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If you ever find yourself at an Internet cafe in the Middle East, you may be surprised to find that you can read the letters on people’s screens—even if you don’t know Arabic.

It’s not just that many young people write in English. It’s that they often text and email in Arabic using latin characters. Rather than write مبروك, which means congratulations, they’ll write “mabrook.” They simply transliterate every word, writing Arabic in the same alphabet that English uses. Many shop signs in capital cities like Cairo and Amman do the same. 

Observing this while living in Cairo, this author wondered whether the use of Arabic script would decline, like cursive writing in the United States. 

A number of nonprofits and scholars are devoted to studying and protecting the world’s linguistic diversity. They focus on languages with dwindling numbers of native speakers, and try to preserve a record of tongues that die out. 

The case of Arabic teenagers texting with the latin alphabet, however, raises another question. How many languages do we use on our computers and phones? And how many fail to enter the digital age?

In 2013, András Kornai, a Hungarian “mathematical linguist,” published a research paper on this topic. His research found that the digital future of Arabic is secure. But thousands of other languages may never make the leap into the digital age. 

A full 96% of the world’s 6,000+ languages appear to be dead when it comes to use on cell phones, laptops, and tablets, meaning that the Internet could be to languages what a certain comet was to the dinosaurs. 

How Languages Evolve—and Die

The term “evolution” is used to describe the changes to everything from football teams to presidencies. But when academics describe the evolution of languages, they literally mean that languages parent distinct offshoots, compete for usage, and die out like biological organisms.

For this reason, UNESCO maintains an atlas of endangered and extinct languages that resembles the Endangered Species List. If only grandparents speak a language, it is severely or critically endangered. If there are no speakers of a language left alive, it is considered extinct.

The fate of an extinct language is distinct from the fate of latin and Ancient Greek—languages that evolved into languages people speak today. An extinct language is a dead end, like the dodo. And just as environmentalists try to protect the endangered burrowing owl, linguists work with speakers of endangered languages by documenting their languages, training language teachers, and helping to create teaching materials in their languages. 

Linguists who study endangered languages have identified a few early warning signs. One is when a prominent language like English or French replaces a native language for a specific function like literature or commerce. Another is when a native language is seen as dated by younger generations. 

The result is that use of the language degrades by generation until it disappears.

Making the Jump Online

In his paper “Digital Language Death,” András Kornai applied these ideas to the digital realm.

But whereas researchers often watch for languages in decline, in the digital case, the question is whether languages can undergo the opposite process and establish themselves as viable options for digital use. Is it possible to fully communicate online in that language? Is it perceived as a digital language? Can one become a digital native within that language?

Humans speak over 6,000 languages, and Kornai attempted to measure each language’s online presence and vitality through methods like crawling public online text and counting the number of Wikipedia entries in each language. 

But unlike oral speech, which is not yet extinct if two people are yammering away somewhere, digital languages need supporting infrastructure to exist at all. So Kornai looked at the the level of software support in each language—from Apple support to spell checkers to its presence in the Unicode standard and other databases that allow electronic devices to actually recognize a language. 

As Kornai notes, the consensus is that nearly 50% of languages (2,500 to 3,000) are endangered, and even the most pessimistic reports conclude that 10% of languages are “safe.” But the digital environment seems to be much harsher: 96% of languages are “digitally dead.” Another 2% are either borderline cases or present online only due to the work of scholars and archivists. 

Only 2% of languages are thriving online.

Digital Death, Digital Birth

When media scholar Ethan Zuckerman co-founded Global Voices, an online publication with stories from citizen journalists from all over the world, in 2008, he assumed that they would only need to publish in English. 

As he writes in his book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, he and his partners assumed that, “since our community of editors and authors used English as a ‘working language,’ everyone could read and appreciate our output.”

Yet Zuckerman soon found he was wrong. In response to Taiwanese students translating their stories into Chinese, they started a Chinese version of Global Voices and began publishing original articles in Chinese. As speakers of other languages showed similar demand, they expanded until they were publishing articles written in Malagasy, a language spoken mainly in Madagascar, where the educated class learned French and English. 

When Kornai concluded in his research paper that 96% of languages are digitally dead, he expressed pessimism about them ever making the leap to the digital world. After all, they face high barriers to entry; companies and individuals will only support so many languages when they create spellcheckers or release software.

You don’t have to be an imperialist to think that may not be such a bad development. A few languages becoming the language of the web could unite people more closely than they’ve been since the fall of the Tower of Babel. The conservationist attitude, however, as stated by UNESCO, is that “each language reflects a unique worldview and culture complex.” When a language goes extinct, “an irreplaceable unit in our knowledge and understanding of human thought and worldview is lost forever.” 

While the digital world may be an extinction event for many languages, Zuckerman’s experience with Global Voices suggests that languages may prove more resilient than Kornai expects. As Zuckerman writes of the Malagasy contributors to Global Voices, although they spoke French and English, they “were worried that their language wouldn’t make the leap from the analog to the digital world,” so they “were willing to do the work” to give Malagasy an online presence. 

Although 96% of languages are digitally dead, it may just be that they have yet to be born. 

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Priceonomics published an earlier version of this article on December 2, 2013.

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Published Jun 14, 2016 by Alex Mayyasi


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