Preserving Languages

Every two weeks, another language disappears from the world forever. According to National Geographic, more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to be extinct by the year 2100. According to Laura Welcher, a linguist with the Long Now Foundation, some experts believe the situation is even more dire, and that 90% of all languages currently spoken will be extinct by the end of the century.

Via the foundation’s Rosetta Project, Welcher is trying to use technology to preserve as many of these languages as possible.  People sometimes question whether dying languages are even worth the effort of trying to save. In an interview with Fast Company, Welcher gave an eloquent explanation:

“If languages are our how-to guides for living on planet earth, and we stand to lose up to 90% of them, then that seems like we are looking at handing our descendants an encyclopedia of human life on Earth with all of the pages ripped out, except sections X, Y, and Z.”

So, how do we preserve sections A through W? Traditionally, linguists have worked one-on-one with speakers of endangered languages, making recordings, encoding rules for grammar and compiling dictionaries. Through the use of technology like cell phones and webcams, Welker envisions a future in which people can document the languages they speak on their own, quickly building storehouses of knowledge for linguists to sift through and organize. She told Fast Company:

“In the future, say within the next 10 years, I’m counting on ubiquitous Internet access through mobile devices, and those are the same ones that can be used to create language documentation. My want-to-have killer app would be a cross-platform “push this button and archive your language video in the Rosetta Project Collection.”

Of course, all of this information needs to be stored somewhere, and data formats can change over time. For example, who even has a computer that takes floppy disks any more? To ensure that the data isn’t lost, the Rosetta Project will be transcribing vocabulary and grammar guides for every single language it documents (and their goal is to document all of them) in microscopic print on sheets of pure nickel: truly a Rosetta stone for the 21st century!



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