Thursday, July 7, 2016

Will the Internet Make Most Languages Go Extinct?

If you ever find yourself at an Internet cafe in the Middle East, you may be surprised to find that you can read the letters on people’s screens—even if you don’t know Arabic.

It’s not just that many young people write in English. It’s that they often text and email in Arabic using latin characters. Rather than write مبروك, which means congratulations, they’ll write “mabrook.” They simply transliterate every word, writing Arabic in the same alphabet that English uses. Many shop signs in capital cities like Cairo and Amman do the same.

Observing this while living in Cairo, this author wondered whether the use of Arabic script would decline, like cursive writing in the United States.

A number of nonprofits and scholars are devoted to studying and protecting the world’s linguistic diversity. They focus on languages with dwindling numbers of native speakers, and try to preserve a record of tongues that die out.

The case of Arabic teenagers texting with the latin alphabet, however, raises another question. How many languages do we use on our computers and phones? And how many fail to enter the digital age?

In 2013, András Kornai, a Hungarian “mathematical linguist,” published a research paper on this topic. His research found that the digital future of Arabic is secure. But thousands of other languages may never make the leap into the digital age.

A full 96% of the world’s 6,000+ languages appear to be dead when it comes to use on cell phones, laptops, and tablets, meaning that the Internet could be to languages what a certain comet was to the dinosaurs.

How Languages Evolve—and Die

The term “evolution” is used to describe the changes to everything from football teams to presidencies. But when academics describe the evolution of languages, they literally mean that languages parent distinct offshoots, compete for usage, and die out like biological organisms.

For this reason, UNESCO maintains an atlas of endangered and extinct languages that resembles the Endangered Species List. If only grandparents speak a language, it is severely or critically endangered. If there are no speakers of a language left alive, it is considered extinct.

The fate of an extinct language is distinct from the fate of latin and Ancient Greek—languages that evolved into languages people speak today. An extinct language is a dead end, like the dodo. And just as environmentalists try to protect the endangered burrowing owl, linguists work with speakers of endangered languages by documenting their languages, training language teachers, and helping to create teaching materials in their languages.

Linguists who study endangered languages have identified a few early warning signs. 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.

The result is that use of the language degrades by generation until it disappears.

by Alex Mayyasi, Pricenomics | Read more:
Image: uncredited