16 Dec 2013

Will Languages With No Digital Presence Die Out?

A new study carried out by Andras Kornai of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences suggests that the internet is hastening the death of languages that don’t have a significant digital presence.

The basis for the paper is what Kornai has called ‘digital ascension’ – the uptake of a language on the internet and being put to a functional use such as in eCommerce or communication.

There are currently around 7,000 languages in use in the world today, with about one of these languages falling into extinction every two weeks. Whilst around half of the remaining languages are projected to be extinct by the end of the century, 2,500 are currently considered to be ‘endangered’.

Kornai’s research has led him to suggest that just 5% of all languages will survive the digitalisation of society.

Kornai gives this detailed description on why languages experience digital death in his report:

“In the digital age, these signs of incipient language death take on the following characteristics:

  1. Loss of function. Now (the internet) touches every functional area from day to day communication (texting, email) to commerce, official business, and so on.
  2. Loss of prestige is clearly seen in the adage ‘If it’s not on the web, it does not exist,’
  3. Loss of competence boils down to the ability of raising digital natives in your own language.

Digital ascent is the opposite process, whereby a language increasingly acquires digital functions and prestige as the languages’ speakers increasingly acquire digital skills.”

All of this points towards the need for your company to translate your material into one of the popular languages of the internet that include English, Chinese, Spanish and Japanese. A solid translation in any of these languages will need to be done by a translator who is experienced in the subject area.

In the research paper, Kornai alludes to the prevalence of online communities in languages such as Catalan which has a relatively small number of first-language speakers. Despite the low number the language still manages to have a devoted online community who maintain the languages’ Wikipedia page – seen as a marker of a healthy language in the online world. Catalan has around 1,600 online moderators who partake in the upkeep of the Wikipedia as a sort of historical conservation project. He contrasts this with Piedmontese which is still spoken by two to three million people in Italy but lacks a significant digital presence, meaning its future could be under threat.

A significant threat to these languages is posed to communities that are becoming or already are naturally bilingual, stopping the need for their language to migrate online as they can already use the more established language in a functional capacity to do what they need to do.

Each of the 7,000 or so languages has immense value to their communities, as they carry deep historical and cultural meaning. It is too early to say whether an increasingly homogenised internet lingua franca is a good thing or not in the context of individuality and tradition.


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