Statement of Purpose

Increasing internationalism in the twentieth century with a small group of nations dominating the scene, has had an adverse effect on the maintenance of social and cultural traditions of many communities.

A language is a reflection of the community which speaks it. It embodies the philosophy and the world-view of its people. In communities which lack a writing system, this knowledge is handed down orally from one generation to the next. When a language dies, which happens with increasing frequency in our modern world, we lose not only the linguistic knowledge of that community but also knowledge of its culture.

One important way of ensuring that knowledge about indigenous languages and cultures is not totally and irrevocably lost is by recording socio-cultural and linguistic information about such languages and by making this information available to a wider audience. Such information is of obvious value for disciplines such as linguistics and anthropology, which study diverse and complex manifestations of human culture and social behavior. Further, some of the most challenging languages, those which offer a rich variety of sounds, are found in India. To document this, this website will also include sound files of isolated word lists and words in their natural environment, as a resource for the teaching and learning of phonetics in general, and as a means of making visual and experimental phonetics, in particular, more attractive and authentic.

The Indian subcontinent has a long history of linguistic diversity and multilingualism which spans more than three millennia. Languages spoken in this region belong to four major language families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic (Munda). Societal multilingualism is an established tradition in India, as not all languages spoken in a certain one community are always employed in all spheres of activity. Despite this stable multilingualism, language death is not uncommon among non-literary oral languages.

The purpose of this project proposal is to work on producing digital documentation of minority languages in India, beginning with some lesser-known languages in the northern and eastern regions of India, through close collaboration and cooperation between Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden, and the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, India.

The focus in language technology has, unfortunately, been on major Western languages such as, English, German and French. There is a growing awareness within the research community that these technical advances can and should also be used in documenting smaller and lesser-known languages of the world, as this could be an effective tool for spreading awareness about these languages hence helping to maintain the rich linguistic diversity (ÓCróinín 2000) of countries like India.

At the same time, it should also be highlighted that it is not only minor Indian languages which stand to gain from this collaboration, rather also the domain of language technology itself. It gets a testing ground for its tools and programs on languages which typologically differ significantly from literate Western languages. This will then lead to the development of technological tools and programs with wider applicability. A similar benefit can also be seen in the cooperation which is being proposed in this project, with CIIL bringing to the project their linguistic, archival and documentation expertise and Uppsala its experience of using electronic technology to work towards one common goal.

The results of this project will directly as well as indirectly combat the phenomenon of language death by both spreading awareness about these lesser-known languages and by documenting them. To that extent, this project will also be a contribution to work on language endangerment.