February 19 2013

Digital death (thoughts, not a thesis)

Posted by Mark in Culture, Internet

Mark Africa blog

A few days ago I was congratulating Graca Machel (current wife of Nelson Mandela) for being the only woman ever to have been the First Lady of two different states. I then realised that a) the bus was moving very slowly, and b) I didn't know much about her first husband, the socialist post-independence President of Mozambique. Enter Wikipedia, pursued by a bear. After reaching the climax (death by plane crash - at the hands of either inebriated soviet pilots or merciless Apartheid agents), I noticed that the article could be read in *31* alternative languages. Alongside the major 'international' languages (by which I mean, widely spoken as second languages or studied outside their regions of origin, the article is also available (albeit in greater brevity) in Belarusian (7.6m native speakers), Breton (206k), Catalan (11.5m), Estonian (1m), Georgian (7m), Latin (0), Lithuanian (3.2m), Mongol (5.7m), Occitan (2m), Venetan (2m).

On scanning the list, my initial sentiment was one of embarrassment - embarrassment that I didn't know that Belorussia or Venice even had their own tongues, or that Occitan was even a thing anymore (it appears to have more native speakers than than all six Celtic languages combined).

Emerging from this introspective shock, I noticed that the article only appeared in one language of African 'origin' (not the sturdiest of criteria, but here I'm excluding French, Portuguese, English and Arabic) - Ido. This I found bemusing, as I was pretty sure that Ido was West African (ergo, pretty far from Mozambique). Once again smacked down by Wikipedia, I soon discovered that I was thinking of Igbo (spoken by 24m in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea); Ido actually appears to be a descendant of Esperanto, and has a paltry 100-200 'users'.

And so, I was kind of stunned that an article about one of sub-Saharan Africa's great independence leaders is available in a range of languages demographically-minor European languages (almost all speakers of which are multilingual), but not a single non-European language of Mozambique, or indeed of sub-Saharan Africa. According to a 2007 survey, Emakhuwa is the mother tongue of around a quarter of the Mozambican population, while only 10% claim Portuguese as their first language (although it is the second language of a further 40%).

Wikipedia handily details all 286 languages in which the page on Samora Machel is available, ordering them by the number of articles for which they are used. Incredibly, only seven 'African' languages are in the top 200: Yoruba (75th, with ca. 30k pages); Afrikaans (82nd, 26k); Swahili (84th, 25k); Amharic (112th, 12k); Somali (179th, 2.5k). ; Lingala (194th, 2k); and Kinyarwanda (200th, 1.8k). A further 31 African languages have a 'wiki-presence'.

It makes sense; if you need to use the web to publicise a product, service or opinion, using Tswana, Kikuyu or Ewe makes little sense. It goes without saying that the global reach of the internet forces suppliers to market their wares/thoughts to a wider audience than they would in previously more localised markets. Uganda alone has over forty languages; although many within the same linguistic group may be mutually intelligible to a degree, the much wider comprehension of English makes it a much more dependable choice for anyone looking to use the web for intranational purposes (let alone international).

It's not feasible to hope that individuals and businesses in African countries devote time to the creation and maintenance of web resources in languages other than (and possibly in addition to) those which will allow them to achieve their key economic or philosophical goals. It would actually be pretty paternalistic. But it is pertinent to ask if, as the web becomes an increasingly important mode of communication in 'developing' countries, can indigenous languages survive as means of verbal communication while being relegated to digital redundancy? UNESCO estimates that 90% of individuals in developing areas have no access to broadband, but a raft of initiatives (e.g. Inveneo's BB4G) employing new business models and cheap technologies are changing the connectivity landscape at pace. Avanti's HYLAS 2 satellite, launched in August 2012, has reduced dependence for millions in eastern and southern Africa on unreliable undersea cables. While cost may still be prohibitive to many, there's an expectation this will decrease over time. As societies in Africa become increasing engaged in digital communications, how will the position of indigenous languages in the non-digital sphere develop?

It may even be possible to correlate the rise of the internet with the recently declining status of indigenous languages. Between the 1997 and 2007 Mozambican censuses, there was (apparently) a significant increase in the number of people claiming portuguese as their mother tongue to 10%. 42.9% of the inhabitants of the capital Maputo held the post-colonial language as their first language in 2007, although I couldn't find out what this rose from. It would be interesting to see if it's possible to plot sociolinguistic identity against the growth in internet access, although undoubtedly other factors must have major roles to play (tourism, demographic shift, increased literacy). If anyone knows of any relevant literature, forward it on!

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