A funny thing happened to several languages on their way to extinction — they were saved, pulled back from the brink by teenagers and the Internet, of all things.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
Samuel Herrera, who runs the linguistics laboratory at the Institute of Anthropological Research in Mexico City, found young people in southern Chile producing hip-hop videos and posting them on YouTube using Huilliche, a language on the brink of extinction.
Herrera also discovered teens in the Phillippines and Mexico who think it’s “cool” to send text messages in regional endangered languages like Kapampangan and Huave.
Almost as soon as text messaging exploded on the world stage as a means to reach anyone, anywhere, and anytime, young people began to find a way to scale it back, make it more exclusive and develop their own code or doublespeak to use on the widely-used devices.
Shorthand and abbreviations became a popular way to keep the “inside joke” of LOL, or “laughing out loud,” and brb, or “be right back,” within the circle. In time, though, these catchphrases reached a broader audience, losing their cache and exclusivity. As soon as its use became widespread and commercial, the code was no longer “cool.”
That was the case earlier this year when a crop of abbreviations common to texting and email were included in the Oxford English Dictionary, legitimizing the language shift caused by rapid-fire, text-based communications.
In this sense, the adoption of a discarded language makes perfect sense, to keep texting’s cachet among teens exclusive. And linguists are pleased that dying languages are helping teens communicate, keeping the languages alive in the process.
“This really strengthens the use of the language,” said Herrera, who is pleased to find this naturally occurring, albeit somewhat unconventional, solution to the problem of dying native tongues.
In fact, according to Dr. Gregory Anderson, young people need to be the ones reviving a dying language. The director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Oregon, says that somewhere between the ages of six and 25, people make a definitive decision whether or not to say to stay or break with a language.
“If the language isn’t being used by their peer group, then they reject it categorically,” Anderson concluded.
This isn’t the first time that young people played a pivotal role in technological advancement. Over a hundred years ago, in 1900, the younger generation displayed its savvy with the new communication device of that time — the telegraph — and became the quickest and earliest adopters of Morse code.
Teenagers, with their better hand-eye coordination, were able to send and receive telegrams at a rate of 20 to 30 words a minute, making them perfect operators of the new technology. The young people’s mastery of the “dits” and “dahs” of Morse code contributed to the 63 million telegrams sent in 1900. At that time, telegrams were a big advancement, serving as a quick way to send a brief amount of information, much like today’s text messages.
A letter from Philadelphia to Boston might take a couple weeks, so in that respect the telegram, which was used to convey important military and political information, was invaluable. Historians today researching the early 1900s rely heavily on telegrams to piece together important events, much as modern historians are using Twitter, for example, to put together a timeline of the Arab Spring events.
Something as simple as text messaging can draw young people’s attention back to the languages of their elders, and projects like the YouTube channel’s “Enduring Voices” can inspire others to learn ancestral tongues to produce hip-hop music. Connections between both the past and present echo from the old fashioned telegram tapping out on Morse code from a century back, to texting in another type of code entirely today.