[Foundation-l] What to do with moribund languages?

Milos Rancic millosh at gmail.com
Mon Jan 5 07:53:55 UTC 2009

On Sun, Jan 4, 2009 at 8:48 PM, Ting Chen <wing.philopp at gmx.de> wrote:
> Well, I remember I read some very interesting articles, mainly from
> ethnologists in Scientific American about language conservation.
> Personally I think that language conservation is something that is
> meaningful and should be done. But I have doubt if WikiMedia can or
> should host projects for this purpose.
> In most cases these languages don't have their own writing system. And
> as you said, most people that are still speaking these language are old
> people and most likely less educated. They don't have the expertise to
> write down these languages and to systematically catalog and conserve
> these languages. So this work is mostly done by ethmologists that work
> on these projects. Personally I don't think that amateurs can really
> help here. Most likely would amateurs do more harm (just like the
> amateur archaeologists of the 19th centory, who indeed destroyed a lot).
> This is for the first thing.
> As the word language conservation already implies. It is a matter of
> conserve. These languages can most likely be used to describe the near
> places and peoples where the languages are used, maybe folklores and
> myths and such things. You cannot use it to describe high energy physics
> or construction of microwavers or Taiwan conflict. So, I don't think
> that Wikipedia is a right place for such projects, nor any other
> projects we currently have.
> If there are scientific institutions that want to talk with the
> Foundation about collaborations of language conservation projects I
> think it is worthwhile a consideration. But if it is only some amateurs
> who want to do it. I don't see any reason to treat such projects with
> another set of standards as we are now using.

There are a number of levels how one amateur may help in this case.
Unlike in archeology, amateur is not able to damage an artifact.
Actually, methods for gathering materials for language preservation
are quite simple -- [more or less:] just record it. There are some
more complex methods, but they are more related to preserving a
dialect variation than to preserving a language. (If language
varieties of preserver and speaker are close enough, speaker will try
to adapt their speech to preserver's speech. However, if it is about
distant or same language systems, it is much easier.)

If it is about non-written languages, amateurs may record speech, put
it at Commons with description and, probably, link it to Wikisource.
If it is about moribund languages with established written tradition
(Lower Sorbian case), amateurs may even write oral literature (at

I agree that Wikipedia is not the right place for that task in the
most of the cases. However, Wikisource and Wiktionary are (along with
auxiliary projects like Commons and Incubator are in this sense). But,
again, languages with written tradition may make Wikipedia, too
(again, Lower Sorbian case) with the primary goal of encyclopedic
description of their culture.

I tried to explain that we need to make a set of [generic] suggestions
for languages which are at different levels in the extinction process.
Out of technical suggestions and similar, suggestions may look like:

1. A non-written language with around 100 old speakers or less is
almost dead. The main goal here is preservation of that language. So,
anyone who is willing to help should record speech. In this case it
would be preferable to connect that person with some language
preservation institution, but, we shouldn't stop such person in doing
the job. It is better to have something than to have nothing. Those
records should be uploaded to Commons and linked from Wikisource. If
such language has written tradition, it is possible to transcribe
records, too.

2. A moribund language with cultural background (Lower Sorbian case).
The goals are here language preservation and help in a language
revival if speakers are interested in that. So, besides preservation
goals, in this case we are able to put a variety of linguistic
materials at Wikisource, Commons and Wiktionary. Also, it is possible
to make a Wikipedia. We may suggest them to try to write more
[encyclopedic] articles about their culture than about natural

3. A language with ~1-10M speakers from Sub-Saharan Africa. Such
language probably has a written form made by some missionaries during
the past centuries (or a very similar language has a written form
which may be used). However, the most of the population probably don't
know to read and write. This is a kind of task where WMF should be
connected with other global, regional or local educational
initiatives. Such language should get all projects, but at the time
when they are able to handle that. Preservation tasks may be useful,

4. A non-moribund Amazon or Papua New Guinea language. Such language
probably doesn't have a written form. So, besides tasks from the
previous case, such language needs a description and written form. (It
should be noted that a very large specter of languages are in that
kind of situation: from languages of Nepal to Swiss German.) If
speakers are interested in making Wikimedia projects in their
languages, we should find a way how to help them. In some cases it is
much more about their will (Swiss German), but in the most of the
cases it is much more about resources. And WMF should work on that in
cooperation with relevant global, regional or local initiatives and

Note about language preservation and revival: While it is not a
strictly educational goal, it is an educational goal in the wider
sense because it deals with knowledge preservation.

Those suggestions/tasks assume a variety of actions. Some of them are
medium or long term goals, but some of them may be done immediately.
For example:

* If we realize that one of the goals is a language preservation, we
may give a manual to the persons interested in the Wikimedia project
creation: how to deal with that.
* If a language is in the second category, we may suggest them to
concentrate on issues related to their culture and help them in
achieving that task.
* If it is about some other issue, connected not just to our online
projects, we may tell them what are we able to do for them, as well as
we may express our will to help them in other issues.

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