Thursday, December 12, 2013

Communications Technology Speeding up Death of Small Languages

Yes, it's great that the Internet and digital technology is making us into a smaller, more-connected world.  But the Devil's part in the bargain is that with all that closeness and connection, we are becoming a more homogenous world at the same time.  

We all notice the rapid ascendancy of Engish and the lingua franca of the world now that everyone has access to media, entertainment and culture from the US.  But more broadly, recent studies have pinpointed the fact that only five percent of the languages of the world exist online, with the other 95% completely invisible to the digital world.  

This leads inexorably to the process where young people adopt the languages of commerce, entertainment, and culture, then they (and their progeny) completely abandon the rarely-spoken languages of their forefathers, and those languages die out.

Hunter Communications Original News Source:
The Washington Post

Link to article:

Excerpt: "Less than five percent of current world languages are in use online, according to a recent study by prominent linguist András Kornai -- and the Internet may be helping the other 95 percent 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 catalog the number of words in each language. He also analyzed Wikipedia pages, a key marker of a language’s digital vibrancy, as well as language options for things like operating systems and spell-checkers.

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

Much of that gap can be attributed to the fact that the languages people use vary widely, in terms of scale and geography. More than 40 percent 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 like 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 like commerce; then younger speakers lose interest in speaking that language; and, finally, the younger generation forgets it all together. 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 passes on, during which time young people fail to adopt it in their daily activities, such as when using the Internet."

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