The Digital Continuation of Local Languages

Written by Dyami Millarson

Local languages are confined to a specific geographical sphere of influence. All languages are local languages to some extent, but some are more local than others. When I say ‘local languages’, I mean those that are ‘more local than others’. These languages are often threatened with extinction in the 21st century. Globalisation and the internet are cited as the reasons for the inevitable exrinction of such local languages. However, I beg to differ. The Digital Age, if fully embraced by the speakers of local languages or altruistic outsiders who study the languages, offers the ultimate tools for language survival.

The same digital networks and infrastructures that have helped spread tbe English language and other majority languages (i.e., international and national languages) can be used for minority languages (i.e., local languages). In the age of WordPress and YouTube, anyone can start a blog or video channel. This opens up endless possibilities for language continuity. However, the use of these technologies requires a transformation: The digitalisation of local languages. What would this digitalisation entail? If local languages were always spoken, wouldn’t digital copies of the languages be fake?

At the dawn of time, all languages on earth were local languages. These local languages evolved for eons using human speech organs. They were spoken. Eventually some of these languages became written. From that moment on, the literary age had started for these languages. But not every language became written down. Some local languages in the 21st century remain in the pre-literary age. So for them it is important to develop some kind of written form. However, in the 20th and 21st centuries, many written languages had already entered a new age in their development, which was the digital age. Very few local languages have ever reached this level, because they are still ‘stuck’ in the pre-literary age. This poses a problem for the preservation efforts. Written languages are easier to preserve than spoken languages, and digital languages are easier to preserve than merely written languages.

We must, however, return to our main questions regarding digitalisation. Would anything be lost if we digitalised local languages? Are local languages fundamentally incompatible with digital technologies? My personal opinion is that local languages have everything to lose from not adopting digital technologies and they have only to gain from doing so. While languages originally evolved using human speech organs, written languages can easily be ‘translated’ back to spoken languages and the same is true for digital languages.

We must realise that digital languages rely heavily on spoken and written forms, so digital languages are not that different from spoken and written languages. However, digital languages have the advantage that they are stored in digital technologies and can be retrieved at a moment’s notice. Digital languages can be constantly revived as it were, whenever there is a human desire or need for those languages. Humans are very curious and altruistic and tribal, so there are always going to be humans who want to learn languages for some of those reasons. Digital languages are just upgraded written and spoken languages, but the difference is that they are (a) stored in digital technologies and (b) easily accessible from digital technologies. So the differences are just storage and accessibility.

The digitalisation of local languages is really not that scary. It simply means that data is being uploaded (such as to online databanks). One example could be an article that is published on WordPress in a local language (what we are doing regularly). It would be like storing information about a local language in a university library. However, this is much better, because uploading the data online is much more accessible to everyone and storing the information takes less physical space. I think there should be a physical back-up of all the most important data (who knows what might happen to the internet someday?), but it is the most important overall to have a lot of digital data. Moreover, digital technologies help making it easier to discriminate irrelevant from relevant data. This, in turn, can help reduce the data by a great deal. Modern technologies help achieving efficiency.

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