Do you speak Votian?

Votian is the language spoken by the Votes. Votes are the people of Ingria, an area of Russia just Southwest of St. Petersburg close to the Estonian border.

The Votian language is also practically extinct with 50 speakers at most. There are no children currently speaking Votian. Experts generally consider a community’s language to be “endangered” when at least 30 per cent of its children no longer learn it.

Imminent extinction is also on the horizon for the Livonian, Krimchak and Yevanic languages. Norn and Polabian have already disappeared. In fact 50 to 90 percent of the world’s languages are predicted to disappear in the next century, many with little or no documentation. The UN says that least 3,000 tongues are endangered, seriously endangered, or dying in many parts of the world.

That’s where the Rosetta Project comes in.

The original Rosetta stone was a tablet written in hieroglyphic symbols and the Egyptian and Greek languages. Because Greek was well known, the stone was the key to deciphering the hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Project aims to produce Rosetta Stone-like discs in order to preserve dying languages.

The Rosetta Disc is held in a four-inch spherical container that both protects the disk as well as provides additional functionality. The container is split into two hemispheres with the three inch Rosetta Disc sitting in an indent on the flat meeting surface of the two hemispheres. The upper hemisphere is made of optical glass and doubles as a 6X viewer, giving visual access deeper into the tapered text rings. The bottom hemisphere is high-grade stainless steel.

The actual Rosetta Disc is a micro-etched nickel alloy disc 5.08 cm across with a 2,000-year life expectancy. The design consists of an Earth map at the center with spokes radiating outward holding 27,000 language data pages- 27 pages for each language. The center Earth map has the geographic origin of each language marked with a number that corresponds to the location of the language data in the spokes. The Rosetta archive will be available in three versions: the etched disc, a free on-going online archive and one very big book. The plan is to update the archive disc in 5-year intervals.

The project is a global collaboration of linguists and native speakers striving to create a physical archive of all documented human languages. Currently over 2,300 of the 7,000 existing languages have been documented. The archive will allow for comparative linguistic research and a tool for the possible recovery of lost languages in the future.

Each of the languages is stored on the Rosetta Disc in a parallel text structure much like the original Rosetta Stone. Research for the disk also involves fieldwork such as traveling to the Cameroon to document the Benue-Congo subgroup language of the Niger-Congo family.

People abandon their native tongues for a variety of reasons. The break-up of a language can disappear when its users come into association with a more aggressive or economically stronger culture. Children will learn the language of the dominant culture, especially as a means to get a job. Some minorities and their languages come under attack from groups of people who destroy their environment to extract minerals, timber, and/or oil from it. Occasionally authorities discourage the use of local languages in schools, local government and the media. Other times the speakers of the language just die out and the society collapses.

English, especially American English, is quickly becoming the universal language. In science and business it is already the language of record. The world appears to moving very fast toward the acceptance of English as the planet’s language and that accelerates the demise of regional tongues.

But isn’t that a good thing? Fewer languages means better communication, right? Beyond being an academic exercise for linguists is there any point in saving almost extinct languages? The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has spent considerable effort on promoting disappearing tongues. According to UNESCO:

They (languages) are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to development fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

That’s a tall order for the speakers of Rotokos and Keder. But the Rosetta Project will be there if a person or a nation wants a return to a long-gone language. Unlike an endangered animal species, an endangered or extinct language can be saved through a determined language policy. In Japan for example, only eight people spoke Ainu on the island of Hokkaido in the late 1980s, but today it is being revived after years of ostracism and decline. An Ainu museum has been opened there and the language is being taught to young people, who are rediscovering it. Sometimes languages that have actually died out have been “raised from the dead,” such as Cornish, in England, which became extinct in 1777 but has been revived in recent years, with nearly 1,000 people now speaking it as a second language. The question is wouldn’t it make more sense to learn French or Spanish rather than Cornish as your second language?

In many ways the Rosetta Project feels very much like the actual Rosetta Stone; a historical curiosity that reveals a past that is linguistically interesting, but not a reason to start writing my friends in hieroglyphs. You could speak Yug, but what’s the point?