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The Internet Is Helping Save Forgotten Languages

Technology now lets us document and preserve indigenous speech

Illustration: Jessica Siao
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It was shortly after the birth of his son that Daryl Baldwin decided to tidy up his attic. While rooting around, he found a pile of papers that had belonged to his grandfather and appeared to be written in a language he didn’t recognize.

“I looked at the notes and thought, yeah, of course we’ve got a language,” Baldwin says. “I didn’t know whether there were any speakers of it. The only language I’d been exposed to was place names and things like that.”

The language turned out to be Myaamia, one of the thousands of ancestral and more or less extinct languages across the globe. The Americas and Australia are distinctive in that their original languages were lost as a result of colonialism and deliberate cultural destruction — perhaps one of the reasons Baldwin and a growing group of indigenous people feel so strongly about keeping their languages alive.

“In our case, the Myaamia language, which is governed by a community led by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, it’s driven by a need to maintain group identity,” Baldwin tells me. “Language is one of the drivers of identity. It may be that these languages never become languages of power per se, languages of economics or politics, but for this particular community, it’s really important.” Work continues at the community level and, thanks to a growing body of interest, at Miami University, where Baldwin works.

When Baldwin stumbled upon his grandfather’s papers in the attic back around 1989, he didn’t know that his chance discovery would lead to a lifetime of studying linguistics. At that time, there wasn’t much of an established field of indigenous language study or community effort.

Around the same time, a student named David Costa at the University of California stumbled across the Myaamia language while studying linguistics. Costa was in search of a language to study and began to search for any speakers or records of Myaamia.

“Language is one of the drivers of identity.”

“That was one of the greatest contributions to uncovering what amounts to about 270 years of linguistic documentation,” explains Baldwin, who enrolled in a linguistics course at the University of Montana when he realized he would need more expertise if he was going to be able to help Costa.

Renewed interest from indigenous communities, policymakers, and academics led to the passing of the Native Languages Act in 1990, which asserted that Native American languages should be preserved and protected. But while there was interest, there were few practical ways to store and preserve those languages.

Some 30 years later, a project called Recovering Voices is now dedicated to documenting, revitalizing, and sustaining languages that face extinction, broadening access to the massive resources and artifacts available from the Smithsonian Institution. Established in 2009, the project is a collaboration between the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Gwyneira Isaac, PhD, director of the project, points to the importance of recognizing the very different attitudes and perspectives of many Native Americans toward objects from their past.

“Many of the participating communities who work with us are interested in how the objects and archives speak to an entire ‘traditional ecological knowledge,’” Isaac explains. From their worldview, a basket is also a story of origin in itself and teaches us about the relationship between people and the natural world.

There is symbiosis and respect for the natural world woven throughout indigenous languages and cultures. The West has only recently begun to consider this idea, and not just by acknowledging that ideas, phrases, and artefacts matter. Isaac notes that the act of communicating with community elders offers younger tribe members solace in periods of low employment, for example.

While technology has ingrained English as the default language for communication, it has also allowed projects like First Voices to set up cheap and accessible online archives for students, linguists, and native speakers of languages.

There is more to acknowledging these cultural histories than language alone, whether through the wealth of indigenous botanical knowledge or through games, song, art forms, and dance. “Any culture can be talked about in any language, but our language will most efficiently and effectively transmit our knowledge,” Baldwin says. “What’s happened over the years is that an important part of the revitalization of the language has ended up as a revitalization of the culture and the ability to communicate that to young people.”

While technology, and in particular the spread of global internet access, has ingrained English as the default language for communication, it has also allowed projects like First Voices to set up cheap and accessible online archives for students, linguists, and native speakers of languages from the Americas and Australia.

Harnessing technology presents some complex challenges for the project, Baldwin explains. Even something as fundamental as a search engine for a database on a threatened language would be difficult to populate when all the search terms, words, and even the alphabet itself might be completely unknown. A programmer might have to start right from the representation of the alphabet.

It is a difficult moment to assert indigenous cultural interests in the United States. While interest is growing, there are also some in the United States demanding that everybody speak English and nothing else—the irony of English being an immigrant language itself having apparently escaped its isolationist advocates.

“I’m heartened to see the growing interest and efforts to revitalize languages in our First Nations communities,” says STOLȻEȽ (pronounced STALL-kwulth, also known as John Elliott), a SENĆOŦEN (sen-CHAWTH-en) language leader and speaker. “Although there’s much more to do, it gives me great hope to see so many young ones learning their languages. It takes real commitment and effort on the part of our communities to do this work.”

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Guy Clapperton

Guy Clapperton is a senior journalist in the UK, who started working out the relationship between man and technology some 30 years ago.

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