Have you ever heard of Southern Saami? How about Mikasuki? Ainu, anyone? Dahalo? If you aren’t a linguist or anthropologist, you might be forgiven for being unfamiliar with these languages. Sadly, according to the Google-backed Endangered Languages Project, they are all spoken by less than 1,000 people in communities being subsumed by the dominant language of their countries: Southern Saami has 600 speakers in central Sweden; Mikasuki speakers live mostly in the southern tip of the U.S. state of Florida; Ainu boasts only ten speakers, all on the island of Hokkaido in Japan; and Kenya’s coastal Dahalo language has less than 400 speakers.
Aggregating videos, language lessons, recordings, and other forms of media, the Endangered Languages Project is just one of the more visible multi-disciplinary endeavors attempting to use technology to save languages that are on the brink of extinction.
What makes a language endangered?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines an endangered language as being “endangered when its speakers cease to use it, use it in fewer and fewer domains, use fewer of its registers and speaking styles, and/or stop passing it on to the next generation.” This definition would not include Ancient Greek or Latin, as these languages live on in modern versions and regional-turned-national equivalents.
But languages such as Tasmanian, which was obliterated during the European conquest of Australia, and Manx, which died as a first language when the population finally succumbed to the pressure of English in the 1970s, were negatively affected by both external and internal forces, resulting in a loss of the language and its associated culture and traditions.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Linguistic Society of America (LSA), “much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language.” As language is a symbol of group identity, it reflects a community’s religious practices, poetry, intellectual works, humor, and ways of communicating. These are the types of things that become lost to history when languages die, asserts the LSA. The National Science Foundation, one of the organizers of the Rosetta Project language preservation effort, reports that at least “3,000 of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages are about to be lost.”
That’s a lot of culture and heritage on the brink of extinction.
It isn’t just the concerns of linguistics or anthropology that stand to be most affected when languages die. According to a recent article by Judith Thurman in The New Yorker magazine, “[t]he taxonomies of endangered languages often distinguish hundreds more types of flora and fauna than are known to Western science.” This means that our quest for medicinal cures, along with other essential scientific knowledge, is hampered by the loss of indigenous languages in the remote corners of countries such as Brazil, Nigeria, or Papua New Guinea.
But all is not lost.
Modern Hebrew is the most well-known success story of a language brought from the edge of non-liturgical disuse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to become the mother tongue of over four million people in Israel.
And resulting from a concerted effort among educators and politicians to revitalize it, Cornish — an ancient Celtic language originally spoken in the Cornwall region of southwestern England — went from being officially classified as extinct in the late-18th century to almost 600 native speakers today, as reported in the census records of the United Kingdom.
Many other attempts at linguistic revival are happening, with varying degrees of success. However, with communication now becoming easier through advances in technology and interconnectivity, endangered languages are becoming that much easier to save.
The future of communication
Established in 2012 by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity — a public-private consortium that includes Google Inc., the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the University of Hyderabad, the University of Arizona, the Endangered Language Alliance, and the Indigenous Language Institute, among other organizations around the world — the Endangered Languages Project posits technology in service of groups and individuals who are actively engaged in the documentation, preserving, and teaching of languages on the brink of extinction. Text, audio, and video files are hosted on the project’s website, while knowledge sharing is facilitated through Google Groups.
At the time of the project’s launch, Google project managers Clara Rivera Rodriguez and Jason Rissman wrote that “by bridging independent efforts from around the world, we hope to make an important advancement in confronting language endangerment.” Since its inception, the project has catalogued over 3,000 endangered languages, with almost 6,000 individual resources across various forms of institutional and user-uploaded media on the website, plus information and support for learning and teaching an endangered language.
The Rosetta Project — backed by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the National Science Digital Library, the Long Now Foundation, and the Stanford University Libraries — is building a handheld digital library of over 1,500 human languages called the Rosetta Disk, a “decoder ring” of sorts, according to the project’s website. Small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, the disk’s text is etched microscopically then electroformed in nickel, requiring a microscope of 650X to read the some 13,000 pages of information.
With a life expectancy of 2,000 to 10,000 years, according to its creators, the disk will most likely outlive the majority of the languages that it records, but that doesn’t deter its creators from trying to preserve a variety of linguistic artifacts: descriptions of speech, grammatical information, vocabulary lists, writing systems, transcribed oral narratives, and translations of texts such as the book of Genesis or the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
But more tangible linguistic revitalization is happening via smartphones and other mobile devices. In The New Yorker, William Brennan wrote that “[s]imply embedding endangered languages into the keyboards of smartphones will not save them. But, keeping these languages enmeshed in the fabric of daily life — which, particularly for the newer, younger speakers who are key to these languages’ survival, means being a viable way to communicate through technology — is the only way they will have even a slim hope of surviving.” With Nielsen Research reporting that 85% of “Generation Y” owns smartphones, it is certainly not just the embedding of the language, but the active usage of the apps and other features that will indeed keep these languages alive and thriving.
In Australia, the aboriginal language Marrithiyel, part of the larger Tyikim language group of the Northern Territory and spoken by less than 100 people, has a smartphone app and crowdsourcing software developed jointly by linguists from Charles Darwin University in Darwin and the Australian National University in Canberra.
Dr. Linda Ford, the research fellow at Charles Darwin University heading up the project, learned Marrithiyel from her mother: “One of the things that my mother had instructed my brothers and sisters was to make sure that our languages and culture were maintained at the level that she handed them on, before she passed away. Not just for the Tyikim people, but for all people, particularly the Australian people, so they know that there are other languages and cultures that exist in this country.”
Indeed, technology is not only helping to maintain linguistic diversity in today’s ever-connected world, but also securing a future for lesser-known cultures and traditions as well.