Project creates ark for world’s dying languages

By AAP with Delana Carbone 22 February 2012
Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page
Recordings of indigenous languages on the point of extinction are being gathered into an online database.

AN ARK FOR ENDANGERED LANGUAGES has been set up on the Internet in a bid to save thousands of ancient tongues from extinction. The same project has flagged up Northern Australia as a hotspot of dying languages.

Eight new “talking dictionaries” have been unveiled by linguists who journeyed to some of most remote corners of the world in search of vanishing languages. Though no Australian languages are yet included, many face a dire future.

These talking dictionaries – of eight languages – feature more than 32,000 written words 24,000 audio recordings of native speakers pronouncing words and sentences, as well as photos of cultural objects.

Of the nearly 7000 tongues spoken on Earth today, more than half may be gone by the end of the century. In Australia alone, of 250 or more languages spoken at the time of European settlement, only 20 remain in use today.

Forgotten languages

The talking dictionaries initiative from National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices project is an attempt to prevent these ancient languages being forgotten. In some cases, it is the first time a language has been recorded or written down anywhere.

Dr David Harrison, from Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, USA, one of the linguists creating the dictionaries, said: “Endangered language communities are adopting digital technology to aid their survival and to make their voices heard around the world. This is a positive effect of globalisation.”

David visited language “hotspots” around the world with colleague Dr Gregory Anderson, president of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon, US. In 2010 the team provided the first documentation of a language known as Koro spoken by only a few hundred people in north-eastern India.

Talking dictionary

Alfred “Bud” Lane, one of the last fluent speakers of a Native American language called Siletz Dee-in from Oregon, said: “The talking dictionary is and will be one of the best resources we have in our struggle to keep Siletz alive.”

Other dictionaries feature Matukar Panau, an Oceanic language from Papua New Guinea which has only 600 speakers. Before the Enduring Voices team began studying it three years ago, the language had never been recorded or written. The Matukar Panau dictionary contains 3045 entries, 3035 audio files, and 67 images.

Even though they had never experienced the internet, the Matukar Panau community asked for their language to be placed on the web. They finally saw and heard their language online when computers arrived in their village last year.

Other endangered languages include Chamacoco, from Paraguay’s remote northern desert; Muniche from Peru; Remo, Sora, and Ho, from India; and Tuvan, from Siberia. The ninth dictionary is dedicated to Celtic tongues. More are now in production, say the linguists.

Aboriginal tongues threatened

Some Australian experts have argued that the talking dictionaries project isn’t doing anything very new in putting electronic dictionaries of endangered languages online, but have commended it for drawing public attention to the problem of languages facing extinction.

“I think it’s great that the problem of language endangerment in getting attention in the mainstream media,” says linguist James McElvenny formerly at the University of Sydney. “It is important to raise awareness of the problem and mobilise public interest.”

The Enduring Voices project is a partnership between the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Aside from the talking dictionaries it has also identified 18 “Language Hostspots” around the world were native tongues face the most dire threats.

In Australia, a large swathe of the Top End has been identified as a hotspot. Here the researchers recorded snippets from the three last surviving speakers of Magati Ke from Wadeye in the NT, as well as one of the last speakers of Amurdak from Western Arnhem Land. The team also recorded a woman from Sunday Island in WA, who said she spoke a version of the Bardi language, but was in fact the last speaker of a language called Djawi.

Northern Australia language hotspot

Aidan Wilson a linguist at the University of Melbourne says that, according to new estimates, “there were originally somewhere around 363 languages in [mainland] Australia, and most are no longer spoken. The north is where most of the remaining languages are still spoken, but only because European settlement took longer to get out there. So the language loss process hasn’t stopped, it’s just been slower to take effect there.”

“The Top End represents the most diverse [group of] languages in Australia, and is one of the most linguistically diverse regions on the planet,” he says. “So language loss up here is a devastating loss for humanity.”

The problem is more widespread than just the Top End, however. “Pretty much all Australian languages, through a combination of social pressures and bad government policy, are endangered,” says James. “There have been a number of projects in the past couple of years that have tried to take advantage of modern technology to help Australian languages.

James started an Australian project with Aidan in 2008 called ‘Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries’ which attempted to deploy dictionaries for dying languages on mobile smartphones to Aboriginal communities. Find more details here.