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Google Launches Endangered Languages Project 194

Posted by timothy
from the quickly-growling-klingon-community dept.
redletterdave writes "About half of all of the languages in the world — more than 3,000 of them — are currently on the verge of extinction. Google hopes to stem the tide with its latest effort that launched Thursday, called The Endangered Languages Project. Google teamed up with the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, a newly formed coalition of global language groups and associations, to give endangered-language speakers and their supporters a place to upload and share their research and collaborations. The site currently features posts submitted by the Endangered Languages community, including linguistic fieldwork, projects, audio interviews, and transcriptions."
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Google Launches Endangered Languages Project

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  • by Johann Lau (1040920) on Thursday June 21, 2012 @05:38PM (#40404259) Homepage Journal

    .. kudos.

    • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Thursday June 21, 2012 @05:46PM (#40404367)

      I'd rather see one universal language, or maybe a dozen (one from each family). Using Europe/the Mideast/North Africa as example:

      They were much better off when they spoke 2 common tongues (Roman and Greek) and could communicate with one another easily, then one thousand years later when they split-up into a bunch of incomprehensible tongues.

      • It's important to preserve all the languages we can outside of being able to use it as a form of communication...it enables us to study the evolution of language, which is obviously always changing. It enables us to still be able to fully examine the works of those languages in their native tongue, there are dozens of different translations of The Iliad, for instance, that we would not have if not for people studying Ancient Greek in depth. Those stories are immensely important scholastically, historicall

    • I'm sure their research has shown that people respond better to advertising in their native tongues, or some equally self-serving privacy intrusion that's best wrapped in a facade of socio-linguistic altruism.

      How do you say "Big Brother is Watching" in Assyrian?

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday June 21, 2012 @05:40PM (#40404275) Journal
    I can entirely understand why linguists value having as many different language samples to work with as possible, and I am similarly aware that active campaigns against various languages have usually closely accompanied active campaigns against their speakers(anything from harassment and discrimination up to and including wholesale slaughter). However, there is also a lot of language homogenization that occurs quite peacefully, with kids wanting to watch TV or speakers of some fairly obscure tongue looking for access to opportunities, culture, and company in more common languages.

    Given the value of language in communication between people, and the rather dubious history of the various things that make messy tribalism even easier than it already is, is this 'Linguistic Diversity' stuff actually a good thing(beyond the relatively narrow; although certainly important, value as a research sample for linguists and as a useful rallying point for resistance to other flavors of attack on relatively powerless groups)?
    • by sventech (2667577) on Thursday June 21, 2012 @06:10PM (#40404645)
      Culture and language are closely tied. Words used to translate between languages are not fully equivalent. When a language is lost, the culture, literature (written or oral), and worldview of that tribe is also lost. The unique qualities of each language teach us about humanity as a whole as we discover the relative weighting of their values. From a social standpoint, people eventually want to know about their ancestral tongue in the same way that adopted kids want to know who their parents were. Having a sense of place is key to being successful as a tribe, and is often a rallying cry. The things that support tribalism also support community -- propinquity is a basis for successful society, because it provides certain checks and balances, even though it keeps out some new ideas that would help. When people share a language they have a powerful tool to maintain shared values.
    • Given the value of language in communication between people, and the rather dubious history of the various things that make messy tribalism even easier than it already is, is this 'Linguistic Diversity' stuff actually a good thing(beyond the relatively narrow; although certainly important, value as a research sample for linguists and as a useful rallying point for resistance to other flavors of attack on relatively powerless groups)?

      If you don't have anyone who understands the language, you don't have anyon

    • by godrik (1287354)

      I believe this question is actually very interesting. And I do not have a full answer to it. My mother-tongue is french and I live in the US now; so I speak english fluently. I also know some spanish and some korean.

      I believe that there is a very tight relation between how we speak and how think. There are concept that are more easily expressed in a language than in an other one. It helps bridging notion together that would not be otherwise. I believe languages greatly contribute to "mental imagery". I beli

    • by jittles (1613415)
      I'm sure there is an archeological advantage to keeping references to these old and obscure languages laying around. Maybe some day you'll find old writing that is related to these languages? Who knows. Might as well hang on to the knowledge we have.
    • I am a linguist and sort of agree with you. From the point of view of my discipline, it hurts me to know how fast languages die (= last speaker dies) and that even with optimal funding the linguist community will not be able to keep up with cataloguing all nearly extinct languages. First of all, since most languages do not have a writing system, when a language dies often a whole collection of stories and tales dies with it, too. Second, from a more theoretical perspective, it is kind of sad that problemati

    • by idji (984038)
      Yes, it is a good because it is about saving linguistic "DNA" before languages go extinct. There is a lot of language, herbal, anthropological, cultural, historical info that is stored in languages. classic case is that tribal languages have vast amounts of plant medicine knowledge. Also it is quite amazing how one tiny language with 30 speakers can unravel some puzzling linguistic problem. Sort of roughly in parallel to DNA research on tiny nemotodes can reveal a lot of useful genomic knowledge about "high
  • by jlv (5619) on Thursday June 21, 2012 @05:42PM (#40404321) Homepage

    Save ALGOL68 before it's too late!

    • by jensend (71114)

      Google announced their initiative to save Algol 68 a couple years ago: they revised it a little and called it Go [cowlark.com], in hopes that it would thereby become the Next Big Thing in software development.

  • Can I upload the language that I created to talk to my invisible best friend when I was 6 years old?

  • The goal of language is communication, but multiple languages greatly hinder this.
    Can someone give me a good reason for language diversity?
    • I'm more than a bit skeptical myself(and, frankly, suspect some of the 'language diversity' types of basically just wanting to keep the natives from doing the same boring stuff we do so that we can continue to gawk at them); but there is also a major historical... sore point... that makes talk about not preserving languages a bit troublesome.

      Yes, there are the utopian esperantists and various outcroppings here and there of "Oh, we could have peace if only we could understand one another!" flavored optimi
      • Re:Hm... (Score:5, Informative)

        by wanderfowl (2534492) on Thursday June 21, 2012 @06:54PM (#40405171)

        As a linguist myself (working with a few different revitalization projects), you can think about linguistic diversity as being like biodiversity: Examining the differences across many different, unrelated (or nearly so) languages gives better insight into Language (with a capital L) on the whole. Sure, losing an individual language doesn't destroy everything, but each language that's lost is one less (incredibly rich) datapoint which can be used to better understand how people do language, and what other ways things can be done.

        For instance, in Wichita, a language which may or may not be dead based on the health of its last few speakers, one could express "the buffalo ran up and down the village several times while scaring people" using a single, very long, very complex word. There are other languages which act like this ("polysynthetic languages"), but Wichita is really, frighteningly good at it. Don't you think that it'd be fascinating to do some MRI studies to see how Wichita people are parsing words, compared to speakers of, say, Mandarin Chinese, which isolate nearly every concept, grammatical or otherwise, into single words?

        In addition, as other people have pointed out, when you lose the language, you lose the culture very easily (and vice versa). Even if you're not interested in the specifics of how language works in the mind (or just in general), understanding different cultural approaches to the world provides more information on the human condition. If your culture doesn't permit or believe in the idea of "selling land", that's interesting data, and food for thought for most other cultures.

        In short, practically, in terms of trade or war or politics, there's little reason to have a group of 50,000 people speaking three languages rather than one. But if you're interested in how human language, culture, and cognition works, that diversity and those comparisons offer data that a homogenous group would not.

        • Anyway, even if one would impose one universal language on the whole population of the earth, it would probably fragment into dialects and finally multiple mutually unintelligible languages within 2 or 3 generations.
        • This is a very interesting point, thank you for your response. :)
      • Let's not forget sayings like "If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read it in English, thank a soldier". Even if the imperialist project wasn't successful, language imposition is taken as a symbol of it.

  • by Cyberax (705495) on Thursday June 21, 2012 @05:51PM (#40404433)
    One of the languages I know (Udmurt) is in the list :(

    It'd be nice to preserve it, but even I don't see that much value in it.
    • by Twinbee (767046)
      Is that your primary language?
      • by Cyberax (705495)
        Certainly not, I haven't spoken it for ages. I don't think there are many people out there who have Udmurt as a primary language.

        The total number of speakers is probably around 100-200 thousands, and all of them know Russian as well.
        • Certainly not, I haven't spoken it for ages. I don't think there are many people out there who have Udmurt as a primary language.

          So, you know Udmurt and Russian, and you're obviously fluent in English too - can you give us a sense of the relative utility of the languages?

          Most of us have only learned 1+ languages that are already very successful (at least 10's of millions of speakers each), so the selection bias is towards all of them seeming 'good enough' for daily usage.

          I find myself wondering why these p

          • by Cyberax (705495)
            I also understand Ukrainian (a small feat, it's very close to Russian) and speak a little bit of German (it's incredibly easy to pick up if one knows Russian and English). Obviously, English, Russian and German are useful because of the large number of speakers.

            Udmurt language by itself is not very useful. However, it's a language from a family that is very different from English, German or Russian so it gives yet another 'view' of the world. And that's very useful by itself. Oh, and it also helps me to s
            • by jvkjvk (102057)

              I actually have a similar question to the person who you responded to, but on a different level.

              As far as utility of expressing ideas of various types, which do you find best? Is it always one or another for certain types of mental activities? Does one or another have a richer set of aphorisms or ability to express types of concepts not available to the others?

              I guess I am looking at what affordances one provides over the other.

              Regards.

              • by Cyberax (705495)
                I really love English, it's compact and powerful. I love the ability to verb the nouns, it's an incredibly useful language feature. The system of grammar tenses is also very interesting and powerful (Russian doesn't have an analog of present perfect, for example), so a text in English is usually much more brief and concise than in Russian.

                And I really love Russian. It has a very rich system of prefixes and suffixes that allows to add a lot of hard-to-translate-into-English nuances. Grammar cases, inflecte
                • The system of grammar tenses is also very interesting and powerful (Russian doesn't have an analog of present perfect, for example)

                  As another Russian speaker I disagree with you. Tenses are cumbersome and redundant.

    • For others like me who wonder about these things, Udmurt [wikipedia.org] is one of the two official languages of the Russian republic (similar to a US state) of Udmurtia (the other being Russian). It uses an extended Cyrillic alphabet and has around half a million native speakers.

    • by idji (984038)
      what about all your mum's old songs, or your grandfathers knowledge and animals and plants and weeds and so on. You might be a techy nerd, and we are pretty much the same globally but there is a lot of valuable natural knowledge still locked up in Udmurt. Take some effort and dig it out of your old relatives before they die.
  • by dmomo (256005) on Thursday June 21, 2012 @05:58PM (#40404513) Homepage

    ... annnnd immediately upon launch, the project was added to the Endangered Projects Project [wikipedia.org].

    Great idea, but how long will it be supported? Sadly, I think it will share a fate with Google Health [wikipedia.org].

  • There are some languages which are better off dead. VisualBasic for example.

  • Go raibh míle maith agaibh!

  • If a language "dies" from lack of interest (nobody wants to learn it, use it and pass it down to their children), that is a natural thing that should be left to take its course.

    I mean, what is the alternative? Surely, you can't force people to learn a language they are not interested in. How do you motivate people to revive a language that, say, only a few thousand people know?

    This project, how does it actually protect "dying" languages? If some aspect of a language is kept in a museum, is that language rea

  • Wonder if Na'vi will end up there now that all the cool kids have moved on to learn the Dothraki language.

    • Conlangs are hardly to be considered endangered, since they per definition are fully documented, at least to the extent of the completeness of their construction.
  • Netcraft now comfirms: Miami-Illinois is dying.

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