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« Rape as contraception! | Main | Apple, Samsung, and Jeff Han (prasad) »

August 24, 2012


I was fairly sure in 2007 that most languages (even 'important' ones) were going to be stressed, and that everything except say the top ~50 most spoken would essentially disappear this century (adopting the convention that a language like Welsh or Yiddish counts as having disappeared).

Now I am less sure, because of improvements in machine translation. It's already gotten to the point where software seems to produce translated english of something like the quality of an intermediate level speaker. To give the personal anecdote, when I came to Geneva, roughly around the time of the post, I expected to get better at French and to find it very useful. And I did and it was. But I quickly noticed too that for every 'mundane' purpose, machine translation was both quicker and better than I would be at getting the gist. I'm guessing if something like 'google glass' takes off, one of the most popular applications will be real-time text or even audio translations of spoken communication.

I am not at all sure that the commercial value of speaking English, or Spanish, or Hindi will be very great in 2050, so the pressure to leave the traditional linguistic heritage may be weaker. One objection (well, setting aside the bet on the shape of future technology) may be that translations between English and German or Hindi and Japanese will get good a lot before translation between the local commercially valuable language and a local dying language.

Also, having skimmed the old thread, in some ways I almost -want- for the planet's linguistic diversity to disappear. It's not the only response; I feel too sadness at the dying of a tradition, of its voice transmitted through time, and above all the extinction / annihilation of what must once have been vibrant. Nor do I like thinking that one day, a few centuries from now, no-one will be listening to the music I like or eating my favorite foods etc.
But for all that, I want too to examine the situation from 'across the gulf.' Imagine if the planet as a whole were one linguistically. Everyone understands everyone else. Now imagine some bright radical saying 'I know what we should do; we should divide ourselves into ten thousand groups, speaking different tongues. The speech of one group will be babble to all the rest. We will never have direct access to the thoughts and words of anyone not in our group. And we'll fight with each other about which species of talk is the best one.' Somehow, I can't imagine people from there leaping to achieve this outcome. I don't know how good a test of a change this kind of 'reverse glance' is, but it has to count for something...

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