Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System. I will explain how later. For now, just be assured that there is room in this classification scheme for any language, past or present.

Let’s get started.

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”

Gustave Flaubert
language books

Home Library Organization

People who love books often accumulate large collections. And it can be frustrating when you find yourself wanting to consult a particular book only to  waste a lot of time tracking it down. You’re pretty sure you still have it, but it’s lost among all the others. 

In an earlier post, I outlined the advantages of using the Dewey Decimal Classification system for organizing your nonfiction books. If you have a lot nonfiction print books in your collection, that’s the first step.

I also listed a few of the types of subjects that belong in the 400s (Language) section in the first article. The 400s hold books that talk about language as a topic unto itself; those that compare different languages; linguistics books; and reference works like dictionaries, grammar books, and usage books. 

If  more than 30 of your books belong in language, read on. This post will give you the guidance to further refine the placement of the language books in your collection.

Dewey Decimal Categories

The chart above covers the basic ten categories of the DDC. If you haven’t gone through your books to decide where they belong, you may want to look at my previous posand go through those steps to determine where your books fit into the main category first. Then come back here for more in depth information on the third category:  the 400s Language.

The 4-step process for home library organization

The four-step home organization process is covered in more detail in “Easy Home Library Organization Using the Dewey Decimal System.” But here, briefly, are the steps:

  1. Examine the chart above.
  2. Decide in which category each book belongs. 
  3. Make piles of books for each category.
  4. Decide where each category will be housed.

Very few personal collections contain books in every category. You may be surprised to find 90 percent of your books can be grouped into one specific section.

As I mentioned above, the language section’s classification scheme may be irritating for some readers. Perhaps most surprising thing to modern readers is that the majority of the classification numbers are devoted to languages of European origin.

I told in the post on religion books, about a heated conversation I witnessed in the early 1990s, between a fellow library science student and a library professor over a similar issue in religion books. The student was upset because over half the numbers are devoted specifically to Christian history, doctrine, scripture, and the like. From a global perspective, this is absurd. Roughly two-thirds of the world’s population identifies as non-Christian.

But the professor was equally upset that the student would not concede that it’s good there is a place in the system for every religion.  Her point that, even if all the other religions are crammed into the 290s it does not matter because they have a place. 

I could see both sides. Melvil Dewey created his system in the 1870s. As a male American librarian from that period in history, he had societal and personal biases. At the time, most of the Western world was Christian. His world-view was typically male and Western-culture dominant.  Dewey had no way of knowing how many subjects in his system, including religion, would gain or lose prominence, even in America and Europe.

While the system is tweaked periodically, some would argue it is in need of a complete overhaul, but the expense and staff-hours required for most public and school libraries to do so would be prohibitive. Another concern would be the idiosyncratic methods some libraries may use, making the system less consistent across institutions. Right now, someone who understands the Dewey system can walk into most any public or school library and find what they need. It would be much more difficult if libraries decide to each use a system of its own making. Change may come one day, but for now, I’ll merely describe it as it is.

Please Note:

If you are annoyed by this section of the system and would like to come up with your own, please feel free to. Your home collection is yours to do with as you’d like.

 But if you are simply wanting to get your books sorted in a primary fashion, this post should help you determine where to place your language books.

Below is a chart that further subdivides the Language category.

You may want to look over each subdivision and further divide your books accordingly. If you want to keep records of some sort of where your books are placed, you may want to read “Simple Record-Keeping for Your Home Library.” For instance, if you had 30 books marked as belonging in Language, you may now have 10 of those marked at 410, 5 as 420, 3 as 480, and 12 as 490.

Every book collection is different. The point is to narrow your collection down more specifically, so you will be able to locate the books effortlessly when you need to find one. 

language books

Language books in brief

I’ve included very brief descriptions of what goes into each category in language books. With the exception of English, which is well-represented here, I have linked to a lot of videos. I think the best way to get a feel for languages is to hear them spoken aloud. Also, sadly, award-winning books in specific languages can be harder to access than videos. So the recommended books in this post is quite slim at the moment. 

400 Language

woman speaking

Let me begin by saying that I am no language expert. I was a career librarian who has now been trained to edit manuscripts and websites, but learning new languages has never been easy for me and even English grammar (my native tongue) can be confusing sometimes.

words on sign

Books that belong in 400-409 are the general language books. Interdisciplinary works go here, as do international languages, lexicology (studies of words), and speech perception. Treatments of language with respect to ethnic and national groups go here and any books that cover language education and research. Think of this as the “language umbrella” category.

Some recommended books:

  • Unruly Words: A Study of Vague Language by Diana Raffaman and
  • The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

410 Linguistics


Linguistics is the scientific study of language. It aims to describe language as it actually is used, not as it should be used. So etymologies (the history of the word and its use) of standard forms of languages and the dictionaries of standard forms of languages go here, as do books on phonology (how language sounds in general). Morphology or the forms of words (think jeggings) belong in this subsection too. 

Comprehensive works on the “Indo-“ languages go here. You know–the Indo-European, Indo-Germanic, and Indo-Hittite languages. These are really old, root languages that many world languages spring from. Books on the philosophy and theory of these ancient languages and their writing systems go in linguistics.

This video gives a good overview of this broad topic.

Recommended books:

  • Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
  • Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky
  • American Sign Language: A Comprehensive Dictionary, unabridged edition (check) by Marin L. A. Sternberg first published in 1981. Check for the most recent edition.

I will break this category down in a later post.

420 English and Old English (Anglo-Saxon)

girl with English dictionary

So this section is all about the English language. The list  below covers any books published about the topics below. If they are say a book on English writing systems, it would go in the 420s. Every language group has books published on a least some of the topics in the list. A dictionary on the Navajo language would not go in the 420s, instead, it would go in the 490s. 

As indicated in the section heading,  Old English, the language that brought us Beowulf is also shelved in this section.

These topics are covered for each language are below:

430 German and related languages

The Germanic languages section covers the list of topics above for German (Old High German to 1100; Middle High German and Early New High German 1100-1500); Standard German; and other Germanic languages like Yiddish, the West Germanic languages of Frisian, Low German or Plattdeutsch, the North Germanic languages or Nordic languages, Scandinavian languages, both early and modern; Old Icelandic, Icelandic, Faroese, and East Germanic languages; Netherlandish languages including Afrikaans, Dutch and Flemish; and Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian languages.

My apologies to any offended German speakers, but this is too good to not share.

440 French and related Romance languages

This includes all the separate topics listed for English in the 420s. The languages shelved here are Old French to 1400; Middle French 1400-1600; Modern French; Occitan, Catalan, and Franco-Provencal.

450 Italian, Dalmatian, Romanian, Rhaetian, Sardinian, Corsican

As always, the topics listed under the 420s (English) are included here. The languages are Old Italian to 1300; Middle Italian 1300-1600; and Standard Italian usage. Dalmatian was spoken in the Dalmatia region of Croatia until the end of the nineteenth century. Rhaetian is spoken in Switzerland and parts of Northern Italy. Sardinia is a romance language dialect that is spoken in and around the island of Sardinia. Finally, Corsican is spoken on the island of Corsica and the surrounding area. 

460 Spanish, Portuguese, Galician

spanish language

Once again, every topic listed in 420 as applied to  Old Spanish to 1100; Middle Spanish 1100-1600; Standard Spanish; Galician; Old Portuguese to 1100; Middle Portuguese 1100-1600; pidgins, and creoles are shelved here. Galician is spoken mainly in the northwest corner of Spain. 

470 Latin and related Italic languages

classical latin

Topics listed under English in 420 applies here as well, but these relate to classical Latin and to Vulgar Latin, Old Latin (Pre-classical Latin).

480 Classical Greek and related Hellenic languages

All topics under 420 apply here as well. This section is for Classical Greek which flourished between 750 and 350 B.C.E., both pre-classical and postclassical Greek and Modern Greek.

490 Other languages

other languages

Take a deep breath.

We are about to dive into a very abbreviated list of every other language that has ever been spoken, signed, or written–on the entire planet.

Most specific language categories are listed here, though by no means all. A very few individual languages in some categories are also mentioned. But please be aware, that if a language was not included in 420-480, it has a place here.

So, first we have specific languages in east Indo-European and Celtic language families (Sanskrit, Iranian languages, Baltic, and modern Prakrit).

Modern Indo-Aryan languages like Sindhi and Lahnda, and Punjabi.

Russian and related east Slavic languages like Ukrainian and Belarusian.

Slavic languages like Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian.

Afro-Asiatic languages like Hebrew, Arabic and Maltese.

Non-Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages such as Egyptian, Coptic, Berber, and Cushitic.

Altaic, Uralic, Hyperborean, Dravidian languages like Karen, Tibetan, Burmese.

Languages of the east and southeast Asia like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai languages.

African languages such as Khoisan, Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Chari-Nile, etc.

North American native languages like Inuit, Algonquian, Uto-Aztecan, Siouan, Iroquoian, and the like.

South American native language like Chibchan, Paez, Aymaran, Jivaroan, Tupi, Carib, etc.

Non-Austronesian languages of Oceania, Austronesian languages, miscellaneous languages including Harrian, Basque, Elamite, Etruscan, Sumerian, Caucasic, Malagasy, and Polynesian languages.

That was a lot and does not even scratch the proverbial surface. I have hopes of one day doing a deep-dive post that will really explore in much more detail this final section. But hopefully, you at least have some sense of how to organize these books, if you have many of them!

Sit back and admire your organized shelves

cup with books

Once you have further subdivided your language books, be sure to update any spreadsheets or card catalogs you may have made for them. If you don’t know how, check out “Simple Record-Keeping for Your Home Library.” Part of the joy of having a system is that you will never need to worry about misplacing a beloved book again.

Now pour yourself a favorite beverage and enjoy your organized book collection.

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