Bingerville, Cote d’Ivoire, July, 1947: Cola nut merchant Solomana Kante’s paper is rustling under the breeze from the ceiling fans. He reads a line written by a Lebanese living in West Africa. “Black Africans are not interested in writing their languages.” Kante is surprised. “Why not?” he asks himself and decides to be the first to start writing.
He came up with N’ko, a script unlike any other, neither Arabic or Roman, but drawn from both, and perfectly suited to the sounds of his native tongue. Kante wrote many books and taught many students. But the student-by-student spread of the new writing system was slow. There were no printing presses, and Kante’s many books were written by hand, and copied by his students by hand. It was a language that came to be powered by only manual typewriters, so N’ko remained unknown to the people it was written for.
Then came TV, broadcasting its hopelessly cosmopolitan Euro-world in French and English, the languages of power and riches. Local pride was headed to the land of lost languages, at radio flyer speeds, too. How could it be any worse? Along came the Internet.
Remember how when it started it was English only? Speakers of the world’s greatest languages French, Hindi, Arabic, are still swamped by the vast sea of English language content on the web, so how about all the content online for a little written language like N’ko, still mostly unlearned by the 35 million speakers of Manden and related languages that can use the script.
“For a long time, technology was the enemy,” says Inée Slaughter, executive director of the New Mexico-based Indigenous Language Institute, which teaches Native Americans and other indigenous peoples how to use digital technologies to keep their languages alive.
“Even in 1999 or 2000, people were saying technology killed their language,” Slaughter says. “Community elders worried about it. As television came into homes, English became pervasive 24/7. Mainstream culture infiltrated, and young kids want to be like that.”
But texting gave the kids a reason to use that heritage language. So it turns out that cellphones are the last best hope of hundreds of languages in a similar stew.
“For the vast majority of the world, cellphone, not the Internet, is the coolest available technology. And they are using those phones to text rather than to talk. Though most of the world’s languages have no written form, people are beginning to transliterate their mother tongues into the alphabet of a national language,” says K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. “Now they can text in the language they grew up speaking.”
Harrison met a Siberian truck driver who devised his own system for writing the endangered Chulym language using the Cyrillic alphabet. “You find people like him everywhere,” because “We are getting languages where the first writing is not the translation of the Bible — as it has often happened — but text messages.”
Whether a language lives or dies, says Harrison, is a choice made by 6-year-olds. And what makes a 6-year-old want to learn a language is being able to use it in everyday life. “Language is driven from the ground up,’ says Don Thornton, a software developer in Las Vegas who specializes in making video games and mobile apps in Native American languages. “It doesn’t matter if you have a million speakers — if your kids aren’t learning, you’re in big trouble.”
With texting, dying languages can become heritage languages. Here in NYC, I see a lot of my daughter’s friends holding tight to their family’s language. The ones that use it don’t lose it. There’s more on N’ko to come.
More in Tina Rosenberg’s great NYT piece, Everyone Speaks Text Message. Oh yeah, and some serious N’ko instruction by this guy on YouTube.