Inside an Effort to Document Every Single Language on Earth - Atlas Obscura

Inside an Effort to Document Every Single Language on Earth

Wikitongues offers video samples of Lemerig, Texas German, Aranese, and many more.

Wikitongues cofounder Freddie Andrade speaks with Caroline Jabulile White, a Gullah speaker and cultural activist from Charleston, South Carolina.
Wikitongues cofounder Freddie Andrade speaks with Caroline Jabulile White, a Gullah speaker and cultural activist from Charleston, South Carolina. Courtesy Daniel Bogre Udell

In 2014, three friends from Brooklyn founded a nonprofit they call Wikitongues. The idea was to create an open-access platform with the ambitious goal of documenting, in some way, every language in the world. In the last five years, the team has collected more than 435 of them via video submissions of native speakers. Though this digital oral history project has received significant support since its inception (as any free-use language resource should), Atlas Obscura decided to ask Daniel Bogre Udell, one of the founders (along with Frederico Andrade and Lindie Botes), a few questions about his relationship to the languages he’s been documenting. While some of Udell’s motivations are personal, it’s impossible to embark on an archival project of this scale without a real investment in people all over the world, and bringing attention to the future of at-risk tongues.

Are you specifically looking for submissions of languages that are at risk of dying out?

Every language in the world considered, when we have the opportunity to document a critically endangered or under-documented language, we make that a priority. For example, our community leader for Southeast Asia, Kunto Nurchayako, is based in Borneo, and we’ve been working with him to document the island’s indigenous Dayak languages, many of which are academically unclassified and politically unrecognized. So, in recording those languages, Kunto is welcoming potential cultural activists into a global community of people fighting for linguistic diversity, as well as creating documentation for their languages that can be used to eventually study them, teach them, or relearn them if they ever go extinct. He’s also creating the first and only representation of these languages online.

Are there any languages in particular that you really, really wanted to document?

If we had more resources, I would want to prioritize under-documented languages whose last remaining speakers are elderly, so that we could guarantee their descendants have the tools they need to revive these languages in the future if they so choose. One example of this is the Lemerig language, which we were able to capture thanks to Daniel Krauße, a linguistics student from Germany. Isso, the speaker featured in the video, is one of two remaining speakers of the language, which doesn’t yet have a lively revival movement.

How many languages do you speak?

My mother tongue is English, and I fluently speak Spanish and Catalan. I can hold most conversations in Portuguese and basic conversations in French and Italian. I have a working knowledge of Polish, but can’t speak it conversationally, and have studied Galician, too. Right now, my focus is Hebrew, since I’m Jewish, and have been inspired to reclaim an ancestral language like so many Wikitongues contributors are doing.

Was there a particular language or dialect that really knocked your socks off when you became aware of it? Texas German and Drehu are interesting finds!

I was excited about Texas German, too! I was also taken very romantically by the Aranese language, which is a variety of Occitan. In France, where Occitan primarily originated, the language was beaten out of people in the 1900s by the government’s oppressive French-only policies, so Occitan speakers today are struggling to keep it alive in French culture. However, Aranese is an exception, because it’s spoken by people in an isolated Pyrenean Valley—the Aran Valley—in Catalonia. Today, the regional Catalan government, driven by its own commitment to sustaining Catalan, enthusiastically supports Aranese-language efforts. The language is regionally co-official with Catalan and Spanish, and Aranese is actively taught in local schools, so it’s being passed on to children.

Separate from my Iberian passions, I’ve been really excited about sign languages as a whole, because they’re often left out of conversations about linguistic diversity. More than 300 of the world’s 7,000 languages are signed, so I was thrilled when we received videos in languages such as Kenyan Sign Language (thanks to our friends at Deaf Haven), Namibian Sign Language, and Finnish-Swedish Sign Language.

So 2019 is the UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages. What is Wikitongues doing in coordination with it?

The International Year of Indigenous Languages (#IYIL2019) was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly as a way of making 2019 a platform for promoting linguistic diversity and the recent groundswell of activism to sustain it. This was accomplished thanks to the hard work of indigenous activists who spent a long time lobbying for this level of recognition. UNESCO is stewarding the year-long campaign, since they’re the branch most concerned with cultural preservation. Wikitongues was brought on board to help bridge the gap between UNESCO and the grassroots organizations, so we helped build a coalition of civil society organizations from the around the world to amplify the spirit of the year.

Wikitongues will be working to encourage people to use their languages publicly, especially online, so we’ll be designing and copromoting fun and creative social media campaigns that do just that, such as the Mother Language Meme challenge, which is self-explanatory, or Indigenous Language Challenge, which encourages nonindigenous people to learn indigenous languages in solidarity, and indigenous heritage speakers to reclaim their ancestral languages. Expect more from this soon!

Note: This conversation has been edited for length.