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User:Steinbach/Thoughts on the creation of Ancient Greek, Coptic, and Livonian Wikipedias

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In this subpage, I am composing an open letter of advice to both the WMF Board of Trustees and the Language Board, in which I advocate the creation of Wikipedias in Ancient Greek, Coptic, and Livonian, which currently have Test Wikipedias at Wikimedia Incubator. Since my English isn't perfect, this letter is likely to be composed in stages. The main reason to compose it here, and not off-line on my own computer, is that this debate concerns everyone involved in meta issues, not just the Board. In other words: I think you should read this, too.

Dear Foundation Board and Language Board members,

For a long time I haven't been very active at Wikimedia's meta wiki, where I used to spend much time on the Requests for new language editions project. I was slightly shocked to find out that I knew none of the current Board of Trustee members other than Jimmy Wales. (To be sure: the Language Board looks a bit more familiar to me.) This means that many of you will probably not know who I am either. I am (........), known on Wikimedia as User:Steinbach. I joined Wikipedia in late december 2004, and soon became a very active contributor to the nascent Limburgish Wikipedia. Later, I became involved in the creation of several Wikipedias in minor languages from Western Europe, particularly the Zeelandic Wikipedia.

Evolution of WMF language policy


Through the years, I have seen Wikimedia's language policy change considerably. In the early years, there was nearly no such policy. Wikipedia and its sister projects were surrounded by an "anything goes" philosophy, which was applied to languages, too. Almost any request for a new language edition was granted. Wikipedias were created in languages like Gothic, Volapük, and even Klingon. Many of these projects turned out to be quite moribund.

When I joined, these days were already over. Requests for new languages had to be done on a special page, where they were to be reviewed. (To be sure: this rule applied to all requests for new Wikimedia projects. However, as my proposal concerns only new Wikipedias, I will hereafter limit my argument to versions of that project.) New Wikipedias needed a community of competent speakers willing to write it, Another common demand was that a language have its own ISO code, to ensure that it wasn't a mere dialect. However, this system still had its flaws. For one thing, many new Wikipedias still turned inactive after the few enthusiasts behind it quit. For another, discussions between proponents and opponents were rampant, with the same arguments being repeated over and over.

To tackle that problem, a language policy based on positive criteria was approved in late 2007. Since then, a proposal can easily be rejected if it doesn't fulfill all of these. Those requested Wikipedias that do, must show activity over an extended period of time. To get its own Wikipedia, a language must exist, it must have its own ISO code, and it must be a living language.

Various possible views


This proposal took a middle ground, if not the exact middle of the road, between two extreme positions. At the one hand, some people felt only major languages with a thriving scriptural tradition deserved their own Wikipedias. On the other hand, some users would rather have seen the free spirit of Wikimedia's early days return.

  • The exclusionists tended to use utilitarian arguments for their position: "Wikipedias is lesser languages are useless as long as their speakers are conversant in bigger languages." Nobody really needed these Wikipedias; therefore they should not take up valuable server space and donator money. This argument sometimes turned emotional: "Wikimedia is making a fool of itself by allowing Wikipedias in dialects." Sometimes, these people showed a clear lack of linguistic expertise, calling certain varieties "mispronunciations". At times, people feared that Wikipedias in lesser languages would stunt the growth of major Wikipedias, because one cannot spend the same time at, for example, the Dutch and the Zeelandic Wikipedia. Also, nationalist sentiments have sometimes played a role. Other arguments were more practical: small Wikipedias attract vandalism, and the lack of a large community is likely to negatively affect the quality of their content.
  • Inclusionist arguments include the following. It is up to the users to determine whether writing Wikipedia articles in Picard, Latin or Klingon is a waste of time. If someone starts editing a Wikipedia, it is meaningful to him/her, and probably also of interest to others. Measures have been taken against vandalism, and they worked: thanks to initiatives such as the Small Wiki Monitoring Team, formerly rampant vandalism on small wikis has all but quit. If a Wikipedia looks moribund today, it may not remain so forever. Create a Wikipedia in Pig Latin or Jabberwocky if you want; sometime, someone will turn it into something substantial. Evidence for this position was offered by the sudden growth of the Volapük Wikipedia: while its multitude of tiny, bot-created place name articles is not my ideal of a Wikipedia, the project was at least seriously revived by the enthusiast nobody had expected to ever show up. Furthermore, the vast majority of server space is taken up by the biggest wikis. Small wikis have only a marginal impact on server space, or donator money for that matter.
In addition, many wished for those languages to be emancipated from their lowly status. After all, Wikipedia is not just any IT project. Its open source nature and work-in-progress philosophy offer opportunities that did not exist before. The fact that a print, CD-rom or paywall-protected encyclopaedia in lesser languages would not be feasible does not mean that Wikipedias in these need to be rejected.

Between these extreme positions, many nuanced views are possible and have been expressed. Categories of languages that might or might not be accepted include:

  • Varieties commonly called dialects, but whose sheer deviation from their supposed standard language makes them eligible for language status, such as Scots, Bavarian, and Cantonese;
  • Minor languages, often endangered, whose language status is not in doubt, but whose speakers are also fluent in a bigger language: for example, Navajo, Welsh, or Catalan (which already got its own Wikipedia in 2001, even before Spanish);
  • Extinct or nearly extinct languages;
  • Ancient languages, either extinct or developed into later stages;
  • Auxiliary languages like Esperanto (which like Catalan got its own place on Wikimedia very early);
  • Other artificial languages like Lojban, Klingon, or Quenya;
  • Dialects that have no claim to separate language status but which still aren't permitted on existing projects (like Cockney or Andalusian).

My own opinion


Thanks to the current language policy, the often unpleasant discussions of yore can now be avoided. While I am happy about that, I find its criteria slightly too strict. Historically, I have often been quite liberal with my support for these requests. In my opinion, there can be Wikipedias in languages that the Language Board considers ineligible. That does not mean, however, that I knew no borders. Through the years I developed my personal philosophy as to what languages should be eligible. As a long time, faithful contributor to more than one small Wikipedia, and an avid amateur linguist, I think I have both the expertise and the experience to share this opinion.

My philosophy can be summarised as follows: An extinct or ancient language may still get its Wikipedia if it is either a classical language or the language of an ethnic group that still exists.

Let's see how this would work out. In the past, Wikipedias have been created in languages like Old English and Gothic. Neither of these are classical languages. They are chiefly studied for linguistic reasons, as the texts composed in them do not bear extraordinary cultural value. Moreover, there is no Gothic ethnicity: the Goths disappeared as a separate people long ago. So in hindsight, these Wikipedias should not have been created. (This does not necessarily mean that they should be closed down; that is a different issue.) Neither do languages like Middle English, Old French, Old High German, Polabian, or Old Prussian deserve their own Wikipedias. Their creation would only be of interest to language geeks - obviously not a valid reason to create them.

Wikipedias would, or might, be granted in ancient languages with large bodies of text that are still avidly studied by a large number of people. Also, Wikipedias would be granted in languages that are rarely if ever used for daily communication anymore, but which still live in the hearts of their communities. Ancient Greek fits in the former category, Livonian in the latter, Coptic in both.

These three languages


Now, finally, we have returned to the three languages I promised to write this piece about. I do not ask the Language Board to change its policy according to my personal opinion. I do ask to grant these three languages their own Wikipedias. Yes, just these three. I want you to make an exception, and I will explain why.

Ancient Greek is still omnipresent in the modern world. Its huge textual corpus, which was composed during over a thousand years, laid the foundation for Western civilisation. With a Latin Wikipedia already in existence, an Ancient Greek Wikipedia is dearly missed. And yes, there are no living Ancient Greeks who would benefit from its existence, but there are many aficionados all over Europe who are willing to help create and maintain it. And moreover: it was begun before the new policy was approved. The people who started it in mid 2007 could not have known that a change in policy later that year would bar the creation of their brainchild. Notwithstanding the difficulty of editing on Incubator and the poor prospects of the project, it has been revived several times and would likely become more active once these circumstances improved.

As to Livonian, I have dreamed of a Wikipedia in this language for a long time. I had always learnt that it was a seriously endangered but living language in a remote corner of Europe. A Wikipedia might help it survive. Then, all of a sudden, came the message that Livonian had become extinct. But even so, a Wikipedia could do a good job. There are still many people in Latvia who consider themselves Livonians, and Livonian is their language. Even though they may speak Latvian in daily life, the language is a vital part of their identity. A Wikipedia in Livonian would ensure its presence on the internet, and as such would be vital to the nascent language revival movement. One may object that Wikipedia is not for building subnational identities, but in fact a Livonian Wikipedia would not be that different from the Welsh and Scots Wikipedias: those who read and write it could use a larger Wikipedia instead, but have very good reasons not to do so.

Coptic, finally, fulfills both. It is no longer spoken on a daily basis, but there is a considerable body of texts and there is a people to whom it means a lot. Without Coptic, there would be no Copts. As you must know, the Copts are Egyptian Christians, who are currently a minority facing considerable oppression. Coptic is their liturgic language, and was also their spoken language for a long time, until Arabic took over. In fact, it is the final stage of the Egyptian language with a scriptural tradition of 5,000 years. Its cultural significance to Egypt in general and Copts in particular is therefore huge. And yes, the language is being revived. So, there are quite a number of people who speak it regularly and fluently, for a very good reason.

You might object that since these languages, particularly Coptic, have such strong cultural connotations, their mere creation would be an act of POV. I disagree. To begin with, no language carries a political point of view all by itself. Languages are first of all systems for communication and then intangible heritage. Preserving heritage per se is not a political act. Second, think about how closely Arabic is linked to Islamic identity. Or think about Hebrew, which is after all a revived language, too. You can't earnestly say the Arabic or Hebrew Wikipedia shouldn't exist.



In fact, here my argument ends. However, a recent discovery strengthens my case. While the Ancient Greek, Coptic, and Livonian Wikipedias are not eligible under the current policy, the Language Board did approve a Wikipedia in Lingua Franca Nova, and according to Incubator it "might get [its] own site soon". Really? I do admire the success that the creators of LFN recently achieved in promoting their language. But it is still just the umptiest Romance-based IAL. No auxiliary language (with the possible exception of Esperanto) currently makes an appreciable impact on society. Their speaker bases are tiny, and they are unlikely to ever reach their purpose of becoming a worldwide (or at least Western World-wide) second language.

Neither LFN nor any of its numerous likes (Ido, Occidental, Novial, Interlingua, not to mention Volapük) will ever be as widely taught or have as big a corpus as Ancient Greek. None of these languages will ever mean as much to an entire ethno-religious group as Coptic does. None of these languages will ever be the subject of a large scale (re)vitalisation project like Livonian. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against Lingua Franca Nova or a possible Wikipedia in it. But it would be far less meaningful, far less useful and far less widely welcomed than Wikipedias in the three languages I just discussed. So please: rethink your former rejection and go for it!

Steinbach (formerly Caesarion) 16:21, 17 October 2017 (UTC)