Watch: Linguist K. David Harrison Launches Talking Dictionaries for Endangered Languages

by Alisa Giardinelli
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Of the nearly 7,000 tongues spoken today on Earth, more than half may be gone by century's end, victims of cultural changes, ethnic shame, government repression, and other factors. Associate Professor of Linguistics K. David Harrison, a key figure in the race to document and revitalize these languages, recently unveiled an effective new tool for this work - talking dictionaries - at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

"Endangered language communities are adopting digital technology to aid their survival and to make their voices heard around the world," Harrison says. "This is a positive effect of globalization."

The dictionaries - some of which represent the first time that a language has been recorded or written down anywhere - contain more than 32,000 word entries in eight endangered languages, more than 24,000 audio recordings of native speakers pronouncing words and sentences, and photographs of objects from the cultures represented.

The AAAS meeting featured a panel on using digital tools to save languages that included Alfred "Bud" Lane, among the last known fluent speakers of the Native American language known as Siletz Dee-ni, spoken in Oregon.

"The talking dictionary is and will be one of the best resources we have in our struggle to keep Siletz alive," Lane writes. "We are teaching the language in the Siletz Valley School two full days a week now, and our young people are learning faster than I had ever imagined."

The talking dictionaries are produced by the National Geographic's Enduring Voices project and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. In addition to the College, they receive support from the National Science Foundation, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, and National Geographic's Genographic Legacy Fund.

In addition to Siletz, the new talking dictionaries include:

Matukar Panau, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea. Only 600 speakers remain, living in just two small villages. Until Harrison and the Enduring Voices team - along with Theresa Sepulveda '11, who helped build the dictionary and wrote her thesis on Matukar as a case study in language survival - began documenting it three years ago, the language had not been recorded or written. The community requested that the language be placed on the Internet, even though they had not seen the Internet. They finally saw and heard their language in a digital medium after electricity arrived in their village in 2010, followed by computers the next year. Matukar Panau dictionary: 3,045 entries; 3,035 audio files; 67 images.

Chamacoco, a language of Paraguay's remote northern desert, still spoken by about 1,200 people but highly endangered. The Chamacoco people practice hunting, fishing, and gathering, while also adopting modern technologies like mobile phones and text messaging. The Enduring Voices project is providing equipment and training to local language activists who are writing and recording the dictionary. Chamacoco dictionary: 912 entries; 912 audio files.

Remo, a highly endangered and poorly documented language of India. Andrew Cheng '12 worked with Harrison last summer to build this dictionary: 4,008 entries; 1,157 audio files; one image.

Sora, a tribal language of India under pressure to assimilate. With National Geographic's help, Harrison and the Enduring Voices team employed a native speaker to lead the field recording efforts. Currently 453 entries; 453 audio files, and rapidly expanding. 

Ho, a tribal language of India with about a million speakers but under pressure from larger tongues. The traditional Ho script can't be typed on computers yet, so the project is petitioning the Unicode consortium to add it. 3,020 entries; 3,012 audio files; four images.

Tuvan, an indigenous tongue spoken by nomadic peoples in Siberia and Mongolia. 7,459 entries; 2,972 audio files; 49 images.