The Rosetta Project: Rescuing languages

The Rosetta Project: Rescuing languages

Summary: Language and culture are inseparable. An estimated 7,000 languages, and the associated social and cultural artifacts that accompany them, exist today, but many are on the verge of extinction.

TOPICS: Browser

Language and culture are inseparable. An estimated 7,000 languages, and the associated social and cultural artifacts that accompany them, exist today, but many are on the verge of extinction. "There is a level of endangerment to the survival of languages, driven primarily by globalization," said counterculture icon Stewart Brand. "In this century, 50 to 90 percent of the languages will evaporate under the current circumstance." 

In a conversation at the Future in Review conference with Larry Brilliant of the Seva Foundation, Brand outlined the Rosetta Project , which is dedicated to archiving all the languages of the world online and creating tools to help recover and revitalize languages. "We are using the Internet to alleviate the effects of globalization and the homogenization of culture on languages," Brand said. So far, the Rosetta Project has documented 4,000 languages and about are 2,500 currently archived online, Brand said. 


 Larry Brilliant (left) and Steward Brand

The project is somewhat analogous to Wikipedia in that thousands of volunteers (about 2,300 today) peer review the content and contribute to the corpus. In fact, the Rosetta Project states its goal as becoming an "open source 'Linux of Linguistics'- an effort of collaborative online scholarship drawing on the expertise and contributions of thousands of academic specialists and native speakers around the world."

Each language in the archive includes detail descriptions, maps, numbers, orthography, phonology, grammar, audio files, a translation of part of the biblical Genesis text, and Swadesh word lists. The archive also includes comparative lists of common words.  

Archiving the world's languages and trying to preserve or even recover their use is swimming upstream. Mandarin, Hindi and English are the leading languages in terms of native speakers. Brilliant pointed out that their are more English speakers (not all fluent) in China than in the U.S. At the other end of the spectrum, less than 10 million people in and around New Guinea speak an estimated 900 native languages. The flattening world (see Tom Friedman's The World is Flat) leans over time toward monoculture and a few dominant  languages for global communications and commerce. Nonetheless, Brand points out that successive generations want to connect with their roots and cultural heritage. The Rosetta Project archive and tools will help preserve that opportunity, but don't expect to see a lot of instant messages in Arauan, Chapacura-Wanham, Choco, East Papuan, Geelvink Bay, Huavean, Kiowa Tanoan, Luwic, Mascoian, Wakashan, Yenisei Ostyak, Yukaghir or Zamucoan languages...  

Topic: Browser

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Neat stuff.

    I hope it ultimately fulfills its goal of archiving.
  • Who the Heck Cares

    Half these culture are primative and of little weath execpt as entertainment for intellectual. Give me a break. What do a buch of spear chuckers have to offer execpt art for the rich who can afford it. By keeping them primative you deny them what we in the civilized world have. IDIOTS.
    • Are you...

      ...saying these people are idiots or are we denying the "primatives" our idiots?

      But I think this is very important stuff as much if not more so than history, and why should you or I care since it is being done by volunteers?

      English (American, British is bad, but not as much so) is probably the worst language in the world. The only reason it is so wide spread is because it is so simple to pick up. Its like a bike with training wheels. One the other hand, those "primative" languages like Sanskrit and Latin (probably the oldest in the world) are considered among the best. Most Asian languages would be perfect for computers when it comes to voice recognization and presentation.

      Considering the choices of English, Mandarin, and Hindi, I hope Mandarin eventually takes over. I know nothing of it, but I know the other two and I would rather take the unknown than stick with what we got.
    • Who is the idiot?

      Your position on this matter (and your very bad spelling) suggests that you know very little about it. Those who use those languages care, as some of us care about the proper use of English.
      In many cases those languages are close to extinction as a result of the actions of invaders from the "Civilized world". Too bad you are not so cognizant of history...
  • Let us hope ...

    It would appear that the demise of English continues: "... pointed out that their are more English ... " ?? "there" ?? Let us hope that this language is properly archived before it really is too late!!
  • Please let languages become extinct

    One planet, one people, one language.

    7000+ languages means miscommunication adn misunderstanding. THAT leads to wars. We NEED to consolidate our cultures and language. We have BIGGER problems we should be working on than merely trying to get along. We need to focus our energies on cutting the umbilical cord between us and the planet Earth BEFORE an asteroid takes it out. A "global event" means the EXTINCTION of LIFE. ALL LIFE. ALL LIFE that we know of is ON THIS PLANET. Get a CLUE. Read a BOOK.
    • Learn a language

      Congratulations, sfriedrich! It seems you are one of those who believe in Bush & God. Maybe they are the same to you? Learn a language...
      • Learn A Language

        Dylan Thomas who urged us all to "Rage, rage against the
        dying of the light." He also died at 39 after a lifetime of alcohol
        abuse, so undistilled rage can have its downside.

        Talking a lot and communicating are two different things.
        Americans like to consider themselves independent people, but
        the truth is we are somewhat uncertain of the future; totally
        plugged in to our shallow, electronic culture; continually
        manipulated by government; led by a commander-in-chief who
        maneuvered to fight the Vietnam War in Alabama and now
        considers almost any protest unpatriotic. How far from Valley
        Forge is that?

        The Dire Wolf
        Mark Bacon
  • Who knows?

    Archiving 100,000 years of human history might prove to be of some type of benefit in a period
    of ages and years we cannot see from beyond here.

    It may even help extrapolate on a theory of monogenesis, which postulates
    that all languages have evolved earlier from one singular language i.e. one common source

    Helping with this, is the classification of human languages.

    Classification is such a simple task, "to really screw up classification you almost have to have a Ph.D in historical linguistics. Ordinary folks, with no training, inevitably arrive at the correct solution."

    -posted by Max Stelmacker 06/09/05