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[P]
Small languages and the value of Open Source

By pkej in Culture
Mon Nov 20, 2000 at 03:10:32 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)
Technology

In Norway we have two official languages, Nynorsk and Bokmål. The two languages are commonly viewed as equal, and there are laws forbidding any institution (not commercial) using one language less than 25%. It is also written in the laws governing education that everyone should have access to teaching material in their preferred language.

The reason for this is that a language embodies much more than the spoken or written words. It is a bearer of a culture, and reflects the values and motivations of its speakers.


A couple of examples might enlighten you, Aboriginals in Australia has words in their language to describe how a kangaroo jumps, thus providing a much easier way of recognizing a single animal in a herd from others than just by separating by sex and age.

Inuit (Eskimo) have tens of words for snow, not much use to the aboriginal, but for the Innuit it is valuable in their every day lives.

The language Ubuh spoken by only Tevfik Esenc died on the same day a Danish linguist arrived in the city to document its existence. It had, as far as anybody can know any longer, 80 consonants, whereas English has only 24. !xu has only 48 consonants, the ! is used for tongue clicks.

In some languages all the history of the people is carried as tales told at large feasts, nothing is written. Great poems and histories, equaling Greek, Roman and Norse myths. Retold by generations. If those languages die, all remnants of their culture might also die.

It is also held that a multitude of languages benefit the humankind much more than a single global would ever do. Both for culture, music, art, but also commerce, peace and science. In fact, many parts of a language and a culture influences the way songs are sung, how rhythms evolve. The popularity of African rhythms in contemporary music proves that this also affects the every day lives of modern people.

Small languages need support, and revitalization, that means that all speakers of a language should have an opportunity to get software and keyboards which can support their particular language. It might be even more important in the face of corporatism where there are nothing small or marginal languages can demand.

Corporations are not benevolent towards small and marginal groups who can't earn them money. Many people can't see the benefit of using millions on preserving languages which are nearing extinction, why not use them on health care and housing?

In Iceland, a nation of nearly half a million people they have been very strict of applying old words to new ideas. Thus the national weather center is called Vedurstofa. In Norway we call it Meteorlogisk Institutt, which most people speaking a Latin language will recognize as meteorological institute. Vedurstofa means weather (an English word derived from old-Norse, which Icelandic practically is) hut or house.

That might in fact be a bit fundamentalistic at times:), most languages borrow and learn from other languages to some extent anyway. But it is beautiful.

Finally, why is each language important? Well, it is part of an human identity. It gives the practitioners of a language great pain not to be able to use the language. It saddens me that I can't take part of my grand parents Sami-language, because I never learned it in school, nor used it at home. How much I've lost due to bad communication (they speak Norwegian pretty well, but they're fluent in Sami)? And now, when they are at the autumn of their lives it is harder for them to speak at all, not to mention trying to translate to Norwegian.

The pain visited upon my mum and her generation is even grater, they were forced to speak Norwegian at school, though they didn't know anything but Sami from home. My mum has felt dum all life, because she's felt that she isn't good at writing and communicating. Last week she finished a large thesis for her nurse's education, and proved by the very good grade that she isn't. (And she has completed three educations the last twenty years due to changes in the need for labor.)

The situation is pretty desperate. Of the estimated 6000 languages currently spoken, one dies every fortnight. Even in the US there are eight languages ready to die with their last practitioners. Totally there are 48 languages with one last practitioner remaining, world-wide. Within 100-200 years half the languages spoken today will have disappeared. We can't hope to save them, but there are about 3000 "robust" languages which will survive the next 100 years, and equal access to technology for all of those are paramount.

Of course, a lot of problems also stems from the antiquated, and patently Anglo-file, ASCII which is still in use. Only last year a Sami (lapplandish) keyboard layout where completed, because the Sami special characters weren't available (together) in any current layout for Windows.

That's why open source is a vital factor in the preservation of languages currently spoken today. Please take care to use tools which enables internationalization of your software, it might seem trivial, but for many people it is worth much to be able to use their language in all parts of their lives. To communicate with the rest of their society through both spoken and written communication.

Here is a report named A Report on Improving Library and Information Services for Native American Peoples from US. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science from 1992 taking the needs of Native Americans very seriously.

Endangered Native American Languages: What is to Be Done and Why?. An article by James Crawford, 1994.

Finally I want to draw your attention to David Crystal's "Language Death". All proceedings from that books goes towards linguistic field research, it is a well founded book with a lot of good anecdotes.

Paul K Egell-Johnsen
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Display: Sort:
Small languages and the value of Open Source | 33 comments (29 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
The question I have (3.50 / 6) (#1)
by titivillus on Mon Nov 20, 2000 at 01:28:07 PM EST

is whether there's Unicode for !xa.

Probably (2.00 / 1) (#17)
by pkej on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 04:20:46 AM EST

Unicode is under heavy development all the time. Even dead languages have their own sections.

[ Parent ]
ASCII (3.75 / 4) (#4)
by trhurler on Mon Nov 20, 2000 at 01:57:46 PM EST

While it IS outdated, assaulting it over being tied to one alphabet misses the point: first, it was specifically developed for US use, and second, at the time, there basically WERE no computers outside of a few big western nations. At the time, memory and processing constraints meant that a very small, very simple encoding was necessary; using eight bits was actually controversial. What would you expect under those circumstances?!

--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

Lack of support (3.00 / 1) (#5)
by Michael Leuchtenburg on Mon Nov 20, 2000 at 02:26:18 PM EST

However, the continuing lack of support for other character encodings is deplorable. Hopefully Unicode will be fully supported by most software within the near future, and hopefully no one (*cough*MS*cough*) will distort it as ASCII has been distorted.

Nothing wrong with ASCII, only with its use.

[ #k5: dyfrgi ]
[ TINK5C ]
[ Parent ]

Ascii (4.00 / 1) (#20)
by pkej on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 04:31:12 AM EST

American standard code for information something, if I recall correctly.

The problem has been addressed since the early eighties. Unicode has existed for several years, and strangely enough, it's almost impossible to program with Unicode support even today.

I've worked in a company which had customers in Japan, several Arabic countries, and several pending in other Asian countries (Korea, Taiwan, etc.) We had to fight hard with an unnamed popular os (now Windows, in fact) to get certain parts of their published interfaces to support Unicode correctly in order to present the national characters at each customer.

It didn't seem like a high priority to the company.

Who cares if there weren't computers outside the US back then, these days there are quite a few, and I for one is in favour of using Unicode whereever.

The circumstances has changed, thus it's time to reevaluate earlier decisions.

[ Parent ]
What ASCII stands for (none / 0) (#28)
by Chris Andreasen on Wed Nov 22, 2000 at 12:59:10 AM EST

American Standard Code for Information Interchange
--------
Is public worship then, a sin,
That for devotions paid to Bacchus
The lictors dare to run us in,
and resolutely thump and whack us?

[ Parent ]
Bring back EBCDIC (3.00 / 1) (#24)
by kagaku_ninja on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 03:05:35 PM EST

Vast reams of programming knowledge, stored in mouldering punch cards, are literally rotting away, even as we speak.

[ Parent ]
Irony? (2.60 / 5) (#6)
by jeffmonks on Mon Nov 20, 2000 at 02:31:55 PM EST

Anyone else chuckle at the fact that he's a Norwegian imploring people to cherish their native languages - in an article written in English?

Sorry, this isn't an attack - you've got a good point, if a somewhat rambling style. I just had to laugh at the irony here...

Rambling is my midle name (none / 0) (#19)
by pkej on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 04:24:39 AM EST

I'm not very good at keeping a thought. There are to much fighting to get out at the same time.

The point in writing this in English is to awaken developers to the fact that though they might care only for the language they are using themselves, there is probably a lot more people who are interested in their program who don't speak their language.

Happy to entertain.

[ Parent ]
Urban legend alert (3.00 / 3) (#8)
by Ken Arromdee on Mon Nov 20, 2000 at 03:30:49 PM EST

The idea that the Eskimos have lots of words for snow is an urban legend.

See: http://www.urbanlegends.com/language/.

yes and no (3.33 / 3) (#9)
by boxed on Mon Nov 20, 2000 at 03:57:01 PM EST

The idea that it is an urban legend is in fact an urban legend. The link you posted clearly illustrates this.

Swedish has at least three words for snow (nysnö, snö, skare) and we don't have anything near as much snow as any eskimo people.

[ Parent ]

As we have in Norwegian (none / 0) (#18)
by pkej on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 04:22:28 AM EST

What about pulversnö (powder snow), slaps (mixture of rain and snow)...

[ Parent ]
Many words for "snow"... (none / 0) (#26)
by ucblockhead on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 07:35:24 PM EST

No English speaker talks of "powder snow". Skiers just say "powder". "Slaps" seems to mean either "sleet" or "slush", depending on whether it means the stuff raining down or the stuff on the ground... Anyway, you get the idea...
-----------------------
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]
You're right (none / 0) (#30)
by pkej on Wed Nov 22, 2000 at 04:21:34 AM EST

I stand corrected.

[ Parent ]
Steven Pinker... (none / 0) (#25)
by ucblockhead on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 07:31:44 PM EST

Steven Pinker, one of the foremost linguists alive and author of The Language Instinct calls it an urban legend....

Part of the problem is that people forget about perfectly good English words like "slush", "sleet", etc. Anyway, see his book for a full discussion.


-----------------------
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]

well... (none / 0) (#32)
by boxed on Wed Nov 22, 2000 at 11:03:04 AM EST

It's really hair-splitting. English and Swedish both have several words for snow, and languages used by ethnic groups who haven't seen snow in thousands of years won't even have a single word for snow. This is the major point of the "urban legend" of the many words for snow. The spirit of the statement is true, the letter of the statement is maybe not strictly true but I don't think that's very relevant anyway.

[ Parent ]
Lots of words for "snow". (3.50 / 2) (#11)
by static on Mon Nov 20, 2000 at 06:33:32 PM EST

From reading your links, I got the impression that English is not a good language to compare Inuit or Yupik to. It is, after all, quite an acquisitive language!

IMHO, a better comparison would be that Greek has four words for "love" whilst English usually gets by with one. Or that Japanese has at least three words for "I" whilst the two that English has differ in a different way.

Wade.

[ Parent ]

Cecil Adams' answer (4.00 / 2) (#27)
by h2odragon on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 09:14:13 PM EST

I refer you to the sadly sanitized but still servicable explaination offered by Cecil Adams.

[ Parent ]
chicken and egg (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by mikpos on Mon Nov 20, 2000 at 06:56:16 PM EST

Is it the loss of language that leads to loss of culture? Or is it the loss of culture that leads to loss of language? I think the root problem here is that assimilation (albeit to a moderate extent, usually) is now happening on a global scale.

Anyway, good points throughout. If the Norsk (and whoever else) want their cultures and languages to survive, they might have to put some effort into it, like you showed with the Icelandic, er, word-making people? :) I might point out, that, no matter how hard you try, you're never going to get technology to solve a social problem, but you can at least use it as a tool to help.

Cultural or economic problem (none / 0) (#16)
by pkej on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 04:18:52 AM EST

There are certain big entertainmaint industries which oppose ideas like the French where they have rules for maximum percentage of foreign languages in television.


[ Parent ]
Diversity and extinction of languages (4.25 / 4) (#13)
by MoxFulder on Mon Nov 20, 2000 at 09:30:21 PM EST

As a linguistics student at Cornell University, I consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable about languages. So I was very surprised to hear that there are two official languages, Nynorsk and Bokmål, in Norway. Are they really different languages or even dialects? Do people grow up speaking one language or the other at home? Is there a geographical distribution of the two languages? If you'd post something on this subject, pkej, I'd be very interested to read it :-)

Like you, I find it very sad that so many languages are dying out so quickly. With every extinction, we lose vital information about human history and linguistic diversity, not to mention the means of expression for a culture and a group of people. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that there are many ways to preserve endangered languages as living languages. Sure, they can be recorded, documented, and described if enough trained field linguists work hard at it. But can we or should we encourage people who are by and large poor and uneducated to continue to actually speak languages that have little economic value and prevent them from communicating with most of the people on the globe?

In the end, no language can exist for more than a very brief period of change. Every language is in a constant state of flux. Even the English of 1900 was subtly but surely different from the English of the year 2000. No one speaks Proto-Germanic or Latin anymore, but few would mourn them, for they have given us English, German, Spanish, French, etc. Many (probably the vast majority) of all the languages ever spoken, were dead ends, with no surviving derivatives today. Yet these languages, such as Hittite or Mayan, have left behind many interesting archaeological and linguistic problems for modern scholars.

Languages may come and go, but I'm hopeful that linguistic diversity itself will survive forever ...

"If good things lasted forever, would we realize how special they are?"
--Calvin and Hobbes


... (1.00 / 3) (#14)
by hph on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 12:03:17 AM EST

You may be interested in the article ftp://ftp.funet.fi/pub/culture/text/ingar-holst/murder-of-norw-language

The history of the norwegian language is rather bizarre...

[ Parent ]
Nynorsk and bokmål (4.00 / 1) (#15)
by pkej on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 04:16:37 AM EST

The two languages in Norway are Nynorsk (new-norwegian) and bokmål (book-language:). Nynorsk is an amalgan of a lot of spoken dialects, mostly from the western and middle parts of Norway. It was collected by Ivar Aasen in the last century.

Nobody really speaks Nynorsk, whilst Bokmål is spoken mainly in the northern parts of Norway.

Bokmål is based on the Danish spoken in Norway during Danish reign.

No-one in Norway really speaks any of the languages, but both are used in writing.

The two languages are different, Bokmål is said to have 2.5 sexes while Nynorsk has three. In Nynorsk quite a few German based words isn't in use, which in Bokmål is very common.

There are quite a few differences. I find it just as easy to speak Danish or Swedish as speaking Nynorsk.

There is a third official language, Sami, which is spoken by the native Nordic people called the Sami.

Hmm, I agree with you that the diversity of languages are what is most important.

[ Parent ]
A counter arguement (3.00 / 4) (#21)
by Dacta on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 05:50:13 AM EST

(I only speak English/Australian, despite many attempts to learn other languages. I really do think diversity of language is important, but there are some points you didn't address that I was to discuss, so...)

I don't speak Greek, yet I've read Plato. I don't speak Russian, yet I've read Tolstoy. I don't speak Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek or Latin and yet I've read the Bible. I can't read middle-english, yet I've read (some) Chancer (was that middle-english?)

Why is this? Is it possible that things that are important are preserved by translation, and things that aren't important are dropped? It is a horrible idea, I know, but consider it for a while...

I live in Australia. I've seen Kangaroos - infact, I've been roo shooting. I don't need lots of word to describe how they jump, and if I did I could invent them, in the same way languages have grown everytime they need something.

I'm not defending persecution of minority languages, nor am I advocating people forget them. But is it possible that the benefits of easy communication outway the loss of culture when minority languages die?

Think of Latin. People used to say it would be the death of culture when it stopped being taught in schools. Do I feel I missed out? Not really.. it would be nice to try that Latin-Perl module, but apart from that I don't think I've missed anything.



Kangaroos (4.00 / 2) (#22)
by pkej on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 06:19:05 AM EST

The point is that if one had learned certain Aboriginal languages, one would have learned how Aboriginies separate Kangaroos. They have important knowledge of things which the colonisers never knew.

An Aboriginal people in Australia had described a snake which wasn't found until recently (10-15 years). (I don't have the reference here, there seems to be some net congestion.)

Languages and cultures of native people contain much knowledge about the world which isn't "discovered" yet by academics of the west.

The diversity of languages and cultures embodies different views of the world, it gives us different types of literature, music and art. Of course we need to communicate with more people than just those in our family or town, thus we learn other langauges.

Translations of literature are neccessary, many languages die, quite as expected, but many languages today die because of governmental policies around the world. That's probably a large reason for earlier language death as well, but since we know how much language and culture means to indiginous people we should feel bound to help them continue.

A lot of countries have policies which ensure that their culture and language is preserved to a lesser or greater extent.

Finally, translations are also needed by people not fluent in a foreign language, it is the only way of propagating literature to a large audience.

Translations also detract from the original, sometimes in very large quantities. That's a fact. I've read two different translations of "The Lord of the Rings" in Norwegian, and contrary to popular meaning among my friends, I feel that the old translation embodies much more of the English original, which I've also read.

But even good translations aren't the same as the original, because culture is different, and references are different. Not many in Norway laughed at a "Flowers for Algernon" joke in an episode of Friends, because "Flowers for Algernon" isn't required reading in Norway, thus the context is lost.

Though, I admit, this is a natural thing because we are differnt people and different cultures.

As a litle snide aside, all the languages you mentioned are dead, and has been for a very long time. Many of the languages today will ineveitably die in the same way, but quite a few have died because people have been surpressed by governments.

Have you stopped to think why such debates about language and culture are flammable? Why most people don't want to exchange their own language for Volapuk, Esperanto or English?

People care immensly about the language they learnt as kids, especially if they feel that the rest of the world is treating them and their language and culture badly...

[ Parent ]
Latin (4.71 / 7) (#23)
by Chakotay on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 09:27:53 AM EST

I had Latin in school, and that has been a very good thing. Learning Latin isn't only about learning the language, it's about learning to understand a culture that dominated this area of the world (I happen to live in Europe) 2000 years ago. Many European cultures borrow a lot from the Roman culture, many languages borrow a lot from Latin. Learning Latin, and learning about Rome's ancient culture, offers a lot of insight in contemporary European languages and cultures.

Yes, you can read Vergilius (oh wait, in English they mangle that name to Virgil) in English or Dutch or whatever, but you miss out on a lot like that. Lets take for example that famous first line of the 4th book: "at regina gravi iamdudum saucia cura". In most translations it's translated as "but the queen was already hearbroken", which is a correct translation, but it leaves out a lot of the atmosphere of the sentence. You can't translate rhythm, nuance, or suspense. Lets analyse that line, for example.

"at" indicates a dramatic change - it's much more than just "but".
"regina", queen. nothing too interesting there.
"gravi" is "severely".
"iamdudum" is "already, for a long time", again much more than its inadequate English translation.
"saucia" is "wounded".
"cura" is "to [her] heart".

So, literally, you have "BUT... the queen was severely, and for a long time already, wounded to her heart." Can you feel the suspense growing up to the very last word? That feeling is amplified by the rhythm of the sentence.

Yes, you can read anything in any language, but you're missing so much... I always prefer to read anything in its original language. Tolkien and Jordan are so much better in their original Englisch, Mulisch is so much better in Dutch, and Hitler can't write worth a damn anyway but the best way to read Mein Kampf is in German, and it is very true what Muslims say, that the only true way to read the Quraan is in Arabic. In fact, the only true way to read the Bible is in its original languages, because in modern language translations you miss a lot of important details... For example, that "elohim" in the Old Testament, which is translated to "God" is actually a masculin plural form, not singular, and that sometimes God is indicated with a feminin word. Little things like that will give you an entirely different view of just who or what God is, which is, in my humble opinion, the intent of the Bible.

Anyway, I digress. My point is clear, I think :)

--
Linux like wigwam. No windows, no gates, Apache inside.

[ Parent ]

Latin vs. Greek (none / 0) (#29)
by Delirium on Wed Nov 22, 2000 at 01:33:54 AM EST

I had Latin in school, and that has been a very good thing. Learning Latin isn't only about learning the language, it's about learning to understand a culture that dominated this area of the world (I happen to live in Europe) 2000 years ago. Many European cultures borrow a lot from the Roman culture, many languages borrow a lot from Latin. Learning Latin, and learning about Rome's ancient culture, offers a lot of insight in contemporary European languages and cultures.

While it is true that learning a language often entails learning much about the culture which speaks (or in this case, spoke) that language, how do you decide which are important to learn about? I can certainly see your argument for Latin and Roman culture, but couldn't a similar argument be made for Greek and Greek culture? After all, many European cultures borrow a lot from ancient Greek culture, and much of science and mathematics grew out of on ancient Greek work. The Roman culture itself borrowed heavily from the Greek culture - there really is very little original Roman mythology, just new names for the Gods (Jupiter for Zeus, Mars for Ares, Mercury for Hermes, etc.). So why is it that many schools offer Latin classes but almost none offer Greek classes?

[ Parent ]

I did Greek too :) (none / 0) (#31)
by Chakotay on Wed Nov 22, 2000 at 05:30:14 AM EST

Well, there's your answer. I went to a Dutch grammar school, and one requirement is that you follow either Latin or Greek. Since both are rather heavy courses (4 - 5 classes per week) you generally only take one of them unless you're good enough that you can skip some classes elsewhere. But in the first few years you don't get a choice yet. The first year starts off with Dutch (duh), English, French and Latin, and in the second year German and Greek are added. You could drop a few classes after the 3rd year (still obligatory are Dutch, at least one form of mathematics, 1 classical and 2 modern languages, a minimum of 8 classes) and after the 4th year it's basically almost free (still obligatory are Dutch, and at least 1 modern and 1 classical language, at a minimum of 7 classes). So after year 3 I dropped French and Greek, and after the 4th year I also dropped German, leaving the most exact package possible: Dutch, English, Latin, Maths A (practical), Maths B (theoretical), Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

So I had English for 6 years (I'm fluent in it), Latin for 6 years (don't remember much though), French for 3 years (starting to pick up on it again because it's one of the the native languages of my girlfriend), German for 3 years (fluent in that - I dropped it because I hated the teacher, like everybody else) and Greek for 2 years (don't remember much of that except that I can ofcourse read the road signs when I'm in Greece). But despite the fact that I don't remember much of Latin or Greek, I do remember quite a lot of the grammar and would probably be able to translate Latin and Greek if I had access to a dictionary, and I definitely remember a lot of the art, culture and history.

--
Linux like wigwam. No windows, no gates, Apache inside.

[ Parent ]

People called Romanes, they go to the 'ouse? (none / 0) (#33)
by Kartoffel on Wed Nov 22, 2000 at 12:41:56 PM EST

To me, learning a language is much more than memorizing vocabulary and grammar. It's about learning the culture and history of the people who speak that language.

The academic Latin taught in schools makes a great foundation for learning how languages work, but it's far removed from any living language that you can actually attribute to any present-day society.

It seems that 20-th century schoolbook Latin isn't even pronouced the same way that real native Latin speakers pronounced their language. At least in English-speaking countries, the pronounciation of academic Latin has been affected by the Great Vowel Shift[1] that affected English in the 15th century.

For example, the Latin command "Plaudite, cives!" might be pronounced today as PLOD-eet-ay SEE-vays (using approximately us-engligh phonetics). Actually, the historically accurate pronounciation would be more like PLOUD-eet-ay KEE-vays. Additionally, "Cogito" has no "J" sound in it.

For scientific use and as a tool to teach the underlying structure of many European languages, schoolbook-latin is adequate. It walls woefully short as a language to learn for the sake of immersing oneself in a culture.

--
[1] The great vowel shift, one of the reasons why English spelling is so weird.
"I before E, except after C, offer void where prohibited, operators are standing by, please allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery."
"He chose neither weird leisure."

[ Parent ]

Small languages and the value of Open Source | 33 comments (29 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
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