Several recent news stories about language revitalization. Some of them have hyperbolic framing about “saving” “lost cultures”, but the general projects are very interesting and it’s a fair point that technology, while not a solution in itself, can lead to greater exposure to a language and make younger people more excited to speak it.
Pat discovered rap through a pirated 50 Cent CD, but he gained prominence with a 2009 contest at a community radio station in nearby Felipe Carrillo Puerto, where he wowed the crowd with a Mayan rap. He has since recorded three albums and shot a video, Mayan Blood, set in his hometown. Pat figures there are about 40 rappers following in his footsteps—and people of all ages coming to shows. “Old people like it for the language. Young people like it for the genre.” Even, he adds, if they don’t understand it at first. “The third, fourth or fifth time, it sticks.”
The article is a bit confusing because it refers to “the Maya language” although there is an entire Mayan language family. However, based on the location mentioned, Quintana Roo state, the rapper would probably be speaking Yucatec Maya, which, sure enough, is often referred to as just Maya by speakers. A small sample of other Mayan languages include Kaqchikel, Q’anjob’al, Ch’ol, and Tzeltal (the apostrophe indicates ejectives; demonstration here).
Viki has teamed up with the the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages to encourage those who speak endangered languages to contribute their own translations of the shows. They’re currently adding projects for everything from Cherokee, a language spoken by about 18,000 people in the southeastern United States to Maori, a language spoken in New Zealand by about 60,000. The most popular endangered language on the site is Basque, spoken by about 720,000 people in the Basque region on the border between Spain and France.
Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”.
[Siebert] first met the Penobscot while his family was on vacation in Old Town in the mid-1930s. Just from an initial meeting with a Penobscot elder, he got started working to document the language and the oral literature in particular. And he pursued that—they always call it “avocationally.”…He worked with somewhere between a dozen and two dozen and possibly more speakers of Penobscot over the length of his work, collecting over 100 notebooks of linguistic material, including the oral literature he transcribed from dictation….During the 1980s, the Penobscot Nation got an NSF grant to hire him and a bunch of other people to work on creating a Penobscot dictionary from this material that he’d collected. They were still able to work with Madeline Shay and get new information as well….
I’m not entirely clear on the circumstances of how it didn’t get finished, but it basically didn’t…. It sat there on 5¼-inch floppy disks done on an Apple IIe computer using the then cutting-edge Gutenburg word processing program—it was cutting-edge largely because it allowed you to create your own characters, which are needed to write in Penobscot—and that’s the way it sat.
Starting in October, we will move into what we are calling a language immersion house. The goal of the project is to create a non-classroom environment where the language is used habitually or exclusively with fluent elders and speakers visiting on a regular basis to help advance our knowledge of our language and culture. It’s a pilot project with goals to build a lasting language immersion program that will ultimately create a generation of fluent speakers in the community.
To do this, we’re fundraising to cover costs like materials, video and audio equipment, and other miscellaneous items we may need. Join the project by buying a T-shirt through our teespring campaign here.
The idea of a language immersion house also reminds me of language nests, when young children are cared for exclusively in the language, by elders or semi-fluent adult speakers, and it’s especially useful once the parent generation doesn’t speak the language anymore. Language nests are a low-tech idea that were originally developed by the Maori in New Zealand with great results and have since been adopted by a wide variety of other groups.