Digital Dictionaries Help Save Vanishing Languages

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There are some 7,000 languages spoken in the world, and half of them could be gone by 2100. To rescue these languages, two linguists decided to use a combination of digital recording technology and the Internet.

K. David Harrison and Gregory Anderson are compiling what they call "talking dictionaries." Some of the languages they recorded have never been documented before. In 2010, they made the first recordings of Koro, for example, a language spoken by only a few hundred people in northeastern India.

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The dictionaries so far contain more than 32,000 word entries in eight endangered languages, with over 24,000 audio recordings of native speakers pronouncing words and sentences.

Some of the work is available online. In one case, a community in Papua New Guinea that speaks a language called Matukar Panau, with only 600 speakers, asked that the language be put on the Internet even though it was only in the last two years that their village received electricity. Their talking dictionary can be seen here.

Another example is Chamacoco, spoken in Paraguay by only 1,200 people. In the United States, the team is working with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians in Oregon on reviving their language. Even languages that have written forms can be endangered: one of the groups Harrison and Anderson work with speaks Ho, which is spoken by a million people in the Indian state of Jharkhand. The people who speak it have been under pressure to assimilate with the larger tongues that surround it.

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Preserving language can become an important part of preserving the cultures of smaller and marginalized groups. Living languages also tell scientists a lot about the past evolution of language itself.

Harrison, associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, and Anderson, president of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, are presenting their work today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Top photo: A sample of the Ho alphabet. Credit: Swarthmore College