Isabelle Zaugg

Columbia University

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Precarity and Hope for Digitally-Disadvantaged Languages (And Their Scripts)


Minority and indigenous languages and scripts currently face unprecedented rates of extinction, and digital technologies appear to be contributing to their decline. Scholars predict 50-90% of languages will become extinct this century, while only 5% of languages will attain digital vitality. The lack of basic digital supports like Unicode encoding, fonts, or keyboards make using digitally-disadvantaged languages on digital devices inconvenient or impossible. Language communities see declines in the use of their language and/or script as people turn to better-supported languages like English, or transliterate their own language into the Latin alphabet, when using devices. Identity and ways of knowing are embedded within languages and scripts, and so their loss impacts both the most vulnerable communities globally as well as humankind as a whole. While digital support for language diversity is increasing, will it be too little too late? This presentation investigates what can be done to close this digital divide through an instrumental case study of Unicode inclusion and the development of supports for the Ethiopic script and its languages, including Ethiopia's national language, Amharic. This presentation concludes with recommendations to strengthen support for digitally-disadvantaged languages and scripts, from inclusion in Unicode, to grassroots coding within and on behalf of digitally-disadvantaged language communities, to advancing the idea that supporting linguistic diversity is Silicon Valley’s corporate social responsibility.





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