Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the WaPo Labs blog on February 28, 2012. For more posts on innovations in the tech sphere, check out our Technology section; for more posts from T.J. DeGroat, click here.
As a language-lover on a decade-long quest to become bilingual, I was shocked to read recently that about half of the 7,000 languages spoken on this flattening planet are expected to disappear by the end of the century. To put it another way, a language is lost every 14 days.
Not surprisingly, globalization is considered a major cause of this impending linguistic disaster, but other modern phenomena — notably digital technology and social media — are helping to document vanishing languages before it’s too late.
“We hear a lot about how globalization exerts negative pressures on small cultures to assimilate,” K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, told BBC News. “But a positive effect of globalization is that you can have a language that is spoken by only five or 50 people in one remote location, and now through digital technology that language can achieve a global voice and a global audience.”
Harrison has been working with the National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices project to produce “talking dictionaries” of eight endangered languages, with more in production. The series currently features 32,000 entries spoken by natives, many of whom are the languages’ last fluent speakers.
One of these dictionaries documents Matukar Panau, an Oceanic language from Papua New Guinea that’s spoken by about 600 people. Just three years ago, when the Enduring Voices team first began studying it, the language had never been recorded or written. Now, there are 3,035 audio files and 67 images in the Matukar Panau dictionary.
Margaret Noori, of the University of Michigan’s Native American studies program, runs a website dedicated to Ashininaabemowin, the native language of the Great Lakes’ Ojibwe people. She estimates that there are between 5,000 and 15,000 speakers of the language, 80 percent of whom are older than 65.
The language may not survive, Noori admits. But by turning to social media, she’s giving it a fighting chance. Twitter spreads the word about the language, Facebook offers an online space where Ashininaabemowin enthusiasts can come together, and YouTube is allowing the largely unknown language to be discovered by people all over the world.
It’s obvious how devastating the total loss of a language would be, culturally, for a community. But these biweekly linguistic deaths have wider repercussions.
As Harrison explains, “Everything that people know about the planet … is encoded in human cultures and languages, whereas only a tiny fraction of it is encoded in the scientific literature.” He went on: “If we care about sustainability and survival on the planet, we all benefit from having this knowledge base persevered.”