Globalization, Localization, and Endangered Alphabets: How the Language Industry is Poised to Change the World
By: Tim Brookes
20 June 2019
We—and by “we” I mean everyone, but especially those working in the language industry--are at an amazing point in history.
Ten years ago, when I began the Endangered Alphabets Project, it was routine for academics and bureaucrats to talk in terms of “dying languages” and “failed scripts.”
In the field of endangered languages, the much-quoted (though very approximate) prediction was that half the world’s languages would be extinct by the end of the century.
As for endangered alphabets, there was no such field. There wasn’t (and still isn’t) an academic field dedicated to the study of writing systems, and nobody was studying global script loss and its effects. It would take me ten years of exploration to calculate that perhaps as many as 90% of the world writing systems are endangered.
What I discovered right away, though, was that the rapid spread of the Internet had globalized the English language and the Latin alphabet (and to a lesser extent Arabic, Chinese and Cyrillic) to the point where most of the world was faced with the choice between jumping onto a moving train or being left behind.
Cultural identity and accumulated collective wisdom be damned: everyone needed the global economy, and the global economy took no prisoners. Anyone who was not prepared to stumble and fumble their way along in the languages of the privileged—to be a kind of linguistic beggar, in effect—was doomed to fall farther and farther behind, even in their own countries.
After 2010, however, three interesting changes started to appear—changes that didn’t exactly balance the tsunami of globalization but set up an interesting countercurrent that demonstrated how often the Internet causes opposite effects simultaneously.
The first was that the rise of social media, especially Facebook, enabled minority-language and even minority-script groups to convene, converse, and mobilize. In the early days of the century Facebook was a classic example of globalization, forcing people to communicate in their second or even third scripts, but as it expanded its linguistic range, indigenous and minority groups everywhere began to meet up, use their own voices with each other, teach their own endangered languages and scripts to each other, and even plan revolution.
As an extension of this phenomenon, in early 2019 a young man from Darfur, one of the poorest areas in the world, started an online crowdfunding campaign to digitize Beria, his culture’s script, the shapes of whose letters are based on the branding marks of camels—a perfect example of an indigenous script totally attuned to its culture. Social media was starting to fulfill its promise to be a global phenomenon in ways Mark Zuckerberg may not have anticipated.
"Save our language" in the Beria script of Sudan and Chad, whose characters are based on the branding marks denoting ownership of camels.
The second countercurrent was the rise of the localization industry, which was steadily gaining momentum and membership as the twenty-first century proceeded. Unlike globalization thinking, which sees the developing world as a market or a cheap labor force, localization sees minority nations and cultures as partners. The privileged world takes local languages and cultures for granted at its peril.
This countercurrent also encouraged giants such as Google, Apple, Microsoft and Adobe to expand their character sets and keyboard capabilities. I’m willing to be corrected by Craig Cornelius of Google, but I highly doubt anyone in 2010 was expecting to see a Google Noto Sans Coptic or Google Noto Sans Cherokee digital font within the decade.
The third development is the continuing improvement in machine translation—a field, by the way, that is 70 years old this year. Machine translation, to function well, means that the supremacy of one culture and its language over others no longer works. The algorithms need to encompass the language of the less powerful as well as the language of the mighty, and in order to do so they need to take into account multiple world views, multiple perspectives, multiple pillars of wisdom.
The result of these (and other) changes is something quite unexpected, even by someone like myself who was paddling in these very waters: an astonishing worldwide grassroots movement by indigenous and minority cultures to reclaim their and identity and right to self-determination.
Everything in this area of the language world is changing, often at remarkable pace. In the last year alone, the Governor of Bali has instituted traditional culture days, and has instructed signage to be in not just the official Latin alphabet but the traditional, flowing, highly endangered Balinese script.