Undoing Babel's Curse?
November 6, 2001 8:38 AM   Subscribe

Undoing Babel's Curse? A project of the Long Now Foundation, the Rosetta Project aims to create an audio and textual archive of over 1,000 of the world's languages. The work of some of its volunteer contributers to preserve their native languages comes across as an utter labour of love. Is it useful, though? And what does the future hold for our language and linguistic culture in an increasingly-connected world?
posted by holgate (14 comments total)
this is a great project - and i think like the other long now projects (such as the 10,000 year clock or the all species project), part of the "usefulness" comes in making us think on a longer continuum, to realize what we're losing, to try to document, to pay attention. i've sponsored some of the language collection efforts here, and encourage others to do so as well. this also makes me wonder how many languages we have represented here at mefi - ten? twenty? probably less than fifty.
posted by judith at 8:55 AM on November 6, 2001

While this is interesting from a historical perspective, it's hard to see how it could have any practical application. Chomskyan linguists and their brethren could use such an archive to test their work to some extent, but without an actual speaker to test new sentences on, they wouldn't be able to test their hypotheses conclusively.

And such an archive would of course be helpful in later deciphering texts in those languages, but those texts could just be deciphered now, with the help of the living speakers.

That said, such a project probably isn't about practical application, but preserving our history. And some people find that immensely rewarding.
posted by mattpfeff at 9:08 AM on November 6, 2001

It's valuable even if it just brings about awareness of languages that are at risk of disappearing.
posted by mmarcos at 9:14 AM on November 6, 2001

Esperanto will become the lingua franca of the Web.
posted by cheesebot at 9:30 AM on November 6, 2001

I'm all for anything that promotes the bigger picture. We'll all so bogged down in our day-to-day lives. It's hard for people to think about things that exist on a grander time scale than a generation or two of human life.

Take the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program for example.
[Link temporarily blocked for hightened security, I think. Program info here.]

This program addresses a problem which may not be solved for a hundred years, if ever.
posted by abosio at 9:43 AM on November 6, 2001

The real question is: Will this research lead to the development of a Star Trek-style universal translator, which we can wear on our lapels and travel to distant countries and understand other languages, as well as be understood?
posted by Ty Webb at 10:08 AM on November 6, 2001

I love the Rosetta Disk: it is beautiful and symbolically potent, whatever its practical implications. (My understanding, based on an article dating back to about 1995 in the -- now sadly defunct -- magazine The Sciences is that there are about 6,000 languages today, 90% of which will be gone in a generation. It's hard not to be saddened by this, and hopefully the project has some practical effect in preserving what otherwise might be completely lost.)

I once had the opportunity to corner Alex Rose and Brian Eno and ask them about the Long Now -- why 10,000 years? why not 100,000 or a million or hundreds of billions? (The idea of what, e.g., cities will be like in 50 million years is endlessly fascinating to me.) Their response, in a nutshell, was: this is just the start.

> Will this research lead to the development of ...

No, never ;) -- it is just impossible.
posted by sylloge at 10:42 AM on November 6, 2001

I wonder if the history of the latin language (sidebar) in the Roman Empire may in some way be analogous to the evolution of English in the future. Although nothing like we have today, the connectivity brought by the Romans to much of the world then was a huge change. Latin split into literary and vernacular forms, and the latter was dispersed throughout the empire. Eventually, as the empire broke up, vernacular latin mutated into a variety of Romantic languages (Italian, Spanish, French etc.). As well as the need to connect, humans seem to have a need to separate themselves, so English may split into (more) different languages. (I like what the Japanese do with it, for example).

As to the Rosetta Disk, I agree with sylloge. The activity of archiving your culture justifies the project alone.
posted by liam at 11:06 AM on November 6, 2001

english is splittinng. consider the very general american and british englishes. all languages 'split'.
but your exmaple, liam, empirical terms in japanese, is not english, it's japanese. they don't just induct english words, but all sorts of european words, german, french, italian... not to mention all the words that are from chinese and korean. it's not english, it's japanese, much like english words taken from other languages is english, not the language from which it is taken.
posted by elle at 12:43 PM on November 6, 2001

The Nov. 3 Economist has a nice obituary (subscribers only, read it at the library like I did) for Kenneth Hale, MIT linguist and language prodigy and preservationist. He supposedly knew fifty languages, several of which died with him, those that he learned from the last surviving native speaker(s), who he then outlived.

I'd look to Chinese rather than Latin for hints about the future of English. Written English may be understood by most of the world's literates at some point. At the same time, spoken dialects may be mutually unintelligible. I don't expect English to splinter unless there's a massive breakdown in worldwide communications, as there presumably was following the fall of the Roman Empire (in the region the western empire held sway over anyway).

A huge number of foreign words have been made a part of the Japanese language, though it is pretty amazing to see the amount of unmodified English words and even complete sentences used in advertising there. I got the impression (admittedly from only three weeks' visit) that in order to completely "get" mainstream media in Japan you'd need to know at least a little English.
posted by mlinksva at 12:18 AM on November 7, 2001

Can't fault the Project as an idea. A little voice whispered "fiddling while Rome burns" but (as others have said) building a thing of beauty is never a waste of time. Perhaps it can help show why language shift matters - trying to explain this to monoglots can be difficult. Seeing a tiger in Chester Zoo as a child helped me understand why tigers matter. So long as we don't mistake the zoo for the jungle.
posted by ceiriog at 5:08 AM on November 7, 2001

Oh my god, Ken Hale died.

Thanks for the link, mlinksva. :(
posted by rodii at 5:19 AM on November 7, 2001

Ken Hale obituary from MIT:
"The loss of local languages and of the cultural systems which they express, has meant irretrievable loss of diverse and interesting intellectual wealth. Only with diversity can it be guaranteed that all avenues of human intellectual progress will be traveled."
posted by ceiriog at 9:14 AM on November 7, 2001

They're looking for volunteers now. "Languages of Interest: Igo, Ainu, Afrikaans, Paiwan, Old Norse, Meitei, Turoyo."
posted by mmarcos at 2:08 PM on December 15, 2001

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