Thanks for reaching out to me. I am interested in helping if I can though my availability
may be limited, but I will try to provide useful input if that is helpful.
I am unclear about the mechanics of participation in the project. If this is not the right
place for the information I'll give here, could you kindly transfer it to the right
place or indicate what I am supposed to do?
I am going to write some introductory notes here that are meant to help to clarify my
relation to indigenous language projects in Wikipedia. This may perhaps serve a double
purpose vis-à-vis your project, by providing a bit of knowledge about one person's
past experiences and difficulties in this regard, while also suggesting how if at all I
may possibly be of further use to you.
My work ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_R._King
) involves several indigenous
languages in Central America, but the language I have primarily worked on and the only one
relevant to my experience on Wikipedia to date is Nawat, aka Pipil.
I am a linguist (and professional translator) but my work involves language recovery and
documentation focused on reconstruction. I have worked in collaboration with Nawat and
other Central American (CA) indigenous community and support group initiatives over a
fifteen-year period, prior to which I worked in Europe on Basque and other minority
languages of the world for several decades. Evidence of my CA language work may be found,
for example, at the new Tushik website which I built this year ( http://tushik.org/
I lived in El Salvador and worked personally with people in the Nawat movement for over
two years before moving back to Europe where I now live and from where I have continued to
support the Nawat and other language movements down to the present (I live in the Basque
Country). At the present time I am focusing mainly on reconstruction of two related
indigenous languages, both called Lenca, with communities in southern Honduras and eastern
El Salvador, whose languages ceased to be spoken in the 20th century but members of these
communities are interested in recovering them. Needless to say I am also still supporting
the Nawat movement in various ways. But as regards Lenca, at the present early stage, my
work is basically linguistic documentation, though the results of this work are going to
be channelled towards an ambitious government-supported school project in conjunction with
local communities within the historical Honduras Lenca region.
My work on indigenous languages has the support of private sponsors but is largely
voluntary; I also translate to support myself financially. I am not formally affiliated
with any state, official or academic institutions and would describe my activity in
support of indigenous language movements as freelance and partly unpaid.
The internet and social media have played a very large in providing the channels and tools
that make possible the projects I am involved in. I have worked on a number of internet
platforms. Two approaches I have exploited heavily are Facebook groups and dedicated
websites (such as Tushik). Another one which I tried quite hard to weave into this network
is Wikipedia (and other Wikimedia projects: Wikinews in particular, but also Wikibooks).
I was already a Wikipedia editor prior to this (
), working in the English wikipedia and also
some others, so when I started working on Nawat on wikipedia I was not a novice editor. I
tried to make Wikimedia a useful set of tools supporting the Nawat language movement in a
variety of ways. I do not consider the results to have been as satisfactory as I believe
they should have been; it might be interesting to analyse the reasons for this partial
failure, and pertinent to your project too, and that hope is what has spurred me to take
the trouble to transmit to you the information in this email.
Here I will make no attempt at an exhaustive post mortem, but only give you the pertineint
The flagship project of the Nawat work I did on Wikipedia is the incubator project for a
Nawat wikipedia ( https://incubator.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wp/ppl/Achtu_Iswat
). I worked to
design a viable, attractive and useful project, creating the most basic and necessary
"back end" pages, setting out specific guidelines which were intended to adapt
the generic wikipedia model to the particular conditions and needs of our community, and I
developed some content too. I was meticulous about creating help pages to guide and
support potential editors, but was also eager to establish the requirement that only
people with an adequate command of Nawat should be thinking about writing content, and one
way to encourage that was to write a lot of the help texts in Nawat. This was meant to
encourage other editors in the future, whom I not only encouraged to edit and add more
content but helped with technicalities and linguistic support (cleaning up the grammar and
spelling of their texts, for example).
The response was slow and halting but the dimensions and situation of the community must
be brought into the equation before evaluating whether this project was "viable"
and worthwhile; I believe that it was (and potentially is) in Nawat terms, though not
perhaps when measured by generic wikipedia criteria. Although I am the main author of most
of the articles, a few of those which bear my name were penned by somebody else who could
not be persuaded to deal with the mechanics of uploading the article. It is a shame that
by acting as surrogate editor in those instances the record of authorship is distorted a
little; the same is true of some of the content in the Nawat news project too (see below).
Perhaps a workaround is needed to overcome this problem where an author of content may be
somewhat or fully literate and perhaps somewhat computer-literate too, and willing to
contribute content, but not without a helping hand when it comes to the actual uploading
of the content, so that this can be performed in a way that permits proper attribution of
responsibility to the real editor rather than making it appear that the assistant is the
editor, and thus perhaps camouflaging the true diversity of content contributors.
Permission was never given to make this incubator project into an official wiki project,
and I don't think we were anywhere near meeting the requirements for consideration.
We have such a small active language movement at present that I know a number of its
members and can say with confidence that some people have found it useful. But I would
describe the overall impact it has had so far as very limited, especially in proportion to
what I see as its potential. Meanwhile, some people who potentially might have been more
active in the Wikimedia projects are notably active on other social platforms with related
purposes and interests. Perhaps we need to ask why.
Turning out attention to the Nawat language movement of which I speak, it may not fit
neatly into the conventional "indigenous language movement" paradigm that is
often assumed, so let me say a word about that.
Among native speakers, Nawat is a dying language, its remaining speakers nearly all aged
and illiterate, and their command of Nawat also on the wane; yet there is a growing
movement of young, intellectually able people with an ability and a desire to bring the
language back and give it a new lease on life, who are serious enough in their endeavour
to have successfully learnt the language well and created new structures for language
recovery work including teaching the language to others, while also maintaining and
building links with the traditional rural communities that are the language's natural
and rightful heartland.
In the domain of language recovery processes, I would suggest that most features of the
situation described are rather typical, whether or not that is acknowledged by
But at the same time, this is a striking and inspiring story in the context of the overall
pessimism and impotence surrounding a great many indigenous languages today, the number of
false starts and deceptions that plague and threaten authentic language recovery efforts
today, and the extremely difficult social, political and econoimc conditions often
confronting not only indigenous communities, though they first of all, but even their
would-be benefactors and supporters in better-off sectors of society in the countries
For a fuller analysis of the kind of language movement I am talking about and its
characteristics and motivations, see my essay "Pushing the Paradigm" (
). A more academic version of this report is due
to appear as a chapter of a major forthcoming book on indigenous language recovery to be
published by Oxford University Press.
It is in these conditions and in the context described that it was hoped that Wikipedia
would provide one platform among several that could be made to work in favour of the Nawat
My decision to create a Nawat Wikipedia was precipitated by an "emergency"
situation that was brought to my attention by a colleague, who pointed out to me and
others that such a project (a Pipil Wikipedia) already existed, but when we went to look
at it we discovered that while the project existed in name, it had been set up and pages
were being created by someone with no knowledge of the language who was either more or
less making it up or filling it with pages in Classical Nahuatl (a distinct language).
Thus what looked like a happy piece of news quickly turned into a source of worry, for a
number of reasons which I won't bother reciting here.
Sadly, this is just one of the recurrent obstacles obstructing the path of indigenous
language recovery work: false representation.
At the very least this had to be stopped; but there was also an opportunity here to have a
real Nawat Wikipedia, which in fact had already been on our list of desiderata prior to
these events but was just being reserved for the "right time".
We discussed the situation and promptly acted on it. I negotiated with the
over-enthusiastic editor on Wikipedia who had (without malicious intent, but following an
ill-advised strategy) committed the faux pas, and after other referees were brought in he
was asked to refrain from continuing to "help". But as part of the
"package" we negotiated, rather than attempt to get the false project deleted,
it was determined that, in part to preempt such annoyances, we should turn it into a
proper Nawat project. However, for this to be possible I asked for the false project to be
reset to zero so that we could start properly and build from the ground up in a series of
thought-out steps, not just aiming to "fill up" a Nawat encyclopedia but to ask
what particular features it should have and how it should be developed strategically to
make it both useful and indeed viable.
The result was the incubator project, a project which in practice I executed but which was
geared to the needs and conditions of a real on-the-ground nascent language movement and
at its disposition and, ultimately, control.
This happened when the young Nawat language movement I have referred to was in its infancy
and not really ready for this because we had other priorities, not least of which was the
development of a robust written codification of the language and a sufficiently strong
collective of well-trained literate Nawat speakers with access to the resources needed to
both maintain and use such a project.
Although that process is still underway, in the years that have passed since the incubator
project was undertaken we have come substantially closer to such a situation than at that
time. Therefore, if we had not had our hand forced prematurely by the false start and had
been allowed to do things in our own good time, I feel very confident that we would
eventually have got around to doing this, probably better, with less effort and greater
This perhaps suggests a lesson for the future. There is a right time for things and a
right way to go about them. Sweeping actions should not be taken without consultation by
Wikipedia editors without links to (or even knowledge of) the language which, even when
corrected, thereby pressure more competent groups into undertaking work that they are not
quite ready for yet and who already have their hands full with work of a more urgent
nature, thereby interfering with their schedule. Creating a spurious language project
without proper background knowledge is reckless!
I recognise that it was done out of over-enthusiasm but it was a bad move nonetheless. I
am also not advocating exceedingly exclusive restrictions on editing "rights"
which would be contrary to the whole philosophy of Wikipedia, with which in general I
identify. What I am advocating is something which I think has more to do with the general
realm of common sense.
I have mentioned other Wikimedia projects involving Nawat, and one in particular to be
noted was a subsequent project which was planned as a companion site of the Nawat
wikipedia: a news site in Nawat. I maintained it for a period of time but was not able to
keep it going on my own and failed to persuade other people to take the trouble to learn
how to become fully fledged co-editors, and so it eventually became dormant although it is
still there ( https://incubator.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wn/ppl/Achtu_Iswat
I think this was a good, attractive project which it would be worthwhile resurrecting, but
I recognise that the mechanics of the way I had it set up (the editing procedure) need to
be streamlined and updated; if I were to start over again I might consider designing it as
a blog website instead. It might have been overambitious but it did have a lot to offer
and aspired to use the tools available to provide the language communit with a good range
of valuable textual material not hitherto available to it in Nawat anywhere.
Again, though, it would have needed a stronger active language community to sustain it.
Perhaps it can still be considered a prototype and resumed in some guise at a future time.
Subsequently this was actually partly replaced by a simpler blog project, Chachalaka (
), which was specifically branded as a magazine-blog in
EASY Nawat. Again, this offered a useful resource for Nawat language learners, but lack of
long-term maintenance has resulted in it too becoming dormant.
Another issue that came up in my dealings with Wikimedia was that of the interface
I did participate in a project to translate the most important part of the Wikimedia
interface into Nawat and actually got quite far along with it. But in the end, meeting the
minimum requirements established by the people in charge of these things as a condition
for allowing us to have the translated interface implemented turned out to be impractical.
This culminated in a difference of opinion between myself and the committee in question.
I am a seasoned professional translator and not new to interface translation. I don't
think there was a problem of incompetence on my part here, as I was strongly motivated to
make this happen.
The trouble was with the rules. It was required that an initial list of about 500 messages
had to be translated in their entirety just as a first phase before anything else could be
done. I translated more than half of them (the easier and more useful half), but found
that there were some that would not be of practical use and could have been left in
Spanish, which was the template language, with little practical loss.
I also thought that in the case of a language such as Nawat for which appearance in such a
context was completely novel and unprecedented, an incremental approach to interface
translation was preferable for good methodological reasons. A gradual change was
preferable, I argued, both for the users' sake (allowing them to get used to seeing
elements of a Nawat interface gradually), and for the sake of the translator in order to
"feel out" this completely new domain of language use and fine-tune the
translations little by little in the process.
I approached a mediator and we discussed it; he put it to the committee and returned with
their verdict: their answer was no, the rules were for everybody. So I abandoned the
interface translation project.
I hope this is all of some interest and utility, and am willing to continue discussing
aspects that are considered relevant. Good luck with the project.
Alan Alan R. King
Email: alanrking(a)yahoo.comFacebook: https://www.facebook.com/alan.r.kingPersonal
NEW site for Nawat and Lenca language resources and indigenous language recovery:
From: Eddie Avila <eduardo13(a)gmail.com>
Sent: Tuesday, August 16, 2016 12:13 AM
Subject: [Languages] Wikimedia Grants Proposal - Strengthening Indigenous-Language
Wikipedias in Latin America
Hi all -
I’m reaching out to this list to those that might be interested in the proposal submitted
by Global Voices to the Wikimedia Grants program. We’re very much open to improving the
proposal and your feedback is welcome during this community input phase.
Looking forward to your thoughts on the Discussion Page or by email: eddie [at]
globalvoices [dot] org
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