The files and directories within a repository determine the languages that make up the repository. With GitHub, you can view a repository’s languages to get a quick overview of the repository. But how does this happen? What powers this repository language overview?

In this article I would:

Let’s Roll!

You might have noticed this section at the top of your GitHub repositories that gives you an overview of languages contained in the repository

Well, GitHub uses the open source Linguist library to determine file languages for syntax highlighting and repository statistics. Language statistics will update after you push changes to your default branch (which is usually master).

What is GitHub Linguist?

GitHub Linguist is a library is used on to detect blob languages, ignore binary or vendored files, suppress generated files in diffs, and generate language breakdown graphs. Source: GitHub Linguist Docs

Basically, Linguist is a library that runs on every GitHub repository. It checks every file and directory and detects the programming language used in that file.

How does Linguist work?

Linguist takes the list of languages it knows from languages.yml and uses a number of methods to try and determine the language used by each file, and the overall repository breakdown.

Linguist starts by going through all the files in a repository and excludes all files that it determines to be binary data, vendored code, generated code, documentation, or are defined as data (e.g. SQL) or prose (e.g. Markdown) languages, whilst taking into account any overrides.

The result of this analysis is used to produce the language stats bar which displays the languages percentages for the files in the repository. The percentages are calculated based on the bytes of code for each language as reported by the List Languages API.

How to fix common Linguist issues

Some files are hard to identify, and sometimes projects contain more library and vendor files than their primary code. If you’re receiving incorrect language analysis, then read below for common Linguist issues and how to fix them.

* My repository isn’t showing my language. :(

Linguist does not consider vendored code, generated code, documentation, or data (e.g. SQL) or prose (e.g. Markdown) languages (as defined by the type attribute in languages.yml) when calculating the repository language statistics.

If the language statistics bar is not showing your language at all, it could be for a few reasons:

  1. Linguist doesn’t know about your language.
  2. The extension you have chosen is not associated with your language in languages.yml e.g saving a JavaScript file as app.jss
  3. All the files in your repository are either vendored code, generated code or documentation (e.g. SQL, prose, Markdown…) Linguist excludes these files by default.

If Linguist doesn’t know about the language or the extension you’re using, consider contributing to Linguist by opening a pull request to add support for your language or extension.

You can also to tell Linguist to include your files in the language statistics by overidding it. (I’d explain how in a bit, read along)

* My repository is detected as a wrong language. ಠ_ಠ

If the language stats bar is reporting a language that you don’t expect:

  1. Click on the name of the language in the stats bar to see a list of the files that are identified as that language.
    Keep in mind this performs a search so the code search restrictions may result in files identified in the language statistics not appearing in the search results. Installing Linguist locally and running it from the command line will give you accurate results.
  2. If the files are misclassified, search for open issues on the Linguist Library to see if anyone else has already reported the issue.
  3. If no issue solves your problem, open an issue on Linguist and include a link to the repository or a sample of the code that is being misclassified.

Keep in mind that the repository language stats are only updated when you push changes, and the results are cached for the lifetime of your repository. If you have not made any changes to your repository in a while, you may find pushing another change will correct the stats.

A great way to fix this is using the manual override feature to correctly classify languages in your repository.

How to use gitattributes to overriding Linguist

Just as you can customize an override the default configurations of a gaming control pad, you can also use custom override strategies for language definitions and file paths in Linguist.

Basically, gitattributes is just a file used to command or tell Git to perform some specific tasks, sort of a way to tweaking it.

Here’s how to use the Linguist override feature

touch .gitattributes

When testing with a local installation of Linguist, take note that the added attributes will not take effect until the .gitattributes file is committed to your GitHub repository.

— Using linguist-language attribute to override language extensions

# .gitattributes file which reclassifies `.js` files as Java:

 *.js linguist-language=Java

— Using the linguist-vendored attribute to vendor or un-vendor paths

By default, Linguist treats all of the paths defined in vendor.yml as vendored and therefore doesn’t include them in the language statistics for a repository.

special-vendored-path/* linguist-vendored
 jquery.js linguist-vendored=false

— Using the linguist-documentation attribute to mark or unmark paths as documentation

project-docs/* linguist-documentation
 docs/formatter.rb linguist-documentation=false

— Using the linguist-generated attribute to mark or unmark paths as generated.

Not all plain text files are true source files. Generated files like minified JavaScript and compiled CoffeeScript can be detected and excluded from language stats.

Api.elm linguist-generated=true

— Using the linguist-detectable attribute to mark or unmark paths as detectable

Only programming languages are included in the language statistics. Languages of a different type (as defined in languages.yml) are not “detectable” causing them not to be included in the language statistics.

*.kicad_pcb linguist-detectable=true
 *.sch linguist-detectable=true
 tools/ linguist-detectable=false

Using Emacs or Vim modelines

If you do not want to use .gitattributes to override the syntax highlighting used on, you can use Vim or Emacs style modelines to set the language for a single file. Modelines can be placed anywhere within a file and are respected when determining how to syntax-highlight a file on


# Some examples of various styles:

 vim: syntax=java

 vim: set syntax=ruby:

 vim: set filetype=prolog:

 vim: set ft=cpp:


-*- mode: php; -*-

 -*- c++ -*-

How to contribute to GitHub Linguist

If you experience any issue with Linguist, a quick way to get help is by contributing via Pull Requests or Issues.

GitHub Linguist is an Open sourced library and can be found here

The contribution guide can also be found here


GitHub Linguist docs


Linguist defines the list of all languages known to GitHub in a yaml file. In order for a file to be highlighted, a language and lexer must be defined there.

Most languages are detected by their file extension. This is the fastest and most common situation.

Thank you for reading, cheers!