Marja-Leena Rathje
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dying languages & technology


I've written before about my interest in the loss of minority languages around the world. The dominance of the English language on the internet and in popular entertainment is just one factor that is blamed, but here is a hopeful note about how young people are using today's technology to communicate in their native tongues.

This was accompanied by another article called Silenced Voices, how a huge number of languages are dying along with the remaining few elders who still speak them.

So, in light of the first article, is this not a very a good reason, amongst others, to provide the internet and related technology at a low cost to still-deprived isolated communities such as many of Canada's First Nations and Inuit people to assist the younger generation in practicing their native languages in a lively manner? Language loss is surprisingly quick without usage, even for me since I rarely get to speak Finnish since my parents passed away two decades ago. The internet and reading Finnish blogs and news is preventing complete loss, and keeping me in tune with my original culture. Language and culture go hand in hand, or should it be, hand in glove.

For interested readers, more related links can be found under the linguistics theme. I would be happy to hear what experiences you, dear readers, have had with language loss, personally or in others you know.

Also, a bit about the photos here... how very timely for me to have suitably related images literally come up while reading and writing about this. This ancient typewriter, now old technology within just a generation, was retrieved out of the storage dungeon, erm, crawl space for our ten-year-old granddaughter who is eager to try it out. It needs a cleaning and new ribbon which I believe are still available in some shop in Vancouver.


P.S. This was probably made sometime in 1930's, says husband. I also learned that the typewriter was invented in 1870 - so that is well over over a hundred years of steady use. A little off topic, yet interesting.

Marja-Leena | 30/07/2011 | 24 comments
themes: Culture, Ethnicity, Linguistics


You write, Marja-Leena, of a subject near and dear to my heart. And your Royal typewriter has the entire household in a tizzy ... my Olivetti Underwood has noted the sumptuous lines of the Royal and is enthralled. The Royal keys are really something. One needs to develop the finger muscles, I would assume. As the tongue muscle needs developed when speaking a language teetering on the brink. One of my closest friends speaks Armenian natively, but that language is in danger, I hear.

rouchswalwe, hee, your olivetti loves this ancient royal? It was old when husband got it over 40 years ago, many of the letters are worn off, and yes, the finger muscles got a work out. Which is why he still pounds the keys on the 'puter. Granddaughter was surprised that she can't delete mistakes.

Speaking of tongue muscles... when I'm suddenly called to actually speak Finnish, it takes many minutes for my tongue to wrap itself around the words... very strange. I'm sorry to learn that Armenian is endangered.

Oh you just know that I will return to this, having a passion for linguistics and a great interest in minority languages, but I must leave to drive north to help The Ragazza to move into her first flat with her BF, a momentous day for her and yet another flutter of a fledgling flying from the nest. OK, a quite old fledgling and one who's been at uni for three years but...

Mouse, yes, I know how interested you are about this subject. And I know what it's like to see one's children fly from the nest (and sometimes they come back again). Enjoy helping her move.

How poignant those shaped keys!

Joe, I imagine that would be very much so for you, being a writer and a former editor.

A salutary detail: a typewriter described as ancient is only five years older than me. So here's an ancient experience. The reporter's room of the newspaper I first worked with had a mixture of old (eventually to become ancient) typewriters. Each had a different sound and - the cognoscenti's observation - a different touch. The one you show has an enclosure round the final operation and this muffled the rat-tat-tat. Some related machines were said to be "silent" and were used for taking depositions in court. Imperials had a hard resistant feel and clattered; Underwoods seemed loosely put together: their keys "gave" and they twanged as well as clattered. A line to carve on my gravestone: Dead, but at least he knew typewriters.

There's a problem about minority languages: they don't just die as their users die, they die if they fail to evolve. Welsh, spoken in the streets only fifteen miles away from where I live, has to fight these two battles. New things happen and we need new words to describe them. Thus the Welsh for television is telewele which, I suspect, to those who speak only Welsh, doesn't sound like a Welsh word. But a language that can't cope with new stuff isn't doing its job. And it is wrong that a person who has been fired as an efficiency measure from a hill-farm should be reduced to crooning about druids and winged monsters when he goes to pick up his unemployment pay. Better that's he's force-fed English that allows him to get work than being trapped in a bubble devoted to quaintness.

BB, you aren't ancient. Perhaps I should have called the typewriter 'vintage' instead for I read somewhere that anything older than twenty years qualified. Yet that technology, as I discovered, is over 140 years old. Interesting about the variety of sounds and touch they had, and of course you worked in newspapers so you would know.

I understand what you are saying about language needing to evolve and it does, whether we want it to or not, but with the addition of new words, right? What this is about is the entire loss of languages and cultures, and hundreds of these are disappearing. Those cultures that are part of dominant languages like English, French, Spanish, Chinese etc., don't always appreciate the minority ones, In fact they have often forbidden their usage such as in the former indian residential schools here in North America. Nothing wrong with learning more than one language of course, but let the native languages exist alongside. Your Welshman should be allowed to retain his language as well as learn English if that is needed.

I learned to type when I was 16 with similar typewriter which is there, except the keayboard was different. The typewriter was my aunts "portable" (good if I could carry it to the next room!) Remington.

Later then came true portable and I had then for my school ending present from my father a Olivetti Lettera. It broke on the way to America 1969, but I got it fixed with Scandies and all in Portland, by an old machine repair guy, who marvelled the Olivetti.

I would've wanted to have an Olivetti computer then in the beginning of the 90's when I finally got around finishing my Magister Philopsophucus-thesis, but Olivetti went bancrupt.

For doing a theses for M.Ph. would've been very difficult without a computer. I even had an early WWW-net, all without pictures, but access to university sites.

What a fascinating post and comments!
Hawaiian is a language that never disappeared completely and is spoken by some as a first language. It has been restored to some extent. Hawaiian chants are part of the cultural restoration of the hula as well.
Swiss,the other marginal language I know a few things about, is a living language. It's dynamic, and the slang of a few years ago seems quiant today, vocabulary and expressions change that fast. What does not change is the grammar and "Aussprache" (Pronunciation), unchanged since the Middle Ages. All Swiss speaking children read and speak standard German as well, though often with a noticeable "Swiss" accent.
As to the typewriter: my grandmother was a "crack" typist and quite the modern girl in her time. My accountant grandfather was captivated by her skills and married her, but their marriage was not a happy one. Long story,
When we lived in Germany we had a German keyboard typewriter with all the umlauts.
I have got to say I think the computer is a wonderful improvement on these machines, because I never learned to type well enough to avoid having many many mistakes to correct.

Ripsa, it's good that you learned to type at a young age. You've certainly used many kinds of typewriters. Do you mean a Masters in Philosophy, I think your term is German? Oh yes, typing on computers is so much easier.

Ripsa and Hattie: When I was in high school in Manitoba, the only students allowed to take a typing course were those not in the university entrance stream so I never learned to type. Some years later when I was doing the written portion of my thesis for my BFA Honours, on Finnish art as a matter of fact, I paid the art school secretary to type it up. I've learned some typing since but I'm still poor at it so, yes, I say thanks to computers.

Hattie, imagine how very skilled typists like your grandmother were back then, and there were so many in a lot of offices until the 1980's. In my husband's workplace there used to be several secretaries doing just that and filing and so on but with the advent of computers at everyone's desk, all that support (and jobs) were lost. Quick, everyone, learn to do your own typing and filing and purchase orders and spend less time engineering, designing, drafting, maintenance, whatever.

Thanks also for your interesting comments on Hawaiian and Swiss languages, good to hear they are surviving, even with changes.

I don't have any particular language loss story to share since English is really my only language. However, the English vocabulary is huge and I do know enough of it to understand that as people simplify their exchanges with one another their ability to express complex (and subtle) meaning declines.

Susan, good point.... all this texting on cell phones, Facebook and others like it.

I think it's a great shame when immigrant parents won't teach their children their own language, fearing that it will make them too 'different' in their adopted country. I consider it a privilege to have had several languages around me as a child, it opens up the world in ways that are hard to come by as an adult.
What great photos of the typewriter! And how strange that they have become almost antiques in such a relatively short time. I loved my old portable Olivetti and the sound of clattering keys is so nostalgic!

Natalie, you've been very blessed to have grown multilingual. Yes, our mother tongues need to be passed on to the next generation. I'm very guilty of not having done so, with the feeble excuse that since husband and I could not speak each other's native languages in family communication with our children, we used English at home. They did learn French and some German in school but not Finnish. I have regrets about that.

Adding on to the Welsh and new words topic, I really like the Welsh slang for microwave: popty ping!

On forgetting and children: they say that I could once speak Cajun French and chattered away with my little playmates. They dragged me out of Louisiana... All gone, not a wisp of memory left.

Totally agree with your concerns about languages dying out.

Geographical isolation of olden times was key to communities developing their cultures, and languages.

Their languages, and culture were in turn kept alive with succeeding generations staying within the communities, and by default, in their area of origin. I feel globalisation changed all that.

With globalisation, and livelihood driving adoption of English as a language of business in much of the world, including the availability of mass entertainment most prominently in English, aided no doubt by imperial colonisation, most languages, and more importantly, dialects, are dying out.

Back here, I see local dialects dying out with the young migrating to cities, or for being schooled in languages not their own. Interestingly, political parties seeking to retain their state identity are attempting to force local languages as a medium of instruction. This in turn has led to parents opposing the move saying 'politics of language' will disadvantage their children from competing in a globalised world, that is in English.

Encouraging literature in local languages is one way their demise can be stemmed, in addition to using the tools you mention to learn and revive the use of languages.

A language, because it defines so strongly the identity of a community and/or a region as in a culture, is in esssence a way of life. Any loss of a language, or a dialect, is in short a loss of a way of life.

Marly, that Welsh word reminds me of 'hopticopter', our little firstborn's word for 'helicopter' (too long ago). Children learn languages quickly amongst other children, and I suppose lose them as quickly - a lesson there.

Anil, thanks so much for adding your voice here and telling us about how it must be in a richly multilingual and multicultural India. You make many excellent points, especially about globalization and the effects of migration to the cities. Let us hope there are ways to make sure that there will not be any more language and cultural loss in your country.

Such pleasure you've brought to viewers ancient, vintage, and young. It is very important to hold onto objects from another time. We need the connections for ourselves and to share with those younger.

Books are my treasured objects. Have you heard about Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, who is filling climate-controlled shipping containers with...BOOKS. His goal is to "see books live forever." Amazing.

Naomi, it's hard to hold onto everything when our homes become so full and when the day may come one has to move to a smaller place. We have too much stuff stored in the crawl space. Books are my love too and again we have too many. The name Brewster Kahle did not ring a bell, I looked it up and of course I knew about the internet archive of books. Yes, it's wonderful that he's also collecting real books! I hope they never disappear.

Two fascinating topics for folks of a certain age!

I taught myself to type on an Olivetti Valentine which I picked up in 1970 for a small sum, and went on as a secretary to use other manuals and then graduated to the heights of an IBM golfball just before rising to level of entitlement to a secretary of my own.
Later I wrote a book first on an Olivetti 41 which I bought in 1983, just before acquiring my first word processor. I have loved the advances, and greatly appreciated them, because for me they were imperfect tools. Each advance meant that I could better fulfil my task. Sentimentally, however, I still have that original Olivetti Valentine - mostly, I think, because I love the way it looks rather than for its function.

Languages. Well, I first spoke Greek, and then almost immediately learned Scots English. At school I learned French and German. I discovered that the Greek I spoke was Pontic Greek, as my mother's relatives and friends were refugees from that area. My English usage has expanded as I moved to England after marriage, and then to the USA for a while, and then expanded more and more with globalisation.
I studied language slightly at university, which gave me an interest in structures. What I love most is the expanded view that knowing different languages provides. There are experiences which can be labelled in one language and not precisely in another - and as you say, pronouncing different languages can feel as delicious as any great meal.

Hopticopter: I like that! Apt.

So many languages have gone to the brink before it seemed to people that they were worth saving. I remember (thirty years ago) going through a reservation in Virginia where people from outside were teaching the lost language and also the now-unused handicrafts. The effect was odd.

Oh, so wonderful to see the old Royal dusted off and appreciated! I also fondly remember the flip-top desk it was built into in my childhood bedroom, the richly grained wood and unfathomable mechanism that allowed that heavy thing to appear like a magician's assistant suddenly on the desk surface. I remember the first school paper that required to be typed, and the same frustration my niece has about not being able to correct mistakes! I'd never go back to a typewriter now, but the satisfying resistance of the keys, so much like playing piano, and the musical bing at the end of each row of uneven black letters is still a pleasurable memory. You could physically express emotion in every letter with the Royal, again like ones touch on piano keys, that you cannot get on a computer. Which is why some things ultimately still require handwriting. I hope that is a skill, in addition to the world's rich variety of languages, that never disappears. I'm so glad the Royal is still in the family.

Olga, thanks for your little history with typewriters, especially since you had to use them in your working life. Interesting that you've kept your first typewriter too.

I rather envy you speaking so many languages and I suppose you get to use them often enough that you don't forget. I've forgotten high school Latin. We had very little spoken French because our teacher was not francophone and I've forgotten most of it because of lack of use, even though it's a legally bilingual language in Canada. Maybe if we lived in Quebec. I tried learning Italian once for a trip we took there but ended up mixing it with French. Globalization and travel does mean that it is a good thing to know how to speak in different languages, for they are the door to other cultures.

Marly, I knew you'd like that word. Will it appear in some future story or poem? That story about the language and crafts in that reservation is still true and continuing in many places, even growing, thankfully. But it seems there is a need for more recording.

Anita! I'd forgotten how much you had used that typewriter. That desk design was clever in hiding the typewriter, like a Singer sewing machine table but I really disliked its looks and massiveness. I was so glad to get rid of it when we moved here. Do you remember it had to be brought in and taken out via the window? Do you want the typewriter? I've been thinking of giving it away to a good home...