|“||Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.||”|
|— Edward Sapir|
Language is one of the primary ways we encapsulate and express knowledge. Whether written or spoken, language enables economy, allows for self-expression, and unites or undermines whole communities.
Given its ability to unite and motivate people, language is also highly political. Historically, ruling powers and governments have engaged in various forms of language repression in order to have power and control over a region.
France has a history fraught with language repression. Influenced by Henri Jean-Baptiste Gregoire’s report in 1794, the French government put into place laws which only tolerated the French language. The report entitled “Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d'anéantir les patois et d'universaliser l'usage de la langue française” (Report on the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalise the use of the French language) was used during this period to explicitly and implicitly ban the public use regional languages. Regional languages were called patois, a term that is still used today in a derogatory manner.
Because of this history of language repression, Wikimédia France has been working for over 3 years on a minority and regional languages program. The goal is to preserve and celebrate these languages, through documentation and audio recordings. From this work, Lingua Libre was launched in 2016.
|“||The ability to fully use a language in the digital space is highly dependent on the combination of favorable technical conditions with substantial human and financial resources. In order to preserve but also to diversify the means of participation in Wikimedia projects, the Lingua Libre tool was developed by Wikimedians to allow everyone to contribute.||”|
|— Lingua Libre|
Lingua Libre is essentially an audio library, that allows anyone to record words, phrases, or sentences in any language. These audio files can then be uploaded en mass to Wikimedia Commons, and then re-used on sites like Wikipedia or Wiktionary.
By recording the same word or phrase spoken by different people, Lingua Libre captures the prosody of speech, which is a tremendous help to linguists. The prosody of speech helps linguists understand words through their greater situational context, allowing for an analysis of what the speaker meant when those words were used. Historically, linguists have been limited to simply writing down regional or minority languages, but audio recordings open the door to different kinds of analysis, allowing linguists to better understand in the evolution and expression of the language.
|“||Language is important because we cannot express the same thing with written words. Words mean different things. For example “house” in English or “maison” in French or “casa” in Spanish. We might be designing the same thing, but behind each of these words there is etymology, the representation in the person’s mind what does house, or maison or casa actually mean. We can lose this etymology or expression if we do not capture it.||”|
|— Gerbet Rémy|
However, like with all cultural heritage, language is also subject to the process of selection. For a myriad of political, social, or economic reasons, certain languages have not been deemed “worthy”, “valuable” or “notable” enough to be documented by those in power. This has been particularly true for oral cultures: in our current digital age, the preference giving to the written word has de-legitimized oral cultures and histories, thus disempowering the collective memory of whole groups. Wikipedia is not exempt from this process of selection either: the policy on Notability heavily impacts what is included or excluded from the encyclopedia. And because Wikipedia is heavily focused on the written word, the lack of written documentation is a particularly high barrier for cultures and languages without written sources.
But Lingua Libre offers these oral cultures and minority, regional, or marginalized languages a way to circumvent exclusion by lowering barriers: a particular word, phrase, or sentences doesn’t have to be “notable” or written to be recorded. By not requiring any writing, Lingua Libre provides a way for spoken cultural heritage to be documented, shared, and remembered without creating barriers to participation.
|“||An 85 year old man had the opportunity to share an old Alsatian poem through the Lingua Libre project. This man, had the opportunity to express himself with his own language in a public place. For many years, speaking Alsatian or other mother languages was repressed. This man felt pride to share but also that someone in Japan could listen to him speak in his mother tongue.||”|
|— Gerbet Rémy|
- Edward Sapir (2014). “Language”, p.235, Cambridge University Press