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National Geographic Saves Endangered Languages With Talking Dictionaries

Linguists from National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project who are racing to document endangered languages have unveiled an effective new tool: talking dictionaries.

| February 20, 2012 | In the Lab

AsianScientist (Feb. 20, 2012) – Linguists from National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project who are racing to document endangered languages have unveiled an effective new tool: talking dictionaries.

At the recent February 17 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver, British Columbia, linguist David Harrison unveiled eight new talking dictionaries that contain more than 24,000 audio recordings of native speakers pronouncing words and sentences.

To build up these eight dictionaries, Harrison, associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, and Gregory Anderson, president of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, traveled to some of Earth’s most remote corners, visiting language hotspots and seeking out the last speakers of vanishing languages.

One of these visits surfaced a mother tongue not known to science. In 2010, the linguists documented for the first time a highly endangered language known as Koro, spoken by only a few hundred people in northeastern India.

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

New talking dictionaries, with audio files, include:

Matukar Panau, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea. Only 600 speakers remain, living in just two small villages. Until the Enduring Voices team 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.

Remo, a highly endangered and poorly documented language of India.

Sora, a tribal language of India under pressure to assimilate. With National Geographic’s help, the Enduring Voices team employed a native speaker to lead the field recording efforts.

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.

Tuvan, an indigenous tongue spoken by nomadic peoples in Siberia and Mongolia.

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Source: National Geographic Society; Photo: National Geographic Society/Chris Rainier.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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