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« Donald Westlake R.I.P. | Main | Political Linkage »

January 02, 2009

Preserving Languages via Text Messaging

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Browsing today's (2 January 2009) Wall Street Journal, I encountered an article titled "How the Lowly Text Message May Save Languages That Could Otherwise Fade" by William Bulkeley. Its link is here. Since I don't know how long the link will hold, below are key quotes from the piece.

Can a language stay relevant if it isn't used to send text messages on a cellphone?

Language advocates worry that the answer is no, and they are pushing to make more written languages available on cellphones. ...

But companies that develop predictive text say they have created cellphone software for fewer than 80 of the world's 6,912 languages cataloged by SIL International, a Dallas organization that works to preserve languages. ...

"The idea of having your cultural identity represented in this technology is increasingly important," says Laura Welcher, director of the Rosetta Project of San Francisco's Long Now Foundation. Ms. Welcher, who says linguists fear half the world's languages will disappear in the near future, thinks at least 200 languages have enough speakers to justify development of cellphone text systems. "Technology empowers the poorest people," she adds. ...

Michael Cahill, linguistics coordinator for SIL International, says, "There are cases where texting is helping to preserve languages" by encouraging young people to write in their native tongue.

Predictive text is a technique that guesses what a word might be after a few letters have been keyed in on a cellphone. I'm not a text-messager in part because of the bother of using eight keys to represent 26 letters. While predictive text no doubt improves composition speed, I find it easier to simply dial through and leave a voicemail message if necessary. (I'll concede that a good use for text messaging is transmission of numbers such as addresses and phone numbers which sometimes can be misunderstood via voice.)

I'm all for the free market, so more power to software and communications companies that spread the use of predictive text to less-spoken tongues.

On the other hand, the business of language preservation as a kind of crusade leaves me cold, as you can read here.

So having predictive text for a minor language is potentially a big deal in its preservation.

And voicemail (by implication) isn't?



posted by Donald at January 2, 2009


While I don't myself have a cell phone and thus don't receive text messages, I've seen those received by others, and they often appear to be written in the same sort of shorthand which one finds in MySpace and YouTube comments, e.g. with 'u' for 'you', 'ppl' for 'people', etc. I doubt that this 'predictive text' feature is of much use in such cases; and in general, given the poor grammar and spelling, and overall increasing illiteracy I'm observing amongst many young folks online, I find the notion that text-messaging will help preserve obscure languages, to be utterly laughable.

Posted by: Will S. on January 3, 2009 1:12 PM

Text messaging is huge for people under 30, bigger than e-mail or voicemail, apparently. So predictive text entry might make a lot of difference for endangered languages.

Also, predictive text entry encourages standard orthography rather than the slangy abbreviations that thumb-typists tend to favour. That could be important for languages where the literary standard is weak. Things like "how ru 2day" won't significant undermine standard English orthography, 'cos it's so powerfully entrenched, but the same habits in fragmented, weak language like (say) Welsh might. (I know the counter-argument: if the Welsh etc. equivalent of "how ru 2day" replaces the standard version, it must therefore be better for Welsh etc. It's not.)

It's true that language abandonment is largely voluntary, few minority languages possess the literary or cultural treasures ascribed to them, and well-meaning interventions at the international level can be a waste of money, but it's also true that the deck is often stacked against minority languages in ways that aren't quite fair, and something can often be done about this.

Posted by: Chris Burd on January 3, 2009 2:21 PM

While I'm sure there's no economic case for Welsh versions of British government web sites, I love the way this girl talks:

Posted by: Chris Burd on January 3, 2009 4:38 PM

I have a prediction. Sometime in the next 25-50 years, neuroscientists will figure out what makes a child's brain plastic and language-absorbent, and then how to induce the same state in adults. Which means that learning new languages will become relatively easy, and huge numbers of people will learn lots of obscure or now-little-used languages. There may be more Latin poetry written in this century than there has been in all previous eras.

That British site with the Welsh-speaking narratrix has an odd feature. Behind the narratrix, there is a three picture gallery, which cycles through four sets of images, all having something to do with jury trials, which appears to be the subject of the site. Of the twelve images, six depict non-whites. How many Welsh speaking non-whites can there be?

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on January 3, 2009 10:32 PM

They use the same images as the English version.

Posted by: Chris Burd on January 4, 2009 10:00 AM

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