DATABASE: An Ark for Languages

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Science  05 Oct 2001:
Vol. 294, Issue 5540, pp. 19
DOI: 10.1126/science.294.5540.19a

All the people who speak the Amazonian language Arikapu could fit into a minivan and still have room for their luggage. Norn, Manx, and Ubykh—tongues formerly heard in the Shetland Islands, on the Isle of Man, and in the Caucasus—have all disappeared. More than half of the world's languages may die out during this century, victims of forces that include cultural assimilation, urbanization, and suppression by intolerant regimes.

The ambitious Rosetta Project aims to save at least part of our linguistic heritage by gathering and preserving key records—descriptions, texts, translations, audio, vocabulary lists—for 1000 languages, from ‘Are’ are to Zulu. The effort is sponsored by the Long Now Foundation, a think tank whose board includes bigwigs like computer pioneer Danny Hillis and musician Brian Eno.

At the project's 5-month-old Web site, you can search translations of the first three chapters of Genesis in 1000 languages, along with hundreds of other texts, orthographies, and word lists. Visitors are invited to help annotate these texts and supply audio files and other materials. The completed archive will be published as a book and on an etched nickel disk with a life-span of 2000 years.

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