Gmail’s 57th Language

Gmail has added a 57th language to their available selection, and it’s a pretty interesting choice: Cherokee. Here’s a bit from the Gmail blog:

After a 2002 survey of the Oklahoma Cherokee population found that no one under 40 spoke conversational Cherokee, the Cherokee Nation saw an opportunity to use technology to encourage everyday use of the language among the younger generation. Vance connected me with the language technology department at the Cherokee Nation, and the Gmail team worked closely with their highly organized team of volunteers, which ranged from university students to Durbin Feeling–Cherokee living treasure and author of the Cherokee-English Dictionary. Together, we were able to find and implement the right words for hundreds of Gmail terms, from “inbox” (ᎧᏁᏌᎢᏱ) and “sign in” (ᏕᏣᏙᎥ ᎰᏪᎸᎦ) to “spam” (ᎤᏲᎢ).

This is great, an apology for technology and culture and language and impractically. Keep in mind, I’m not calling the Cherokee language impractical, instead I’m referencing the need to implement that language into the world’s most popular email provider to be impractical to their overall bottom line. It’s hard to convincingly argue the need for a widely unused language — a language even more obscure among Gmail’s base audience —when looking at a profitable bottom line.

This is great: a technology company not afraid to take a stand for culture and language despite business impracticality. Keep in mind, I’m not calling the Cherokee language impractical, instead I’m referencing the implementation of that language into the world’s most popular email provider as being impractical to their overall bottom line. It’s hard to  argue convincingly the need for the addition of a widely unused language—a language even more obscure among Gmail’s base audience—when looking at a profitable bottom line.

It’s a big deal, culturally speaking, because we’re seeing a new technology augment and, quite possibly, save a dying language. There’s a lot of talk about a mechanical singularity, where machines become sentient and (more often than not) take over and destroy all humans. I’d like to think that this points to something more positive. If anything, this is an example of technology indexing, protecting, and promoting a way of life.

Even more interesting is the fact that linguists had to create new words, effectively modernizing a language. Not only is this an upgrade to Gmail as a service,  it’s an upgrade to Cherokee as a language. How many times does that happen? Google has done a pretty cool thing here: They’ve made the Internet accessible to an older generation from a uniquely self-sustaining culture. In a world where everything is connected and accessible, opening the door to an indigenous people makes this very valuable dialogue possible.

I hope this is a sign of things to come, of a cultural shift towards the importance of preservation over profit. The world is changing, that’s something that’s unavoidable, but I don’t think that means the past has to be lost. If you’d like to read more about Gmail adding Cherokee as their 57th language, this article from Mashable is pretty good.

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