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Threatened idioms

3000 languages are at risk of extinction but technology can ease the task of safeguarding the world’s linguistic heritage

In 2007, the National Geographic proposed the results of a research conducted in Australia - one of the geographic areas with the greatest number of languages at risk of extinction - focused on unique characters speaking endangered idioms: three Magati Ke-speaking individuals living in a small community in the Northern Territory – where the last remaining Amurdag-speaking man, a language believed to be long extinct, was also found- and three Yawuru-speaking men, living on the West side of the country.


Even if English has become the principal means of communication globally, it is still striking to estimate the number of local idioms that are currently being spoken across the globe. Where? Everywhere: in Papua New Guinea there are about 820 idioms, 743 in Indonesia, 427 in India and 516 in Nigeria – Africa is the continent with the world’s greatest linguistic diversity, even if it is estimated that by 2050 roughly half of them will be lost. It is also staggering to see how many languages are spoken across the United States. 311. Yet, considering the optimal treshold for a language’s survival is 100.000 speakers able to bequeath it to the next generation, only about 1200 idioms across the world meet the requirement. Estimates around the total amount of languages in the world vary greatly, from 4-6 thousand up to 11 thousand. Yet, one thing is certain: countless languages are disappearing and at an ever-faster pace.


Idioms are our fundamental means of communication: we speak, write, share messages, emails, documents and letters.... What would happen if our language would disappear? Or, what would it be like if we would not have a written alphabet to bequeath our language? Glottologists, scholars of semantics and linguistic experts have all been dealing with the issue of endangered idioms for a long time. Yet, it is only over the course of the last few years that concerns have grown significantly. The latest Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, curated by UNESCO in 2010, listed about 2.500 languages in danger of extinction, 230 of which already disappeared in 1950. According to the experts, the widely-accepted estimate of endangered languages is about 3000. UNESCO has since published an online version of the Atlas allowing for faster and cheaper updates. The online version provides for each language, its name, degree of endangerment and the country or countries where it is spoken. It further provides additional information on numbers of speakers, relevant policies and projects, sources and geographic coordinates.


Preventing the disappearance of languages – which equals to preserving communities’ culture and identity – is not an easy task. Yet, nowadays we have more capabilities than ever before that can be channelled to support such task. Even through the cyberspace, as UNESCO’s Atlas demonstrates. But, how to ensure that a language which is poorly endowed in linguistic and/or information technology resources, finds its appropriate place in cyberspace? Indeed, this is an issue of information democracy but also of identity preservation. Few years back, CNRS researcher Marcel Diki-Kidiri attempted to provide a valid answer (Securing a Place for a Language in Cyberspace): “[The] Cyberspace is open to all languages of the world, since its infrastructure is not subject to a central authority which can decide how it should be used”. Mr. Diki-Kidiri’s work starts form the assumption that languages are first and foremost instruments for attaining educational and cultural autonomy, while allowing knowledge-transfers from one generation to another. They further represent a vehicle to disseminate cultures and traditions between and among various ethnic groups in highly diverse geographical areas.


Information and communication technologies (ICT) play a crucial role in linguistic transformations and can provide a fundamental communication vehicle for diverse linguistic communities. Yet, ICTs may be an aggravating factor in the marginalization of languages in cyberspace. There are approximately 6,000 languages in the world, but only 12 of them account for 98% of Internet webpages. English, with 72% of webpages, is the dominant language. The challenge, then, is to overcome such monopoly to allow the creation of a diversified multi-linguistic, multi-cultural cyberspace.


“In order to promote and bolster linguistic and cultural diversity in the cyberspace – writes Diki-Kidiri - the most underprivileged languages need help to gain access to it… The first stage consists in undertaking the necessary studies to develop the linguistic resources that are indispensable: a list of phonemes, an alphabet, a spelling system, a grammar, a dictionary and a collection of texts”. The second stage, continues, Diki-Kidiri revolves around the computerization of the language to identify or develop compatible IT resources. Finally, the third stage “consists in developing and adapting cultural resources so that they may be shared in cyberspace. This means recording and digitizing as many text, sound and graphic records as possible and making them ready for posting on websites”. Once a website, a forum, a mailing list, IP telephony, music, still photographs and video are created, a lesser-used language can be well ensconced in cyberspace. Yet, concludes Diki-Kidiri, to survive its community must be supported to keep the webpage alive and updated.


Small feasible steps today to prevent a language from disappearing tomorrow.