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7. Overheard on the Web

Linux and Ethnodiversity
by Martin Vermeer
21st Jan 2001, 00:08:35
Copyright © 1998 by Linux Today (
Linux is a trademark of Linus Torvalds.

Martin Vermeer is a research professor and dept head at the Finnish Geodetic Institute, as well as docent at Helsinki University, Department of Geophysics...

Linus Torvalds is one of the six per cent or so of Finns who have Swedish as their mother tongue. One is tempted to ask if this is a coincidence; I want to argue that it is not.

Throughout world history, contributions to the things that make our society worth being called civilization -- literature, science, art, music, social innovation -- seem to have come in a vastly disproportionate measure from people who were not at home in one national culture only, but in several, or that belonged to another culture than the mainstream one in their country. Think only of the contribution the Jews made to European art, science, architecture, and social innovation; or the influence of the African slaves and their descendants on North American -- and thus Western -- musical culture. An alien entity tuning in only to Earth's music radio stations could easily conclude that the dominant continent on this planet is Africa!

There is ample real life proof for this, and considering multi-ethnicity a problem rather than a great opportunity is such a sad shortsightedness. (Consider this next time you go out eating Thai :-)

Also, Finland is a case in point; ask people in the street what famous Finns they know and see what comes up. Sibelius, of course, and Mannerheim;Kekkonen will be mentioned and the runner Paavo Nurmi; and, of course, Torvalds.Few will mention the Nobel prize winning writer Sillanpää, and even fewer the chemist Gadolin; he lived before Finland had attained statehood. But did you notice that half of the "famous Finns" have Swedish family names? Not bad for a 6% minority...!

Numbers don't mean that much.

It is important to understand that a nation is more than a piece of real estate. Sure, the real estate is needed to anchor a nation's existence -- but nationhood is about language, culture, and way of life. And the language is the gateway into a nation's culture and way of life. Heck, it is even a gateway into a way of thinking!

Knowing only one language -- English, let's say -- tends to impose certain patterns on one's ways of thinking. Knowing one more language inevitably widens one's perspective, especially if the language does not belong to the same family. I know from experience: When I moved from The Netherlands up North to Sunny Suomi, I was confronted with the need to learn this weird, alien, Finno-Ugrian tongue. Ah well, at least the alphabet was Latin, and the spelling phonetic and utterly predictable. I learned to read Finnish texts aloud so that my listeners understood them even if I didn't.

Hard work it was, but well worth it. Finnish is so entirely different from Western languages -- no articles, for instance, and no real propositions -- the fourteen-odd cases fullfill that function -- and almost everythingis done with prefixes and suffixes: possession, negation, diminution, etcetera.And the "verb of negation": I not, you not, he/she not, ... weird! And the partitive case playing the role of the "partitive article" in French (and in fact in English, where it is represented by a missing article).

Compared to learning Finnish, Swedish was easy, being so close to Dutch. Regularly reading the daily paper "Hufvudstadsbladet" was enough. But not as useful for shaping the brain as Finnish was. It's a bit like learning programming languages: after knowing Pascal, other procedural languages hold few secrets; but Lisp is a different cup of tea.

Finnish is not a small language; world wide, it belongs to the 200 largest amongst a total of 5000 currently existing languages. Small languages -- those threatened with extinction -- count on average 6000 speakers. It is expected that 2000 such small languages will become extinct during the coming century. Such extinction represents an irretrievable loss of part of the common heritage of mankind, a loss not unlike that of a biological species.

Extinction is forever.

Finnish, and Finnish-Swedish, the variety of Swedish spoken in Finland, are established national languages with a firm legal status, so one would think that they are not under threat. Well, think again. According to an article appearing last summer (
technology/html98/icel_063098.html) Microsoft is not prepared to translate, or localize, Windows into the Icelandic language. Too small a market. And all icelanders know English anyway. They are not prepared to let the icelanders do it, either; no way they are going to let some banana republic play with their precious source code!

What makes this all the more painful is that Iceland is an exceptionally literate nation and Icelandic an established national language enjoying massive official support. If this can happen to Icelandic, how can one expect any support for even smaller languages such as Faerisk (the Faeroe islands' language), Saame (the Laplanders' language) and Greenlandic/Inuit? There exists a common term bank project of the Nordic countries, nordterm; one wonders why a corresponding initiative for software localization has not been talked about more, also in the European context; fear of technical complexity?

It must be clear from this that no small nation can afford to be dependent on a large commercial software company for the preservation of its national heritage. Heck, Microsoft's turnover is bigger than Iceland's GNP! Literacy today means also computer or IT literacy and becomes an impossibilityif not even the operating system that runs all computers is available inlocalized form.

The Icelandic minister of culture has tried, apparently without success, to turn Microsoft's corporate head, threatening to investigate "alternatives" in case they don't listen. Apropos, the KDE graphic desktop environment for Linux, has been partially "Icelandized" ( Perhaps Iceland should investigate this alternative anyway, even if Microsoft would chance to reluctantly give in to the pressure. It's way better to be master of one's own fate. Open source offers an easy and attractive way to localize all software, not least due to the foresight and lack of cultural prejudice of the Free Software Foundation providing such an excellent tool as gettext. Having myselfbeen involved in localization efforts for the LyX document processor, I believe this alternative to be a fully realistic one.

Computer sovereignty?

Talking about diversity in the context of free software, it's not just about ethnodiversity. The notion of diversity as freedom lives and prospers in Linux. Let a hundred desktops blossom! People are different, so whyshouldn't software be. Besides, freedom works. Funny to think ofLinux and freedom as manifest destiny, as illustrated by the emerging binary compatibility standard for Unix -- something the big vendors with their expensive consortia never achieved. Now, for the first time in history, it's being done, courtesy of a "bunch of hackers", thank you very much. Freedom works for hatching world-class software, but just as well forevolving mature, workable standards.

If you're content to just have the trains run on time, you won't even achieve as much as that. Freedom is no luxury. And freedom breeds diversity, which is not a sign of weakness -- quite the opposite. That's just the same error that all dictators make, to mistake the rough-and-tumble of democratic discourse for a display of weakness.



In conclusion, I want to quote the Finnish, ethnic Swedish computer linguistics professor Fred Karlsson, who was interviewed in Hufvudstads-bladet on the occasion of his election as "professor of the year" (and yes, you can finger him :-):

"We have in fact started to use certain concepts analogous to those in biology -- we talk of linguistic habitats, diversity and so on. The small, indigenous peoples' languages are perfectly adapted to their needs, local environment, way of life. Reflecting upon the value of diversity, we should also realize that a language is a crystallization of many hundreds of generations of labor and of understanding the world around us. It is like asking whether the work and world view of our ancestors have any value. Of course, they have."

Asuilaak, the online Inuktitut Living Dictionary, is launched
Source: PR Newswire
OTTAWA, ON, Nov. 9 /PRNewswire/ - Macadamian Technologies Inc., a provider of Web and eBusiness solutions, the Department of Culture, Language, Elders, and Youth (CLEY) of the Government of Nunavut, and Multilingual E-Data Solutions (Multedata), specialists in multilingual computing applications, are proud to announce the launch of the Web-based Inuktitut Living Dictionary.

The dictionary has been named Asuilaak - an Inuktitut word that means “that which was expected has arrived”. Asuilaak will be the world's first online collaborative dictionary in Inuktitut, English, and French.

Asuilaak was developed using Macadamian's Syndeo, an Enterprise JavaBeans Framework for rapidly developing data-driven Web and eBusiness applications, and Multedata's expertise in multilingual electronic dictionaries. This Web- based online dictionary invites Inuktitut speakers and language experts worldwide to contribute their knowledge of Inuktitut words and definitions, as well as translations to English and French. Syndeo's multilingual capabilities and data modeling flexibility met the unique challenges involved in developing the dictionary, including the support of both the Roman and Syllabic representation of Inuktitut.

The Department of Culture, Language, Elders, and Youth (CLEY) of the Government of Nunavut funded the project, and are hosting the dictionary. Asuilaak will be fully searchable in Inuktitut, English, and French, and will serve as a translation reference and a repository of information on the Inuktitut language. It will also be a valuable tool for teaching Inuktitut to current and future generations.

Jim Howse, President of Multedata, comments, “The inherent power of Syndeo to provide rapid development of multilingual Web sites in any combination of languages opens up exciting possibilities, not only for the Government of Nunavut, but other multilingual countries or organizations worldwide. We were impressed by the speed with which this complex Web site was developed and brought to production.”

“We're very excited to have been chosen with Multedata to work on this project,” said Matthew Hately, Director of Syndeo Solutions for Macadamian. “The Inuktitut Living Dictionary could not have existed before the Web - anyone with Internet access from anywhere in Nunavut can contribute their knowledge of the Inuktitut language, and learn from others to help preserve and develop Inuktitut as a living, vibrant language.”

“This project has revolutionized the way the world looks at the Inuktitut language,” said Carmen Levi, Deputy Minister of CLEY. “The Living Dictionary is something that all Nunavummiut can be proud of.”

For more information about Multedata and Macadamian services, visit, and

Work to Save Odawa in Wisconsin
By Amanda Heyman, Badger Herald U. Wisconsin
November 28, 2000
(U-WIRE) MADISON, Wis. -- A University of Wisconsin-Madison professor struggling to save the American Indian dialect Odawa from possible extinction is working to create an updated and improved Odawa dictionary. Assistant professor of linguistics Rand Valentine, along with professor Mary Ann Corbiere, of the University of Sudbury in Ontario, Canada, is revising an Odawa dictionary compiled in 1985.

The professors are also adding a computer database component. Valentine said the dictionary will help people trying to learn the language outside of an Odawa community and, additionally, aid in preserving the language. “It’s estimated that by the end of the century 80 percent of presently spoken languages will be extinct,” Valentine said. “We’re on the verge of a massive extinction of languages because of globalization. And as a result globalization and historical attempts to eradicate Native American languages, many Native American languages have become greatly endangered.”

Odawa, a dialect of the Ojibwe language, is primarily spoken by people living along the shores of Lake Huron. Odawa has the basic properties of the Ojibwe language but is vastly different, Valentine said. “It’s like comparing English in England to English in America,” he said.

Valentine and Corbiere began compiling the dictionary two years ago and Valentine estimates it will be complete in the next few years. In addition, Valentine recently finished writing a grammar of the Odawa language, which will be published by the University of Toronto Press. “A grammar shows how words are used to make sentences, lays out the internal structure of words and helps with pronunciation,” Valentine said. “It’s basically a schema of how the language works.”

The dictionary is being compiled with the help of a steering committee. The committee consists of eight to 12 elderly members of Lake Huron communities who give the authors advice and react to the dictionary. “They tell us, ‘We say this differently,’ or, ‘This means something else in our community,’“ Valentine said. “They come from communities up and down Lake Huron and have many different ways of speaking Odawa. They help us represent as many interpretations as we can.”

Valentine said the dictionary will help keep the language alive for conscious language learners who do not have the benefit of living in an Odawa community. “The best way to keep a language alive is to speak it,” he said. “But there are lots of people trying to learn the language outside of a community and the dictionary will be helpful to the people who take the book-learning route.”

Also, Valentine said the dictionary can serve as a historical marker. “A dictionary is a nice record of the beauty of a language and how people see the world,” he said. “It’s a snapshot of one way of being in the world of human beings. Odawa as it’s spoken today encodes all the ideas important to the Odawa people today.”

Besides his work on the new dictionary, Valentine will participate in a 2001 language preservation conference to be held at University of Wisconsin from Feb. 15-17, 2001. “We’re just getting it together,” said Ada Deer, director of the UW American Indian Studies Program. “We’re in the process of contacting some very dynamic people.”

© 2000 Badger Herald via U-WIRE