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Celebrating Language Warriors

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Flickr: katerha
Flickr: katerha

From the rugged Oregon coast, to the Himalayan foothills, to seaside jungle villages of Papua New Guinea, small languages are fighting to survive. Pressed by a tide of globalization, and a barrage of negative messages telling them their cultures and ways of thinking are outmoded, a global cohort of language warriors are pushing back. They struggle daily to remember, speak, teach, text and publish in their languages. Small tongues previously never heard outside a remote village and spoken by just a few hundred people can, by leveraging digital tools, extend their voice to reach a global audience. A flip-side of globalization, this benefits us all.

As we celebrate UNESCO's International Mother Language Day, February 21, let's visit the frontlines of this battle.

Alfred "Bud" Lane III, of the Siletz Nation in Oregon, numbers among the last speakers of Siletz Dee-ni, a language of staggering complexity and beauty. Bud recounted how appalled the Siletz tribal council were when their tongue was classified "moribund" by linguists, destined for the dust-heap of history. The Siletz resolved that extinction is not inevitable, even when only a handful of speakers remain.

With patience and perfect pronunciation, Bud sat down with linguist Greg Anderson, myself, and others and recorded nearly 14,000 words for the Siletz Dee-ni Talking Dictionary. No small feat, since the language packs entire sentences and phrases into single words: gay-yuu-mvtlh-wvsh means "baby basket laces," a vanishing cultural concept. From cradle to cellphone, Siletz continues its journey. A young Siletz man told me "Sometimes I think I text in the language more than I talk in it." It's a struggle, he continued, to find a balance between cultural authenticity for this tongue considered by the Siletz "as old as time itself" and modern technology. But texting "makes the language cool," he mused, and indeed may help save it.

Leena Evic, director of Pirurvik, an Inuit cultural center in Canada's arctic, related how she and her siblings were all "born on the land" during the Inuit people's nomadic migrations. Barely a generation later, the Inuit live in settlements scattered across a vast arctic landscape. Surpassing Americans in social media saturation, they boast one of the highest percentages of Facebook membership of any community in the world.

Leena, aided by Microsoft's Local Language Program, recently led her people to undertake an audacious experiment: To translate the entire Windows operating system and Office software into their tongue. Nunavut residents who sign up for Inuktitut computer classes are astonished upon entering the classroom to catch sight of their own unique native letters and words replacing terms like "file," "save" and "print." By inventing new words or repurposing old ones, a dedicated team re-wrote the entire English computer vocabulary, tens of thousands of words, into this ancient northern tongue. The new Inuktitut app for iPhone and iPad continues this trend, expanding the language into new tech environments.

Meg Noori, a Native American linguist from Minnesota, delights in broadcasting her ancestral tongue, Anishinaabemowin (also called Ojibwe), in any available medium. She texts it, posts on social media, writes poetry, and sings it to anyone who will listen. Working with elders like Howard Kimewon -- a former hockey star, and builder of traditional Ojibwe boats -- Meg nurtures a drumming circle, helps stage annual pow-wows, and teaches Anishinaabemowin classes at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A Facebook site "People who speak Anishinaabemowin Today" boasts nearly 3,000 members. She has helped usher in a strong revitalization effort for this ancient tongue that calls the great lakes by a single name, considering it a single entity, not five different lakes.

Rudolf Raward, in his small seaside village called Matukar, Papua New Guinea, resolved that his mother language, Matukar Panau, would go places he had never been. "Children under the age of ten would never speak our language," he lamented to our visiting National Geographic team in 2009. In 2010, we invited Rudolf to the U.S. for training in digital technology. In a single day, he invented an orthography for his previously unwritten language, and produced the very first Matukar Panau storybook, entitled Ngau Rudolf or "I am Rudolf." His autobiography retells a journey from shame to pride in his mother tongue, and his strategy to help it survive. Rudolf's stories, video recordings, and a Matukar Panau Talking Dictionary give this rare tongue a robust internet presence.

As small languages cross the digital divide, they seek an expanded habitat where they can survive and thrive. As Bud Lane observed, digital recordings, no matter how popular on YouTube, can never replace a community of speakers. But savvy language survivors see technology as an opportunity, not a threat. They create new resources that even most large languages lack. An example is the eight online Talking Dictionaries recently launched by National Geographic and Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, with tens of thousands of words from Matukar, Siletz Dee-ni, Tuvan, Chamacoco, Sora, Remo, Ho, and other at risk tongues.

The world's smallest languages are speaking up, finding their global voice. Let's listen, while we still can -- let's champion their efforts to survive. Language rights are, after all, human rights. And the knowledge base found in smaller languages sustains us all in ways we may not even perceive.

K. David Harrison is a National Geographic Fellow, Director of Research for the Living Tongues Institute, and has served as a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research.

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