Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Saving a Language Online

Via DNA (via @induviduality)

A script gives a language some kind of permanence in a predominantly oral culture. Spoken languages are freer, more fluid. They thrive in the air, but also depend on the living to stay alive. Konkani is one such language. Essentially colloquial, it is spoken across dinner tables, in fish markets and community courtyards in and around Mangalore, Karnataka.

It is therefore volatile, or in other words, susceptible to disappearing in thin air. One way to save it from such an eventuality is to document the language in a scientific manner, as it exists in its present form, and also to map its evolution. Roshan Pai Ramesh, a UK- based IT consultant, is doing exactly that through an online Konkani Dictionary Project at savemylanguage.org, a website he started in 2005. Ramesh’s inspiration was the revival of the dying Welsh language that was brought back into the mainstream through the adoption of scientific methodologies and addressing social aspects of the language.

“The Konkani dialect is not in official use anywhere in India. It evolves in the microcosm of each and every household that speaks it,” says Ramesh, who is also the chief editor of savemylanguage.org, a website that is dedicated to the Konkani language. Till date, it has documented more than 6,000 words.

The project is entirely volunteer-driven, where people contribute a word and its English meaning. There is strong gate-keeping; the submissions can make it to the final dictionary only after it has been reviewed, catalogued and semantically categorised by language experts. About 60-80 per cent of the words received do not make the cut. To avoid duplication, 60 volunteers from India, Dubai, USA and UK, among others, collaborate on email and spreadsheets “targeting specific topics.” A topic is basically a semantic category, say, ‘vegetables’ or ‘kitchen’. The volunteers go category by category, submitting Konkani names for vegetables or kitchen utensils.

The diverse profile of volunteers —bankers, homemakers, IT consultants, entrepreneurs, people in their 20s to those in their 50s — ensures that the evolution of the language is also reflected in the dictionary.

Read the entire article here.

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