How to Save an Endangered Language

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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.

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