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Spring 2006
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Preserving the World's Dying Languages with GIS

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The smaller languages of the northeast Caucasian family.

Language evolves out of a need to communicate the experiences, instruction, cultural development, and idiosyncrasies of the village. It is the vessel that retains the special character of the village and the thoughts and beliefs that foster its uniqueness. Language provides the village with identity, community, and context.

With languages such as Mandarin Chinese and English, taken together, currently being spoken by almost 1.5 billion people throughout the world, it is difficult to imagine them as linguistic communities within the village or tribal context. However, the tribal influences are there, if only by dialect and colloquialisms.

At last count, nearly 7,000 distinct languages are spoken in the world today. However, fewer than 100,000 people speak 90 percent of these known languages, and some of those that are more rare have significantly fewer native speakers. As a result, linguists estimate that more than half the languages currently spoken in the world will become extinct by the end of this century.

Because of its geographic location, wedged as it is in the mountainous region of southeastern Europe between the Black and Caspian Seas, the Caucasus is considered one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse places on earth. The Caucasus is home to about seven million people from 17 nations and autonomous regions that speak nearly 60 different languages. The region is sometimes known as "the Mountain of Languages," and in some cases, the smallest languages are spoken in single villages only.

The geographic and cultural isolation of the Caucasus engenders the development of self-sustaining pocket languages, limited to village or pan-village use. Economics plays a role in the use of village languages in this region. Those residing on the upper slopes of a mountain tend to learn the language of those below them but not vice versa. This is because those in the upper villages must sometimes travel to villages in lower areas for employment and trade, while those inhabitants of villages in the lower regions rarely move up the mountain for commerce or social interaction. It is a foregone conclusion that many of the languages currently spoken in the Caucasus will disappear within the next 100 years and, with them, the cultural context from which these languages sprung.

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The Languages of Alaska—general overview.

Because of size constraints, the majority of the lesser languages spoken in the Caucasus are not represented in the existing map books of the region that highlight language use. The number of languages is too great, and the map scale and page size restrict the amount of printed information that can be included on the map and still remain intelligible to the reader.

In response, linguists in the Department of Linguistics at Stockholm University in Sweden are using ArcGIS Desktop (ArcInfo) for the development and maintenance of their Language Map Server applications. ArcIMS is used to distribute the information generated via the Web. The researchers' ultimate goal is to document the geographic range of the minor languages spoken throughout the world before they are lost forever.

The first step is their prototype application documenting the smaller northeast Caucasian languages.

Comments Stockholm University linguist Dr. Ljuba Veselinova, "Our application depicts the location of the people speaking the various languages in this area as accurately as possible on the displayed maps. It also presents the genetic affiliation of the languages, information about dialects, and the current number of speakers through the use of pop-up tabular data stored in a relational database. This method allows us to accurately record areas where there is an overlap of different languages currently being spoken—that is, multilingual areas. The site can be used by anyone who needs to obtain genealogical, demographic, or geographic information about these languages. It will be of particular use to cultural anthropologists."

The university hopes to expand the database to include all the languages currently spoken in the Caucasus, which would allow comparative historical studies of the area, such as tracing the traditional migratory patterns of the people of the region through their languages. In addition, the application could hot link photos of the people of the region to the displayed maps and provide audio samples of their languages.

"The languages that we are targeting are documented in a variety of ways," continues Veselinova. "In some cases, all we have is the grammar. In others, audio files, as well as other language-related materials, are available. Once the general structure is developed, we will be able to include multimedia materials in the later stages of the project."

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The Languages of Alaska—a closer look at Inupiaq, and Koyukon.

Professor ึsten Dahl, Stockholm University linguist, is collecting data on native Alaskan languages for an additional geographic region of the Language Map Server project. His research not only includes genealogical and geographical information about the languages of the region but also census information regarding the proportions of native and nonnative populations in the areas depicted on the Alaskan map.

Concludes Veselinova, "In the future, we plan to provide Language Map Server applications for other regions in the world where a great variety of lesser languages are spoken. Our ultimate goal is to create an interactive language atlas of the world, which would be useful not only to researchers but also for language instruction at all levels of education."

GIS in Linguistics, which is hosted by the Department of Linguistics at Stockholm University, is the official Web site for the Map Server Project (Web: ling-map.ling.su.se/website).

For more information, contact Ljuba Veselinova (e-mail: ljuba@ling.su.se).

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