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Digital Voices, Old & New
David Nathan

What can digital technologies offer to the efforts to sustain Tibetan cultures and languages? The history and current trends of these technologies suggest that they can and will play significant and positive roles—if we remember their origins.

Digital technology is not new. It started with language itself, the oldest human technology. Languages are digital because their fundamental units are symbols—abstract values drawn from a set of contrasts, within pronunciation, grammar, lexicons, and even meanings. When we speak and listen, we choose from amongst these values. Languages have diversified, spawned others, borrowed and copied and embraced and referred to others so that the whole human communicative ecology can be regarded as a complex digital network—more rich and diverse than any digital apparatus that exists even now. To borrow terminology from today’s software industry, human language is the greatest open source information technology project even undertaken.

Many thousands of years later, and much less universally, various systems for writing languages were invented, all of which also use digital principles. Different approaches to writing languages include writing their meanings (as with Chinese characters), writing their phonetic shapes—as segments or syllables—and even, as some Australian Aboriginal societies are said to, representing whole stories through sand drawings.

The next important step was the invention of printing. Printing replaced sound by images inscribed on surfaces, thus freezing our symbols whilst at the same time exaggerating their analogue properties through the use of different papers, layouts, fonts and other affectations. Language could suddenly be carried far from where it was uttered, but its digital content was obscured and could be recovered only by the literate. Linguistically and historically, written forms are analogue parasites on our innately digital mental and social worlds. I will return to this point later.

Skipping forward, past the century of analogue inventions that defined the century from the late 1800s—photography, moving image, telephone, radio, magnetic tape—humanity regained its digital heritage with the rise of computers in the 1980s. Three subsequent developments crucial to tomorrow’s technologies each draw their power from the application of digital technologies to human communication needs: the development of multimedia (from the 1980s); the Word Wide Web (1990s); and social media (also called Web 2.0), where the web becomes a truly two-way platform, transforming traditional media’s mass audiences into mass participants.

One might add mobile communications to this list. However, those three technologies were destined to become mobile, and, as mobile leads their delivery to the third world, it seems that the radio, TV, and computer in the middle class western home increasingly represent the historical anomaly.

What do digital technologies, especially the web, offer to minority languages? Whatever concerns we might have about web censorship, it is worth remembering that until the web arrived, most minorities throughout the world had been denied the possibility of sharing their views and their cultures, through lack of access to literacy or means of publishing. In many cases, it was worse than that; misinformation about Indigenous peoples abounded, not only in common conversation but also in most of the books to be found in local or school libraries. Overall, the amount and quality of information about, for, and by minority peoples on the web surpasses all that went before.

For minority languages on the web today, we can distinguish amongst sites with information about languages, sites that provide language teaching and learning resources, and sites that communicate in languages.

By far the majority of language-related sites provide information about languages, including attempted (but incomplete) global coverage byUNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, the Ethnologue, a growing number of language pages on Wikipedia and a new collaboration between the Rosetta Project and the Internet Archive. But language communities themselves are also vigorous here: to give just two examples, the Tjapukai community in northeast Queensland uses songs in its language to promote its dance troupe and tourist venture, and the Tai Ahom people of northeast India use their website to host a forum for community members to discuss their language and orthography.

For language teaching and learning, sites tend to favour major languages, and vary greatly in depth and quality, but in this respect Tibetan is fortunate to have some fine resources, such as Sonam Chusang’s The Tibetan Language Student.

Up till now, there have been few sites providing content in minority languages. However, this situation is rapidly improving with the arrival of Web 2.0. From blogs in Welsh, to new YouTube “channels” with videos of rap music in Aka, to Warlpiri humor at Bush Mechanics, to accounts of everyday life, minority and endangered languages are exploding into public experience, and making the internet more culturally relevant for their speaking communities. The newest sites, such as those for audio blogging, and new uses of web technologies to “crowdsource” aid, such as translations of requests for help in disaster areas show that exploration of these communication forms has only just begun.

These emerging sites with their increasing use of audio and video force us to reconsider the relationship between the spoken and the written. While written forms have long been important in many cultures, with Tibetan being an outstanding example, they can also be considered as means of narrowing channels of communication. They exclude those without relevant literacies, and restrict communication to what those literacies can portray, filtering out, for example, the timbre of a friend’s voice, or the joy of a mother. Literacy practices are unlikely to disappear, whatever technology brings, and books and manuscripts can be physically preserved. However, spoken languages and dialects around the world, including Tibet, are under considerable and in some cases urgent threat. Rural areas where Tibetan language remains strongest and literacy is weakest can be regarded as a frontier where language survival will be decided. In such areas, information technologies are the new arrivals, and the technologies of immediate relevance to people’s lives will contribute most to cultural and linguistic maintenance.

The most meaningful relationships in our lives are created and conducted using our spoken voices, our first digital technology. Emerging digital technologies can expand the ways in which we can have our voices heard. Narrow focus only on digital writing represents the same threat to these meaningful messages as broader cultural, educational or political changes.

David Nathan is the director of the Endangered Languages Archive at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. This article follows a presentation given by David Nathan at the Trace Foundation’s event “Minority Language in Today’s Global Society: Alive and Digital,” on November 20–21, 2010. The last event in our first lecture series, “Alive & Digital” investigated recent technological advances allowing for greater use of Tibetan in digital environments