There are two ways of looking at the fact that just 2% of the world’s 6,000-odd languages are thriving online.
One is that 98% of our human communication heritage is doomed, as more people switch to more global languages to communicate. The other, says Priceonomics’ Alex Mayyasi, is that these “few languages becoming the language of the web could unite people more closely than they’ve been since the fall of the Tower of Babel.”
There’s a fundamental difference between how a language dies in the real world and how it fails online. A living language becomes extinct when there aren’t enough people around to speak it any more. But a “digital” language faces the opposite problem. It has to establish itself from nothing to become viable. And this isn’t easy in a world of apps that need to be localized for each language. Small developers will stick to English, Spanish, German, maybe French, and so on, because they don’t have the resources to do any more. And even huge resource-rich behemoths like Microsoft can drag their heels when it comes to adding, say, spell-check dictionaries to its software. And that’s before we get to things like Unicode (the international standard for symbols and letters on computers) support for languages using non-standard script or the need for huge databases of language pairs to drive tools like Google Translate.
For living languages, UNESCO keeps an atlas of those in danger. For still-struggling online languages, there is no such list, but there are still ways to track the problem.
“Linguists who study endangered languages have identified a few early warning signs,” writes Mayyasi. “One is when a prominent language like English or French replaces a native language for a specific function like literature or commerce. Another is when a native language is seen as dated by younger generations.”
In the 2013 paper Digital Language Death, researcher András Kornai investigated the dangers to existing languages caused by a move to the digital realm, by applying the same methods of “language vitality assessment” that are used for regular languages. At the end, Kornai concludes that, at best, only 5% of the world’s languages are “digitally ascending.” That is, 95% of languages are not vital, thriving, or even borderline viable online.
The problems are complex. For instance, even if a language has a good online presence, it doesn’t mean that it has a community that uses it in any meaningful way (Kornai cites Klingon as an example of this). Also, thanks to the way content hangs around online forever, a language can still exist and be dead at the same time. “Wikipedia is a good place for digitally minded speakers to congregate,” writes Kornai, “but the natural outcome of these efforts is a heritage project, not a live community.”
What about thriving minority languages? How do they fare in the future. Kornai gives some illustrations:
A typical example is Piedmontese, still spoken by some 2–3 million people in the Torino region, and even recognized as having official status by the regional administration of Piedmont, but without any significant digital presence.
Technology like Google’s machine translation help preserve minority languages, or at least makes them more viable online, but the overall situation doesn’t look good for smaller languages as the Internet homogenizes our communication.
And the result of this isn’t just the death of languages, but the extinction of entire cultures, and ways of interpreting the world.
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