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Technology

78 Indigenous Languages Are Being Saved By Optical Scanning Tech (fastcompany.com) 75

Researchers at UC Berkeley are using futuristic technology to save a piece of the past. From a report: Project IRENE is using cutting-edge optical scan technology to transfer and digitally restore recordings of indigenous languages, many of which no longer have living speakers, Hyperallergic first reported. The recordings were gathered between 1900 and 1938 when UC anthropologists asked native speakers of 78 indigenous languages of California to record their songs, histories, prayers, and vocabulary on wax cylinders. Many of those cylinders are housed at Berkeley's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and they are in a state of disrepair, degraded and broken. It's a frustrating state of affairs, as many of the languages recorded on the cylinders have fallen out of use or are no longer spoken at all. The "Documenting Endangered Languages" initiative, which has support from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is hoping to save this important history.

78 Indigenous Languages Are Being Saved By Optical Scanning Tech

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    does literally saving the recording to digital format really count as saving a language?

    • by mikael ( 484 )

      They managed to recover Egyptian hieroglyphic language through a single stone tablet which had a peace treaty written in four languages.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 13, 2018 @07:10PM (#56780524)

    I hope COBOL is in there somewhere.

  • Human language naturally fragments. It's the way our brains work. There are more dead languages than there are live ones, and it will only get worse. Even this language we call English isn't English. Old English is so dead it can't be interpreted without training. Middle English is dead, but you can at least guess at the meaning as a modern English speaker. Eventually "modern" English will also be dead. Give it a thousand years.

    Meanwhile, the history of vanished nondescript agrarian cultures is in no

    • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Wednesday June 13, 2018 @07:20PM (#56780576) Journal

      This isnt an example of West Germanic turning into Anglo-Saxon. Most indigenous languages were victim to active campaigns to stamp them our.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 13, 2018 @07:57PM (#56780754)

        Kurdish, a number of Japanese aboriginal languages, and others in Russian, China, Africa and other parts of the world are *STILL* being actively stomped out through forced education only in a national language that regions inhabitants had forced on them for cultural conversion reasons, rather than a choice given over time.

        As a result many other languages are dying out today not because there are no speakers, but because it is illegal for regional schools to teach them and they are instead forcibly taught the nationalist tongue in an effort to separate them from their heritage.

        • To clarify, you're saying that failing to burden your children with a dead language is a BAD thing, right?
          • No, he is talking about the systematic extermination of a language by the passive means of not using it.
            The same is true of TV, Media and Internet. Schools is just a far more proactive way of doing it, since you encounter kids at a young enough age to properly get them native in their second language.
            This isn't a problem of a moral dilemma, its more a fact that the communities might be large enough to support their language for internal use, but the proactive means of forced language in school kills it in a

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Yeah, it was a horrible thing that was done to stamp out those languages. It was part of racist programs.

        However, if we the human race are going to finally band together and solve our problems as a species, we are going to need one language.

        We're not talking about an important piece of our ecosystem where if it were no longer to exist, our lives would collapse - like all the pollinators (like bees) dying off.

        We're talking about an abstract construct - language - invented by humans. It's purpose is for co

        • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Wednesday June 13, 2018 @10:13PM (#56781258) Homepage

          However, if we the human race are going to finally band together and solve our problems as a species, we are going to need one language.

          Doesn't mean it has to be one and only one language though. Most people are more than capable of being bi-lingual, their native language and the common language.

          It's purpose is for communication.

          Yes - but also from one generation to the next, passing down a heritage. It would be very strange to not speak or write the language of my parents and their generation.

          And as we are seeing in our digital age. English is winning the Darwinian race. It's perfect for representation with computers - unlike languages like Chinese and it has the leg up of being the language of the Creators of the Digital Age.

          English is a cluster fuck of a language and the single reason it's becoming the global language and not yet another regional language like Russian, Chinese or Arabic is the British Empire. It's the only language with reach in Europe (UK), North America (US & Canada), Africa (bunch of former colonies), Asia (India) and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). And with the Germans losing two World Wars and the French being insufferable they cornered the market as the business language in Europe too. It helps that the Internet was started in the US, but if nobody else spoke English other countries would just make their own enclaves. There's many Russian, Chinese, Spanish etc. speakers that don't know the English-speaking part at all.

          • English is a cluster fuck of a language and the single reason it's becoming the global language and not yet another regional language like Russian, Chinese or Arabic is the British Empire. It's the only language with reach in Europe (UK), North America (US & Canada), Africa (bunch of former colonies), Asia (India) and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). And with the Germans losing two World Wars and the French being insufferable they cornered the market as the business language in Europe too. It helps that the Internet was started in the US, but if nobody else spoke English other countries would just make their own enclaves. There's many Russian, Chinese, Spanish etc. speakers that don't know the English-speaking part at all.

            Oh, come now; English is no worse than any other (any other which is actually spoken, anyway) - they've all evolved weird irregularities.

            Anyway, who cares how it became dominant, when it clearly is? I like Norwegian, but it's Norway (and everybody else) teaching their kids English, not us teaching our kids Norwegian.

            • by mikael ( 484 )

              Take a trip down the Unicode page sheets. My favourite language is Vai. It looks like a cross between chemical plant design and electronics.

          • While I can't argue your points, (English has more exceptions to the rules than rules, and the phonetics are totally screwed due to its being a mutt language), at least it's gender agnostic. The fact that latin languages give inanimate objects gender attributes irks the bejesus out of me.
            The closest we get to that in English is referring to a boat as "she" or "her", which is more of an affectionate quality, not a hard grammar rule.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          However, if we the human race are going to finally band together and solve our problems as a species, we are going to need one language.

          But which one? English is popular but entirely inadequate for many cultures. There are things that simply cannot be expressed in English, at least not in any useful and economical way.

          I guess we could all adopt one culture, presumably Chinese since that's the most popular... But then again, Chinese culture isn't homogeneous either. Neither is English of course.

          Hmm... I guess we had better just hope that we can somehow get along without a common language. Ironically most of the EU manages it just fine, excep

      • I don't see the cause as particularly relevant though. Languages die out, whether stamped out, or naturally. One is as deserving of preservation as another.

        I do find it notable that were no less than 78 different languages (they claim languages, not mere dialects) in just the California area alone, which is indicative of how fragmented, tribal, and culturally segregated the native Americans actually were.

        • It's no different than how Europe was up until the 19th century, when efforts to create common universal dialects became more formalized and proscriptive. There were "dialect continuums", whether they were the continuums in the Romance languages stretching from Italy all the way to the Iberian Peninsula, the Adriatic and into France, or the Germanic languages which stretch from the various West Germanic languages (like English, Dutch and German), with mutual intelligibility of some degree between neighborin

    • by mcswell ( 1102107 ) on Wednesday June 13, 2018 @07:42PM (#56780690)

      "Salvaging the language recordings themselves might be useful to linguists and people studying the human brain..." Speaking as a linguist who has worked on endangered languages (and other languages), agreed. Language, in the sense of a means of communication with a syntax at (at least) the context free (and possibly higher) level in the Chomsky Hierarchy, is a uniquely human ability. (Well, I keep waiting for ET to phone home so I can find out how his language works, but no luck so far.) Every child (apart from the extremely retarded) picks up a first language (and in the right situation, a second language, or even more), while no linguist has ever completely and accurately described the grammar of any language. Which is very odd, when you think of it.

      So agreed, language is a unique window into the human mind.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Speaking as a linguist....

        Your post was pretty hard (for me) to read (I just have a graduate degree). I think that maybe (your time permitting), you take a basic writing class (I'm NOT denigrating your intelligence). I think you have great points (but are distracting us) and maybe need to work on writing skills (just for posting on social media). Although, I find (some) of your points moot, your point is complete lost (at least on me) and maybe more (or less).

      • while no linguist has ever completely and accurately described the grammar of any language. Which is very odd, when you think of it.

        Not really. Most things in nature cannot be described completely and accurately.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      >it's important because...

      No, it's important because 'history." We treasure fossils, even routine ones,because they fill in gaps in our knowledge of the history of life. These languages are linguistic fossils which should be preserved because they fill in gaps in our knowledge of the history of humans.

  • The way the Internet is going, all languages are in jeopardy.
  • by innocent_white_lamb ( 151825 ) on Wednesday June 13, 2018 @08:21PM (#56780846)

    The purpose of a language is to communicate.

    If there is nobody left who speaks or writes that language, why is it suddenly important (other than in an abstract way) to preserve it?

    The Canadian government is currently spending $90 million (Canadian, about $70 million USD) to preserve endangered aboriginal languages.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigen... [www.cbc.ca]

    The first line of that article says "Indigenous languages in Canada are dying out at an alarming rate and in desperate need of saving".

    My question is why, and what makes it worth spending all of that taxpayer money on?

    If someone is interested in an obscure language to want to preserve it and learn it, I see no problem with doing that as an academic exercise. But I honestly don't see why it's suddenly a responsibility for governments to preserve it.

    Again, a language is intended to facilitate communication. If nobody's communicating in that language any more then it's obsolete.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 13, 2018 @10:15PM (#56781264)

      Why isn't it worth spending money on? Once those language are gone, they're gone forever. If for some reason knowing the language becomes important, it's too late. Plus, the more we know about one language or another, the more opportunities there are for linguists to understand how languages work.

      This whole attitude about how it needs to be immediately of some commercial value is disgusting and it's literally killing America, why on Earth are you going to let it do the same thing to Canada?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Because these languages are much, much more than just a means to communicate,
        Ancient languages hold the culture, heritage and wisdom of the people, this stuff can't just be translated it is intrinsically tied to the language. To suggest that the wisdom of peoples who "never did anything but subsist" isn't worth keeping is the height of arrogance and ignorance. Some of these peoples "subsisted" for 60,000+ years... think about that, you really think in that time they gathered nothing worth saving?

        I for one m

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          Ancient languages hold the culture, heritage and wisdom of the people

          And how many people are still alive that care about that particular culture, and would actually take the trouble to go listen to the restored recordings and understand what's being said ?

          Looks like it's mostly a hobby project for people who aren't even part of that culture.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            And how many people are still alive that care about that particular culture, and would actually take the trouble to go listen to the restored recordings and understand what's being said ?

            It helps fill in gaps in history, and we have a lot of historical gaps in pre-Columbian America. For example, we only know about the largest native American massacre because we started digging up remains - otherwise, all we can say is that something bad happened between two groups of people. We've barely been able to pres

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by sysrammer ( 446839 )

      "My question is why, and what makes it worth spending all of that taxpayer money on?"
      "But I honestly don't see why it's suddenly a responsibility for governments to preserve it."

      Maybe a little refund on what they took?

    • What we wouldn't give today for accurate recordings of how the Greeks and Romans spoke 1200 years ago. Over time, languages change, so there is also a difference between Greek 2000 years ago.

      I can think if so very many reasons why we'd want to keep a language that is no longer spoken -- but the point is; if we don't preserve it before it's lost, what can we do if we find a really, really good reason?

      In science, fundamental research supports huge progress and commerce and it all came from something that had

    • by Anonymous Coward

      > The Canadian government is currently spending $90 million (Canadian, about $70 million USD) to preserve endangered aboriginal languages.

      Accurate Citation please?
      https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1490379083439/1490379208921
      $89.9 million over the next three years to preserve protect and revitalize Indigenous languages and cultures.

      Im just one ACoward.

      But i think its incredibly stupid to not PRESERVE languages that are about to die out --- such that an academic could, if so desired, learn it, read it, com

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Note that the wax cylinders are still more accessible than a ZIP drive. Or a broken hard drive. Or a DVD encrypted with a key that's been lost.

  • by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Wednesday June 13, 2018 @10:14PM (#56781262)

    The Postmodernists were a briefly popular academic cult whose polysyllabic but totally non-referential coined language, though impenetrable to outsiders, once dominated at liberal arts schools and was the written language of numerous papers.

    Because the Pomo tribe has been exclusively vegan and abstains from heterosexual relationships it has been unable to pass on its culture to new generations, so its numbers have been steadily declining in recent years as older tenured chieftains die off. Today, native speakers are confined to a few small campuses in northern California.

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