Google and the Yucatec Language

Mayan Language areaLast week 20 native speakers of the Yucatec language met. They gather to try to add the language to the Google language base, MozillaWiki, WikiMedia and some crowdsourced project. Yucatec is the largest language belonging to the Mayan tongue. It was a joint effort of the ongoing Google’s Endangered Languages ProjectMozilla and WikiMedia. Over 3,000 languages around the world are on the verge of extinction. Google and others are trying to help preserve those language. By preserving the language of a group, you also help to preserve the culture.

The meeting last week provided a glimpse on how hard this maybe. Many words that we take for granted today don’t exist in many traditional languages. If you are creating a English-Yucatec or a Spanish-Yucatec dictionary how do you translate a word like tab or file. Those words don’t exist in the Yucatec language. Do you simply add the English or Spanish word to the Yucatec dictionary or do you use several Yucatec words to mean the same thing. Many languages use the second approach, for example in German the full name for a tank(Panzer) is Panzerkampfwagen which means armored combat vehicle. Although this works it can get a bit unwieldy after a while. If you use the first method, then you run into the danger of missing the whole point of the project. Yucatec is still spoken by a large number of people. Now imagine adding the problem of an aging population to this scenario.

This meeting was just a small part of the Google Endangered Language Project, which is trying to use modern technology and Google’s computing power to help preserve native languages around the world. The history and culture of an area are intertwined with its language. If the language disappears then you lose part of its history.