Language is undoubtedly one of the things we take for granted, especially as English speakers. The ability to communicate with each other is being simplified, for us at least, by the continual growth in the numbers of English speakers. In the west it is the language of business, the language of entertainment. And globalisation is surely behind the shrinking of the world and reduction in the diversity of languages. At National Geographic they are joining forces with Living Tongues at the Institute for Endangered Languages in a scheme called ‘Enduring Voices’ to try to preserve these forgotten languages.
It is estimated that by the end of the century only half of the 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world will still exist. When they die out, with them goes culture, history, interactions with the natural world and knowledge of the development of the human brain. All of these pieces of humanity are trying to be saved by seeking out these communities and recording their languages. Technology is being used to try to save languages now only spoke in remote communities or by a few individuals.
Oregon is home to the language Siletz Dee-ni. This Native American language now has only one fluent speaker left after being eroded by the influx of English and Chinook Jargon, a hybrid or ‘pidgin’ language which was used by different Native American tribes to communicate. This hybrid language became a necessity when, after years of persecution, 27 different tribes were forced into the Siletz Reserve. The last fluent speaker, Bud Lane, and others have worked with David Harrison, a linguist, to record a talking dictionary of the language’s 12,000 words. Initially only available to the tribe and a few scholars, the dictionary is now available to anyone who wants to use it due to a request from the tribal council to make it public. For example the UFO in Siletz Dee-ni is ‘shtvn-nee-xuu-naa-da’ (Click for recording).
Another successful project has been preserving the language spoken by only 600 people in a single village in Papua New Guinea. This language is called Matukar Panau. As Harrison points out, another purpose of making these talking dictionaries is to demonstrate to these people that there is a place for them in a world with an ever-diminishing idea of separate languages and cultures. Searching for ‘canoe’ produces a host of answers, from single words to whole sentences. For example ‘If I had a canoe, I would catch fish’ is ‘ngau ngahau wag adape, ngau wasing ngawanemba’ and a recording of this is provided. The ‘Tuvan’ language is spoken by nomadic people in Central Siberia. As well as a talking dictionary an iPhone app has also been developed!
Rather than complaining about the youths’ lack of desire to learn their parents’ language, these communities are reaching out to interact with the world. They are using the technology which has caused the demise of their language to engage the youth and present the language as something no longer confined to the history books but an interactive part of the modern world.
Oh, and technology in Siletz Dee-ni is ‘waa stlh-sri~’. David Harrison discusses the project in more depth in the video below.