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Talking Dictionaries of Rare Languages


The Economist has recently published an article about K. David Harrison, of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Dr Harrison thinks that IT, which is usually considered an arch enemy of rare languages, may actually save them from extinction.

He has been managing four different projects, in India, Oregon, Papua New Guinea and Siberia. First, he created a talking dictionary that could be put onto the web. A talking dictionary of Tuvan, a language spoken in southern Siberia, has existed since 2006.

The two villages involved in this project in Papua New Guinea speak Matukar Panau. In 2011, as soon as they were linked to the country’s electricity grid, they almost immediately started using the Internet and the talking dictionary.

In Oregon, meanwhile, many now send texts in Siletz Dee-ni, a language that had only one fluent speaker at the beginning of the project. With his help and that of a few others who had partial knowledge of the language, Dr Harrison and his team have created a talking dictionary of 14,000 words.

Dr Harrison hopes also that the project for the dictionary of Koro-Aka, a language spoken in north-eastern India, will take off. Here, people have been using mobile phones for a long time, so it’s likely that texting in Koro-Aka will become glamorous.

If you are interested in rare languages, you can also read The Rosetta Project and the rescue of endangered languages and ELA (Ay-la).

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