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How to Save an Endangered Language


This article originally appeared at Shareable.  

For a while now, scholars, the United Nations, and perhaps your grandmother have been worrying about the decline of languages. No, not the use of emoticons or the slackening of grammar rules, but the impending death of Romani, Cherokee, Yiddish, and thousands of other tongues.

With 7,000 different speech systems in the world, many nearly killed off with their native speakers, preservation is a beyond-enormous goal. It’s also time sensitive. Experts estimate that 3,054 to 3,176 languages are endangered: That’s 43 to 46 percent of all known languages on earth, in addition to the hundreds that are already extinct. But now, collaborative initiatives like the Rosetta Project illustrate that everyone—really, everyone—can pitch in.

Rosetta is part of the Long Now Foundation, an organization with its eye trained on a tiny speck so very far away, many of us can’t even picture it. The foundation believes that we should think of the future not in terms of decades or centuries, but in millennia: that our decisions should be informed by how the world might be in 10,000 years. Board members include musician Brian Eno and tech advocate Esther Dyson. They support the notion that if we think in huge units of time, our actions are more likely to be thoughtful, sustainable, and, well, without-a-doubt future-oriented. That same ethos applies to language sharing.

Several people-powered efforts come out of the foundation’s Rosetta Project (which is not related to the Rosetta Stone software, though that company does have an endangered languages program). One is called a Record-a-Thon. In this grassroots series of events, community members gather together to record the languages they know with basic equipment like phones and laptops. In another Rosetta endeavor, anyone with an internet connection can upload audio or text files to the organization’s website. A person can read aloud passages of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Swedish or in Tagalog, for instance, and help 30th-century linguists compare the same words across thousands of other submissions. The eventual result will be a modern version of the ancient Rosetta Stone—if, say, 2 million humans had contributed.

The project stores its updated trove at the Internet Archive for all to access. It also etches linguistic info in teensy letters onto durable metal disks whose texts can be read under a microscope, potentially for millennia to come. Other initiatives foster speech sharing, such as the Endangered Languages Project, the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, and the Endangered Language Fund, of which the esteemed linguist Noam Chomsky is a board member.

It will likely take years to gather every idiom, every inflection, every umlaut on earth. But, the idea goes, when folks in different towns contribute to a huge, collaborative effort, we can each share some useful knowledge. And by collectively preserving at-risk languages for future generations, we might even make your grandma happy.

Image by Hans Hillewaert, licensed under Creative Commons.