'Talking dictionaries' document vanishing languages

Feb 17, 2012

Digital technology is coming to the rescue of some of the world's most endangered languages. Linguists from National Geographic's Enduring Voices project who are racing to document and revitalize struggling languages are unveiling an effective new tool: talking dictionaries.

Of the nearly 7,000 tongues spoken today on Earth, more than half may be gone by century's end, victims of cultural changes, ethnic shame, government repression and other factors. National Geographic Fellows K. David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, the who are creating these dictionaries, say that some of them represent the first time that the language has been recorded or written down anywhere.

Harrison, associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, and Anderson, president of the Living Tongues Institute for , have traveled to some of Earth's most remote corners, visiting language hotspots and seeking out the last speakers of vanishing languages. The last speakers and their threatened are photographed by National Geographic Fellow Chris Rainier.

Occasionally the team surfaces tongues not known to science. In 2010 they announced with National Geographic the first documentation of a highly endangered language known as Koro, spoken by only a few hundred people in northeastern India.

Harrison unveiled eight new talking dictionaries Feb. 17 at the annual meeting of the (AAAS) in Vancouver, British Columbia. The dictionaries contain more than 32,000 word entries in eight endangered languages, more than 24,000 audio recordings of pronouncing words and sentences, and photographs of cultural objects.

"Endangered language communities are adopting digital technology to aid their survival and to make their voices heard around the world," Harrison said. "This is a positive effect of globalization."

The AAAS meeting featured a panel on using digital tools to save languages that included Alfred "Bud" Lane, among the last known fluent speakers of the Native American language known as Siletz Dee-ni, spoken in Oregon. "The talking dictionary is and will be one of the best resources we have in our struggle to keep Siletz alive," Lane has written. "We are teaching the language in the Siletz Valley School two full days a week now, and our young people are learning faster than I had ever imagined."

The talking dictionaries are produced by National Geographic's Enduring Voices project and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Other support for the efforts has come from Swarthmore College, the National Science Foundation, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and National Geographic's Genographic Legacy Fund. Besides Siletz (http://siletz.swarthmore.edu) the new talking dictionaries include:

Matukar Panau, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea. Only 600 speakers remain, living in just two small villages. Until the Enduring Voices team began documenting it three years ago, the language had not been recorded or written. The community requested that the language be placed on the Internet, even though they had not seen the Internet. They finally saw and heard their language in a digital medium after electricity arrived in their village in 2010, followed by computers the next year. Matukar Panau dictionary: 3,045 entries; 3,035 audio files; 67 images. http://matukar.swarthmore.edu

Chamacoco, a language of Paraguay's remote northern desert, still spoken by about 1,200 people but highly endangered. The Chamacoco people still practice hunting, fishing and gathering, while also adopting modern technologies like mobile phones and text messaging. The Enduring Voices project is providing equipment and training to local language activists who are writing and recording the dictionary. Chamacoco dictionary: 912 entries; 912 audio files. http://chamacoco.swarthmore.edu

Remo, a highly endangered and poorly documented language of India. 4,008 entries; 1,157 audio files; one image. http://remo.swarthmore.edu

Sora, a tribal language of India under pressure to assimilate. With National Geographic's help, the Enduring Voices team employed a native speaker to lead the field recording efforts. Currently 453 entries; 453 audio files, and rapidly expanding. http://sora.swarthmore.edu

Ho, a tribal of India with about a million speakers but under pressure from larger tongues. The traditional Ho script can't be typed on computers yet, so the project is petitioning the Unicode consortium to add it. 3,020 entries; 3,012 audio files; four images. http://ho.swarthmore.edu

Tuvan, an indigenous tongue spoken by nomadic peoples in Siberia and Mongolia. 7,459 entries; 2,972 audio files; 49 images. http://tuvan.swarthmore.edu

An eighth dictionary is dedicated to Celtic tongues, and more are in production, Harrison and Anderson report.

Explore further: Study shows more than half of peer-reviewed research articles published during 2007-2012 are now open access

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Undocumented language found hidden in India

Oct 05, 2010

A "hidden" language spoken by only about 1,000 people has been discovered in the remote northeast corner of India by researchers who at first thought they were documenting a dialect of the Aka culture, a tribal ...

Efforts to save endangered languages

Dec 14, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- There are an estimated 6,500 languages in the world, with around fifty percent of them endangered and likely to cease to exist by 2100, but efforts are now being made to save them from extinction.

Investigating the world of languages

Sep 27, 2006

As this week marks European Day of Languages some of us may harbour thoughts about brushing up our French or perhaps even taking on German, but for a group of Surrey academics every day is a languages day. The Surrey Morphology ...

Endangered languages threaten to disappear, researcher says

Jan 29, 2007

Endangered animal and plant species regularly make the news, but another type of endangered species is often overlooked: human languages. A University of Missouri-Columbia researcher has dedicated much of her career to studying ...

NZ PhD research documents endangered language

May 21, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- PhD graduate Laura Dimock spent nine months on an island in Vanuatu documenting the Nahavaq language, a previously undocumented language in danger of extinction.

Probing Question: What is lost when a language dies?

Feb 15, 2008

Oy vey! Although English dictionaries list "Oh dear!" as a rough equivalent of this Yiddish expression, Yiddishists will tell you how short that falls in conveying the phrase's varied, flexible and nuanced meanings, ranging ...

Recommended for you

Color and texture matter most when it comes to tomatoes

Oct 21, 2014

A new study in the Journal of Food Science, published by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), evaluated consumers' choice in fresh tomato selection and revealed which characteristics make the red fruit most appealing.

How the lotus got its own administration

Oct 21, 2014

Actually the lotus is a very ordinary plant. Nevertheless, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) a complex bureaucratic structure was built up around this plant. The lotus was part of the Imperial Household, ...

What labels on textiles can tell us about society

Oct 21, 2014

Throughout Chinese history, dynastic states used labels on textiles to spread information on the maker, the commissioner, the owner or the date and site of production. Silks produced in state-owned manufacture ...

User comments : 0