20-26 December 2013 #686

The internet’s rescue act

Skype, YouTube, and WordPress connect and preserve language diversity around the world
Mark Turin

South Asia within the UNESCO Map of the World’s Languages in Danger
No one should be too surprised to overhear an endangered language spoken in the heart of Manhattan. New York City is home to more than 800 languages, more than a 10th of the world’s total number of speech forms, the most linguistically diverse urban settlement on earth. The clicks and tones that a yellow cab driver just used on the phone to his cousin may well have been in a language that is endangered because their speakers have ceased to use them or are simply dying.

There is now cause for hope. While the dispersal of speech communities across the globe has led to the demise of some languages, technology popularised by globalisation is playing an equally important role in their revitalisation. Through the internet and mobile communications, people are reconnecting with fellow speakers using digital tools to revive languages on the endangered list.

Of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages, up to half will no longer be in regular use by the end of this century. Grizelda Kristina, the last surviving native speaker of Livonian, a Uralic language, died in June 2013.

With the death of its last fluent speaker, the Bo language, one of the 10 Great Andamanese languages, became extinct in January 2010. Boa Sr had lived on the Andaman Islands her whole life, surviving not only the devastating tsunami of 2004 by climbing a tree, but enduring many waves of foreign invasion and disease that preceded it. Her language was of great antiquity and contributed to our understanding of humanity’s linguistic heritage.

From 2005, Boa Sr worked with Anvita Abbi, professor of linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, to document not only her language but also the cultural, historical, and ecological knowledge that it relayed. While Boa Sr’s passing marked the loss of another speech form, a comprehensive archive of digitised audio, visual, and textual documents is now available for future generations.

Map of endangered languages within Nepal, including Kusunda.
Kusunda is one of more than 130 languages indigenous to Nepal. A language isolate, unrelated to any other known human speech form, Kusunda was until recently believed to be extinct. In 2004, members of the Department of Linguistics at Tribhuvan University made contact with a fluent speaker of Kusunda, resulting in the first grammatical description of this unique language. While effectively moribund, with little chance of becoming a popular vernacular again, the typologically distinct Kusunda language has now been carefully documented, even if its communicative power and the cultural world in which it thrived are lost for good.

It’s easy to forget that most of the world’s languages are still transmitted orally with no widely established written form. While speech communities are increasingly involved in projects to protect their languages – in print, on air, and online – orality is fragile and contributes to linguistic vulnerability. But indigenous languages are about much more than unusual words and intriguing grammar: they function as vehicles for the transmission of cultural traditions, environmental understandings, and knowledge about medicinal plants, all at risk when elders die and livelihoods are disrupted.

STILL HERE: Kamala Khatri is one of the last remaining fluent speakers of Kusunda language, which was until recently believed to be extinct.
Many speakers of endangered, poorly documented languages have embraced new digital media with excitement. Speakers of previously exclusively oral tongues are turning to the web as a virtual space for languages to live on. The internet offers powerful ways for oral traditions and cultural practices to survive, even thrive, among increasingly mobile communities.

Videos of traditional wedding ceremonies and songs are recorded on smartphones in London by Nepali migrants, then uploaded to YouTube and watched an hour later by relatives in remote Himalayan villages connected to the internet. Similarly, Skype and WeChat are powerful technologies that help sustain increasingly dispersed communities of speakers living across different time zones.

Community-based language documentation projects are increasingly bridging the digital divide by prioritising field-based audio-visual recordings and interviews with elders who still have fluency in the language, building online archives that protect cultural patrimony and establishing local cultural museums.

Effective managers of community documentation projects now worry as much about securing the right domain name and handle for their presence on YouTube, Twitter, Kickstarter, and Facebook as they do about traditional fundraising. Earlier editions of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger were available only in print – expensive to produce, difficult to disseminate, and quickly out of date.

UNESCO’s most recent atlas offers an online, interactive interface that allows users to contribute comments and suggest amendments, an example of effective crowd cataloging. In such cases, digital technology sustains conversation and facilitates wider participation, inviting contributions from community members and language speakers themselves.

Globalisation is regularly, and often uncritically, pilloried as a major threat to linguistic diversity. But in fact, globalisation is as much process as it is ideology, certainly when it comes to language. The real forces behind cultural homogenisation are unbending beliefs, exchanged through a globalised delivery system, reinforced by the historical monolingualism prevalent in much of the West.

Monolingualism – the condition of being able to speak only one language – is regularly accompanied by a deep-seated conviction in the value of that language over all others. Monolingualism, then, not globalisation, should be our primary concern.

For the last 5,000 years, the rise and fall of languages were intimately tied to the plough, sword, and book. In our digital age, the keyboard, screen and web will play a decisive role in shaping the future linguistic diversity of our species.


Mark Turin is a linguist, anthropologist, and broadcaster who directs the Yale Himalaya Initiative and the Digital Himalaya Project.


Read also:

Mind your languages

Speaking in tongues