Good Code is a weekly podcast about ethics in our digital world. We look at ways in which our increasingly digital societies could go terribly wrong, and speak with those trying to prevent that. Each week, host Chine Labbé engages with a different expert on the ethical dilemmas raised by our ever-more pervasive digital technologies. Good Code is a dynamic collaboration between the Digital Life Initiative at Cornell Tech and journalist Chine Labbé.
On this episode:
At the most basic level, some languages can’t be written with their script in the digital realm, forcing people to transliterate their language to a more dominant script like Latin or Arabic when sending an email or text messaging.
Then at the next level, most minority languages don’t enjoy proper digital support: autocorrect, fonts, keyboards just don’t exist. According to a leading researcher in the field, 95% of languages are digitally disadvantaged today.
We ask Isabelle Zaugg why language loss is problematic for Humanity, and she warns that if we don’t pay attention, younger generations will stop using them, and we might lose some precious knowledge as a result.
We talked about:
- In this episode, Isabelle Zaugg explains that one script can encompass several languages and one language be written in several scripts. She mentions the case of Azerbaijani, which switched three times. Throughout History, it has been written in Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic. Read about it in this 1997 Atlantic piece.
- Zaugg talks about Unicode, a global standard used to digitize characters so that they can be used on computers and mobile devices. “The Unicode Consortium enables people around the world to use computers in any language,” says their website. In March 2019, Unicode announced that they had encoded 150 scripts. The Script Encoding Initiative at Berkeley University presents proposals to Unicode for new scripts to be encoded. Here is their list of scripts that still need to be encoded.
- One of the most recently added scripts is Rohingya. As Quartz noted, the move marked “a big step for a group of stateless people who have long been denied recognition—in real life and online.”
- Zaugg mentions the “Adopt a Character” campaign Unicode launched in December 2015. The idea? Use the emoji popularity to fund better, and wider language support. Read about the campaign in Wired.
- Zaugg also mentions her dissertation on the Ethiopic script. You can read her work here. As she explains, Ethiopic was not encoded until 1999.
- There are about 7,000 languages across the world, as Zaugg explains. Read this overview in The Telegraph.
- In this episode, Zaugg mentions a 1992 study by Michael Krauss called “The world’s languages in crisis.” It warned that 90% of languages were at risk of extinction in this century.
- Zaugg also talks about a 2013 article called “Digital language death”, by Andras Kornai. Read it here. In this article, Kornai estimated that 95% of languages were at a high risk of digital extinction.
- We also talk about phones that are designed locally, or at least closer to the users’ market, and how they are often more in line with the population’s language needs, like in Ethiopia. Read this CNN article on Chinese phones taking over Africa.
- Do languages shape the way we understand the world, as Zaugg says? Listen to this great TED Talk by Lera Boroditsky on the topic.
- The English language dominates the world today, like no other language before. Read about what that means in The Guardian.
- Wikitongues is a non profit dedicated to preserving the world’s language diversity. Read this feature on their work in National Geographic.
- The Unesco has a helpful Q&A about endangered languages. You can find it here.