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Heading to a digital death

The Internet is killing the world's languages

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There are 7,776 languages spoken around the world, but only five per cent are used online.

ALEXANDER F. YUAN / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVE Enlarge Image

There are 7,776 languages spoken around the world, but only five per cent are used online.

Less than five per cent of current world languages are in use online, according to a recent study by prominent linguist Andr°s Kornai -- and the Internet may be helping the other 95 per cent to their graves.

Those startling conclusions come from a paper published in the journal PLOSOne in October titled, appropriately, Digital Language Death. The study sought to answer a question that's both inherently fascinating and little-discussed: How many languages exist online? (And, on the flip side, how many don't?)

For reference, at least 7,776 languages are in use in the greater offline world. To measure how many of those are also in use on the Internet, Kornai designed a program to crawl top-level web domains and catalogue the number of words in each language. He also analyzed Wikipedia pages, a key marker of a language's digital vibrancy, and language options for things such as operating systems and spell-checkers.

His finding: Less than five per cent of languages in use now exist online.

Much of that gap can be attributed to the fact the languages people use vary widely in scale and geography. More than 40 per cent of world languages are already endangered, according to the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity. And even the ones that aren't technically endangered may be spoken by only a few thousand people -- often in places such as sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, where Internet penetration can be lower.

Still, a language's failure to migrate online doesn't augur well for its long-term prospects. Linguists have a sort of road map for language death, which Kornai lays out in the paper: First, its speakers stop using it in practical areas such as commerce, then younger speakers lose interest in speaking that language, and finally the younger generation forgets it altogether. A language is technically still alive as long as one person speaks it. And there are typically many years between when a language starts to decline and when its last speaker dies, during which time young people fail to adopt it in their daily activities such as using the Internet.

Kornai sees "an almost laboratory-pure example" in Norway, where the government recognizes two varieties of Norwegian: Bokm*l and Nynorsk. Bokm*l has long been the more widely spoken of the two, but an estimated 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the population, roughly 500,000 to 750,000 people, still speak Nynorsk. That's enough so the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity doesn't consider Nynorsk to be even "at risk." But Kornai's analysis revealed only a tiny community of Nynorsk speakers uses it online, owing perhaps to its rival Bokm*l's association with "advertising, pop music, fashion, entertainment... and the world of technology." In Kornai's words, "In spite of a finely balanced official language policy propping up Nynorsk, the Norwegian population has already voted with their blogs and tweets to take only Bokm*l with them to the digital age."

The obvious question is whether the death of Nynorsk, and languages like it, can be averted. Plenty of organizations, including Wikipedia and the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, have devoted resources to that cause: The ALD has a massive crowd-sourced encyclopedia of endangered languages, complete with sample texts in tongues such as Nganasan (500 speakers, Russia) and Maxakali (802 speakers, Brazil). Wikipedia has an "incubator" to encourage projects in new languages (or very old ones). Kornai thinks the Wikipedia project has potential -- in fact, he argues endangered languages need a core of digital fanatics, such as Wikipedia moderators or educational app developers, to survive.

But that isn't enough to keep a fading language viable in the long term, particularly if there's another more dominant language that's easier for people to use online. Even if you have a killer Cherokee wiki, for instance -- which, it turns out, some people do -- you're not necessarily going to be able to Google or Facebook or tweet in that language.

Still, the Internet is a difficult organism to predict. Linguists use a 100-year rule to gauge whether a language is dying: In 100 years, will children still speak it? But it's hard to conceive what the Internet will look like in a century, let alone which languages people will use on it.

One thing is sad but certain: There will be far fewer than there are now.

 

-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2013 D8

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