E.g., 08/20/2019
E.g., 08/20/2019

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.

 
First the Philippines and then Canada introduced bills to protect, preserve and promote the countries’ indigenous writing systems and languages respectively.
 
The Sudanese democracy movements have embraced the revival of traditional cultural practices such as use of the Nubian script, and on the other side of North Africa the Amazigh flag (whose central icon is a Tifinagh letter) flies for Berber rights and respect.
 
Farther south in Africa, the traditional Nsibidi symbols became the basis of the Wakandan script for Black Panther, and a new syllabary, Ditema tsa Dinoko, has arisen out of IsiNdebele mural artwork—and, along with other African scripts, is making its way into textile and clothing designs. 
 
 
The indigenous IsiNdebele artwork of Esther Mahlangu, a traditional style whose symbols have been adapted and developed into the astonishing Ditema tsa Dinoko script.
 
And in local news—because it is always easier to criticize the ways other governments treat their indigenous peoples than it is to observe what’s happening under our noses--my own (adopted) state of Vermont has renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day and is finally creating a permanent exhibition in the lobby of the state house honoring our ancestral inhabitants, the Abenaki, whose language is critically endangered. I won a grant to work with Abenaki youths to create an Abenaki picture book dictionary.
 
From my observation, language services companies have been among the first to sense these changes and to want to be deeply involved in this global shift. All of which means the language industry is in an unprecedented position to achieve something unparalleled in history.
 
Instead of merely being a support system for globalization and cultural imperialism, helping the representatives of the privileged world to travel and do business abroad on their own terms, the rise of localization and the expansion of the range of digitized scripts has put us within sight of a goal that is in many ways the exact opposite: to enable people of all cultures to converse on an equal footing.
 
We already have people working with indigenous and minority cultures to enable them to be able to text each other in their own traditional scripts.
 
We are closing in on the tech that will not only allow them to do so, but us to understand them.
 
When that happens, communication will no longer flow downhill from the mountaintops of affluence—it will flow sideways, from neighbor to neighbor.
 
Every step we get closer to that day reduces the need for marginalized cultures to abandon their own alphabets, languages, and all the inherited knowledge encoded in them. Every step reduces the need for them to struggle through the process of explaining their own complex thoughts in simplistic terms in someone else’s language.
 
In short, we have the opportunity to enable everyone in the world to have a voice, and to have that voice be heard.
 
This is an ambition as lofty and as ancient as the dream of putting a human on the moon—and all the more remarkable and urgent for coming at a time and in a political climate of divisiveness and hatred.
 
Yes, there are certainly those in the languages industry—and their clients—who simply want to expand their markets so as to be able to sell more phones, or financial services. And yes, the worldwide groundswell of local self-determination is not going to reach every language and every culture at the same time, or even at all.
 
But this isn’t the twentieth century any longer. In another ten years’ time, the global landscape is going to be entirely different. We have no idea what the future will be for individual scripts or languages and their cultures of origin, but the sense of what may be possible has changed dramatically.
 
For a linguist, there can hardly be a more exciting challenge. Are you up for it?
 
Tim Brookes is the executive director and founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.