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Endangered languages: Will your mother tongue survive?

Welcome to the extinction era! You may not be aware of it since it seems the human race is thriving, but Earth is experiencing yet another mass extinction. Scientists have lately suggested defining a new epoch, Anthropocene, as it may be us, humans, who have contributed our bit to the current unfolding of events. Human impact is endangering the animals and plants, but in truth they are not the only ones endangered. 

Migration killing unique cultures?

96% of the world's languages are spoken by only 4% of the global population according to the Sorosoro foundation. Globalization and mass migration in the 21st century have caused adoption of a dominant language in many areas to the detriment of original, local languages (what a paradox in terms of multiculturalism). It is now estimated that a substantial part of the world's presently known languages and dialects will cease to exist in written or spoken form and even become extinct in the not-so-distant future.According to UNESCO, unless this trend is reversed, half of today's 7,000+ languages will disappear by the end of this century. Columbia University linguist John McWhorter's predictions are even more gloomy with the outlook that 90% of today's existing languages will be displaced on a global scale by simplified versions of culturally dominant languages. Given that one of the important defining factors of a culture – if not the most important one – is its language, such development would irreversibly deprive us of our world's most important cultural heritage. New languages simply don't come into existence in amounts that wouldcompensate this trend. And by definition, they cannot compensate the loss of languages that have developed through the course of human history.

These languages should begin to worry us

Despite many arguments and disagreement on the definition of a language vs. a dialect, in terms of extinction, both a language and a dialect are equal. Hundreds of languages literally waiting to cease to exist as their last living speakers pass away. In Europe, we see dialects such as Bavarian (Germany, Austria), Gordiol (Italy), Istriot (Croatia) and Cornish (UK) that are likely heading toward their terminal days. Also Walloon, spoken in a good part of Belgium, Yiddish, and Romani – the tongue of Romani (Gypsy) people across Europe – are on the endangered list. 

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How to preserve a language

Systematic efforts are being made to document as many languages as possible and preserve them at least in artificial form. It is in fact feasible to revive a language suppressed or existing in "lab conditions" only, and history has shown us many an example. One is modern Hebrew, which was revived to a living official language from ancient religious texts. Also Irish and Greenlandic languages were resurrected from near-death thanks to social and political development, and they are now slowly beginning to spread. And in terms of language documentation, preservation and popularization, the translation industry can in fact help a lot :)

Language flavors: Dialects vs. languages

In terms of localization and also marketing customization of written content (e.g. in catalogs, websites, or promotional material), professional translation providers should be able to adjust the language and its style to match specifics of a region, ethnicity, or even a social group. But what is a dialect to begin with? And how does it relate to a language?

Localizing to dialects vs. localizing to languages

A dialect can be explained in two ways. It can be a subordinate language variant of a regional or national standard / official language, where the variant is, interestingly, not derived from, but related to the dominant language. However, the term dialect is also used to define a variant of a language that is characteristic to a certain group of language speakers. In this point of view, it is actually a matter of a scientific linguistic debate where to draw the border between a dialect and a language. There is also anopinion, that it's not possible to exactly determine where a dialect ends and a language begins. And here we come to the essence of professional and high-quality localization: knowing what language variant and form to use to grasp the essence of the locale. As languages and dialects evolve similar to living organisms, influenced by a number of factors from geographical and social, to historical and political, it is sometimes highly delicate to determine how to translate content to maximize impact.

When dialect is a language and language is a dialect

Yes, dialect and language can mean different things around the world. Let's take Chinese language, for example. All its variants share the same writing system, but in terms of mutual interchangeability e.g. the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects relate similarly as Spanish does with Italian, or Czech with Polish. The same goes for Arabic language and its dialects. 

The understanding of a language as dominant over the dialect can also be reversed so that even though the language is considered "standard" or "official", the dialect of the target area or social / ethnic group is emphasized and "wins" over the language. Recognizing that this is an ongoing process, these days often accelerated by political forces, the translation industry needs to react in a flexible way and target evolving dialects, especially those that one day will turn into independent languages.

Translation tips: Language flavors

At idioma we translate into many different languages, over seventy at the last count, and in many different combinations (last we counted the permutations, it was over five thousand). Some of these languages are different variants of the same basic language. Sometimes they are very similar, at other times quite different. 

Flavored by authorities

For example, for Norwegian, two flavors exist: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Bokmål is by far the most common variant in Norway and is used in the private and commercial sector, while Nynorsk is used mostly in some western regions and in public administration. The two dialects differ considerably from each other.

Then for Portuguese, there are also dif­ferent tongues, and the language used in Portugal differs from the one used in Brazil, for example. In spite of the fact that a language reform has been signed into law (in Portugal in 2008), in reality there are quite many differences. Schools in Portugal now teach the new, standardized Portuguese language, which means that in a global perspective spelling and grammar should become standardized. Most newspapers and magazines in Portugal have also adopted the reform, which officially must have been applied by latest July 2014. The biggest obstacle, however, seems to be the choice of words. Especially in technical writing, there are numerous cases where Brazilians prefer different terms than those used in Portugal, which is one reason why Portuguese for Portugal and Portuguese for Brazil will most likely continue to coexist for quite some time. 

Spanish is another case in point where differences exist. Spanish in Spain tends to be quite modern with development in a different direction from other Spanish tongues. Most of the Spanish dialects in South America are quite conservative, while the dialects used in Mexico and the Caribbean are influenced by their proximity to the United States.

Does it matter in localization?

Many times, it is more important to know the target market than the language itself or whether a document will be used in many different markets. In Belgium, for example, people in the north speak Flemish, a variant of Dutch. This dialect can’t really be called a different language as spelling and grammar are the same as for standard Dutch. Here the difference is rather in the frequency in the words used, although all words exist in standard Dutch as well. However, it can make a surprising  difference when it comes to, say, localization of websites.

Similar to Flemish, the German vocabulary used in Austria and Switzerland is also common, however, the preferences, especially in Switzerland, are many times for different words than those that are commonly used in Germany. Additionally, in Switzerland the German character “ß” is not used, and instead people write “ss”.

In our work, we come across the issue of language flavor daily. We of course translate into the various dialects mentioned above, and many more, and we will be happy to help with issues regarding which language or dialect to translate into. 

Translating from and to many languages brings about lots of interesting facts, increases curiosity and reveals things most people would hardly think twice about. Well we do, so why not share some the know-how?

For instance, we regularly work with translation into English – who doesn't, to be honest :) – and handle both British English and English for the U.S. market. While it is common knowledge that U.K. and U.S. English differ slightly in spelling and also between certain expressions, the two tongues also have very different approaches to the use of Initial Capitals, i.e. the custom of capitalizing the first letter of every word in headers and sub-headers. 

The British keep it subtle, Americans Like it Big

capsTo roughly sum it up, people generally favor the use of initial capitals in the U.S., while in the U.K. there is a tendency to avoid them. If you open a newspaper from the U.S. and one from the U.K., this becomes obvious (well illustrated by the picture  on the right). To a translator, the issue is trivial, but if you publish documents for English readers in general and there is no target market, it may be worth to reconsider the use of initial caps in headers. 

Avoid international Caps schizophrenia

Having noted that Americans like to use initial caps in titles, while the British try to avoid them, for International English we recommend not to use initial caps, because it makes it difficult to balance the heading levels that should have initial caps and those that should not. It is difficult to keep respecting the rule and even more difficult to unify all headers throughout documents and between projects. Further, when writing International English text for a worldwide audience, it is easy to make mistakes if initial caps are used, which is another good reason for advocating the British preference. As to the general opinion of the British that initial caps usage appears ugly, we won’t comment. But let's admit that caps overuse can confuse and distract the reader, a fact that eventually will affect the level of understanding the context and slow down the reading speed. You really don't want your target text to appear that way to the reader – at least not if we talk promotional material. 

When to use initial caps?

519oGTae6RL. SY344 BO1,204,203,200 We do, however, agree with and encourage the use of initial caps in proper names, including product names and to some extent special part names, as well as in key phrases, e.g. catch phrases. This includes also titles (e.g. on book covers - as on the picture on the right).

The easy way out

If you are really stuck and can't make up your mind, there is always an easy way out: Simply capitalize all your headers and reduce the point size to avoid them dominating the content.

For other translation and localization tips, language facts and curiosities, keep tracking our blog!

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