By Greta Schatz
This post was developed as part of the Columbia University course “Multilingual Technologies and Language Diversity” taught by Smaranda Muresan, PhD and Isabelle Zaugg, PhD. This cross-disciplinary course offering was a joint effort between the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Department of Computer Science, developed through the generous support of the Collaboratory@Columbia.
Until recently, I had not thought of the digital space as an actual delineated space. I had only ever thought of it as a tool, as a means of access to physical space, not as a space in its own right. I could send texts to my classmates across campus, Facebook messages to my friends at international universities, and emails to my uncle in China – connecting city blocks, countries, and continents, all within seconds. Though I understood that technology was a means of connection between physical spaces, for me, as a native English speaker, that connection was instantaneous and almost completely without thought. But after reading András Kornai’s “Digital Language Death,” a paper foundational to the discussion of endangered languages in the digital sphere, I became aware that there is, for many if not most people around the world, some measure of barrier in using digital technology. There is a sense by which one enters a different space when one uses the internet. Even if solely examining Kornai’s terminology, “digital ascension” (Kornai 1) implies movement from one space into a new space, and, at that, movement with difficulty, like climbing stairs or scaling a mountain. As such, for those whose language is not digitally supported, or for those who are, by linguistic or cultural pressure, inclined to use a nonnative language when they interact online, the delineation of the digital sphere is palpable. For many, digital technologies are not merely a tool, but also a space to which access is actively achieved.
The obstacles to cross the barrier into the digital space are, as Kornai and many others point out, numerous, and many of these obstacles are even more complicated than they may initially seem. Community size, as Kornai explains, is not sheer numbers. Not only must a language have a number of native speakers to successfully cross into the digital space, but these speakers must also enter and interact within the digital space. Prestige in the physical world is also not nearly enough. With digital representation comes prestige, so a language must have enough prestige in the outside world such that even if it is not already digitally present, its speakers will want for it to be. Not the least of the obstacles to surmount for digitally underrepresented languages is script-support, which for a number of the world’s languages seems like a pipe dream. For me, this had never even been a thought. My script and language are so heavily supported that I can exist in the digital space for time immemorial without seeing a single other script. Though in recent years initiatives and organizations like Unicode and The Script Encoding Initiative at University of California, Berkeley, have worked to increase the support available for scripts around the world, most scripts do not have substantial digital support. As Michael Erard describes in “How the Appetite for Emojis Complicates the Effort to Standardize the World’s Alphabets,” despite Unicode’s impressive expansion in the years since its inception, more than 100 scripts still in wide use in the physical world are not represented in Unicode (Erard). Access to the internet is thus impeded for some – instead of perhaps using a native script, speakers will be pressured to use what is available or convenient. Access is even flat-out denied to others who may not have a way to use their language online at all. In order to cross the barrier into online space, speakers of underrepresented languages must either find or create support for their language, switch to a dominant language, or work within the framework of a supported script.
Understanding digital technology as a space is in many ways consistent with the argument put forth by Lydia Liu in her paper, “Scripts in Motion: Writing as Imperial Technology, Past and Present.” For Liu, development of scripts has always had an intimate relationship with the development of empire, a legacy that is felt in the mostly written communication that occurs on the internet. Liu describes the ways that the origins of writing systems interact with empire and imperial aspirations, citing the arguments of Herold Innis that writing systems developed along with empire from a “political imperative of centralized authority” as well as from the “practical need for long-distance transmission of information and military intelligence” (Liu 376). Empires throughout history have developed their own scripts, adapted existing scripts to serve their purposes, or eradicated scripts that, for one reason or another, posed a perceived threat, all through the course of expansion through space. The internet, thus, if thought of as a space, is a new level for expansion, and some of the same principles that apply to written technologies in the physical world apply, too, to digital technologies in the digital sphere. As Liu describes, the proliferation of the Roman alphabet led to conjecture about its perceived superiority in the physical world. Its supposed focus on the representation of actual sound and oral speech (a total fallacy) has led to arguments of it being “the universal medium of progress” by “strip[ping] the Roman script of its cultural and historical baggage by turning it into a rational, transparent instrument of transcription for any language in the world” (Liu 379). Because the Roman script has more support in a digital platform, similar arguments are made about the need for (or rather, absence of need for) support of different writing systems. These arguments are reminiscent of those made by John McWhorter in “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English,” which asserts that “we cannot change that history, nor is it currently conceivable how we could arrange for some other language to replace the growing universality of English” (McWhorter 66). In a sense, the internet was colonized from the bottom up when technologies were initially developed in dominant languages and work now must be done to decolonize the digital space.
For me, the most important implications of the digital space as a space are the sociolinguistic implications. It is not a controversial statement, I think, to say that language is deeply dependent on context and position in space, and the internet is no exception. It is no secret that there is a great deal of symbolic charge in language use. (Here, I employ the “slippage” (Liu 379) between script and language to generalize, acknowledging that this generalization does not get at the nuances of orality as opposed to written language.) This is outlined in detail in Toby Lester’s article “New-Alphabet Disease?” where the political charge of one alphabet over another has led to almost unfathomable reforms in Azerbaijan. As the country attempted to cast-off the legacy of Soviet occupation, it adopted a (slightly modified) Latin alphabet, despite the gesture being largely symbolic: most people who support the use of the alphabet “when pressed… admit that they use Cyrillic” (Lester). The internet is a space that is in a way analogous to Azerbaijan. Like Azerbaijan, the internet has an embedded colonial legacy but is also the site of incredible diversity and cultural richness, with smaller languages like those described in “Everyone Speaks Text Message” (Rosenberg) achieving some level of digital presence. It takes effort for small languages to enter the digital space; thus, making space for smaller languages on the internet says something positive about the language’s worth and importance. Because of this inherent political nature of smaller languages existing on the internet, it is possible that a great deal more is involved in the invocation of a sign on the internet than might be involved in the invocation of the same sign in physical space. Just as in Azerbaijan public signage says something very specific about identity and language ideology, language use on the internet says something very specific about those same things. It would, I think, be worthwhile to keep an eye on the ways in which this specific context of the internet is (to put it in extremes) a battleground for linguistic legitimacy, and on how this affects phenomena like code-switching or script-switching. What else is packed into a sign that we cannot get at if we ignore the contextual implications?
Erard, Michael. “How the Appetite for Emojis Complicates the Effort to Standardize the World’s Alphabets.” The New York Times Magazine, 18 Oct. 2017. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/magazine/how-the-appetite-for-emojis-complicates-the-effort-to-standardize-the-worlds-alphabets.html.
Kornai, András. “Digital Language Death.” PLOS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, Public Library of Science, 2013, pp. 1–11, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077056.
Lester, Toby. “New-Alphabet Disease?” The Atlantic, 07/97, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1997/07/new-alphabet-disease/306207/.
Liu, Lydia. “Scripts in Motion: Writing as Imperial Technology, Past and Present.” PMLA, vol. 130, Mar. 2015, pp. 375–83, doi:10.1632/pmla.2015.130.2.375.
McWhorter, John. “THE COSMOPOLITAN TONGUE: The Universality of English.” World Affairs, vol. 172, no. 2, Sage Publications, Inc., 2009, pp. 61–68. JSTOR.
Rosenberg, Tina. “Everyone Speaks Text Message.” The New York Times Magazine, 9 Dec. 2011. NYTimes, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/11/magazine/everyone-speaks-text-message.html. Accessed 11 June 2020.