Monday, July 11, 2011

Texting and Endangered Languages

A cool article referred to me by a couple of friends:

Teenagers Revive Dead Languages Through Texting

Samuel Herrera of The Institute of Anthropological Research in Mexico City talks about teenagers who are texting each other in endangered languages. Textspeak and 1337 are common examples of how language technology can act as a code for in-group identification; people are picking up these languages for that purpose. Some linguists are excited because it suggests that these languages might be picked up by enthusiastic young speakers, who are the ones who hold in their hands the fate of these dying languages.

Reading the article reminded me of texting in Nepal. From what I've seen in Nepal there is a lot of code-switching between Nepali and English, which also acts a shibboleth. There are numerous examples of English-Nepali (and my attempts to keep up) on my Facebook wall. Nepali is by necessity written with a Roman script. The Nepali version of "What's up?" is "के छ ?" - "ke chha?"('What is?') But in text messages this is often written:

"k 6?"

Why does '6' represent the word 'chha'? These are the Devanagari numbers 1 to 9:

  १          २          ३          ४           ५          ६          ७          ८          ९
ek             dui           tin           char         páach        chha         saaT        aaTh          nau

Notice that the Nepali word for 6 is 'chha.' The word for 'six' is a homonym for 'to be' (third person singular). Also, the Devanagari character is almost the same: . When written as a word, the character has a bar across the top (). In other words, 'chha' means both 'six' and 'is.' So the Arabic numeral (6) stands in for the Devanagari numeral (), which stands in for the Devanagari word ().

I thought that was a particularly clever example of cross-cultural 1337speak. People who say that teenagers are dumb generally do not spend very much time around them. Although this is pretty cool, I'll get really excited when teenagers start texting each other in Chintang or Raj or any of the other endangered languages here.

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