Translating Smartphone Technology.

A short but interesting Economist piece about efforts to create technological terms for speakers of smaller languages:

Ousmane sweats under a tin roof as he thumbs through a Chinese smartphone that he is selling at the technology market in Bamako, Mali. Words in French, Mali’s official language, scroll down the screen. “A ka nyi?” (Is it good?) a customer asks him in Bambara, Mali’s most widely used tongue.

Mozilla, the foundation behind Firefox, an open-source web browser, wants Ousmane’s customers to have the option of a device that speaks their language. Smartphones with its operating system (OS) are already on sale in 24 countries, including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Mexico, for as little as $33. Other countries will be added as it makes more deals with handset manufacturers. And Bambara is one of dozens of languages into which volunteer “localisers” are translating the OS. […]

Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”. […]

As a non-profit, Mozilla can put effort into languages that offer no prospect of a quick return. Songhai and Fulah, recently made available in Firefox, are spoken mainly by poor, illiterate herders and farmers in the Sahel, who do not have smartphones. But when such people eventually get online, they will benefit more if they can do so in their own tongues.

As more languages are added, the Firefox OS will create a sort of global Rosetta stone. It uses all parts of speech, and older, colourful words are pressed into service. Mozilla has created a statistical tool for linguistic analyses. And though 40,000 words is not a whole vocabulary, it is a significant part. As well as bringing the linguistically excluded online, localisation may keep small languages alive.

Incidentally, what they call Fulah is also known as Fula, Fulani, Fulfulde, Pulaar, and Peul. With some 25 million speakers, I wonder if it’s the most-spoken language for which there is no settled term?

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    I met someone in the nineties who did this for Mampruli (one of the dozens of languages of Northern Ghana.)
    Mind you, that was as a joke at the time. He himself had the only laptop I ever saw in the region, and in those days there were no telephones locally, let alone internet connexions.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    40,000 words?!? If nothing else, the corpus linguists will be all over it in no time!

  3. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly unsettled. The Pulaar/Fulfulde split is dialectal, and the other names are exonyms.

  4. George Gibbard says:

    Also note Pular (with a short vowel) in Guinée. In Sudan Fulbe are called Fallata or Takarir. The latter is the plural of Takruri, which is the same word as “Toucouleur” in Senegal. Attested variants are Takarin and Takarna.

  5. I found the piece interesting too, but was nonplussed by the reference to “languages shaped by livestock, farming and fishing.” That’s all languages, surely?

  6. Mildly OT: About five years ago I was asked by an American colleague to help him with the Hebrew database for the Android O/S predictive spelling utility. He had been approached by the Android team because of his earlier work with other language corpora, but knowing not a word of Hebrew he turned to me.

    He had collected several gazillion Hebrew words (OK, maybe only a few million) from the web and then run them through the MS Office spellchecker. It accepted most, but rejected perhaps 10,000. For example, Word rejected individual letters — but Hebrew can use letters to designate six of the seven days of the week, and of course they’re used as abbreviations of peoples’ names. Others were legitimate but uncommon words and neologisms that Microsoft hadn’t yet incorporated into the Office spellchecker.

    A keen eye was needed to examine these rejects and determine whether they should be included in the database. I turned to an Israeli colleague, then the recently retired editor for many years of the internal magazine of the Israeli police, a fellow who had also taught Hebrew in the U.S. for a few years. He spent a few days going over the list, pitched the misspellings and typos, and Android’s your uncle.

  7. Oh yeah, I forgot about Toucouleur, that should be on the list too.

    I wouldn’t say it’s exactly unsettled. The Pulaar/Fulfulde split is dialectal, and the other names are exonyms.

    Dialectal shmialectal. Lots of languages have dialects; that doesn’t stop there from being a standard name for the language. It’s easy-peasy to say “Do you speak French?” or “…Russian?” or “…Hausa?” But if you want to ask about this language, you have to pick one of half a dozen names and hope for the best. I call that unsettled.

  8. —In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food.

    Etymology of cache in English:

    cache (n.)1797, “hiding place,” from French Canadian trappers’ slang, “hiding place for stores” (1660s),

    Close enough

  9. Well, it’s easy to say “Do you speak Wu?” But the person you ask will stare at you incomprehendingly, even if they do, unless they happen to be a linguist. There are 80 million speakers of Wu, but they aren’t conscious of it.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Wikipedia:

    This dialect family (and especially Southern Wu) is well-known among linguists and sinologists as being one of the most internally diverse among the spoken Chinese language families with very little mutual intelligibility among varieties within the family. […] some Wu varieties like Wenzhounese have gained notoriety for their incomprehensibility to both Wu and non-Wu speakers alike, so much so that Wenzhounese was used during the Second World War to avoid Japanese interception.

    Specifically…

    Reputation for Eccentricity

    Due to its high degree of eccentricity, the language is reputed to have been used during the Second Sino-Japanese War during wartime communication and in Sino-Vietnamese War for programming military cipher(code)[5][6][7][8] Due to its unique grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, the language is basically impossible for any non-local to understand.

    There is a common “fearless” rhymed saying in China that reflect this comprehension difficulty: “Fear not the Heavens, fear not the Earth, but fear the Wenzhou man speaking Wenzhounese.” (天不怕,地不怕,就怕温州人说温州话)

  11. There’s no settled term for Spanish. It’s both Español and Castellano. There’s no settled term for Serbo-Croatian either: it’s Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian depending the location.

  12. Ladino, Spanyol (Spanyolit in Israel), Judesmo…

  13. By any honest standard, Wu cannot be considered one single language. England-style or Iberia-style mutual intelligibility is usually only possible somewhere between the level of 片 and 小片 in Chinese dialectology. Now, of 片 there are six, and of 小片 a dozen.

  14. There’s no settled term for Spanish. It’s both Español and Castellano.

    There is a settled term in English, which is what I’m talking about. And in Spanish, there is a settled term in any given country.

  15. England-style or Iberia-style mutual intelligibility

    Those things weren’t available in England or Iberia either before modern education, and the only education in Wuland has been in either Classical Chinese or Mandarin, ever. If that’s the criterion of languagehood, there are huge areas where there are no languages spoken at allses.

  16. in Spanish, there is a settled term [for Spanish] in any given country

    Wikipedia shows that the name is far from settled in Spain itself, with castellano popular among most regionalists but español popular among most nationalists and some regionalists. And despite official uses of one name or the other in Latin American countries, the popular usage does not always agree.

  17. Fair enough, but that still doesn’t cause the kind of problem I’m talking about, because everybody understands both terms and it’s just a matter of which one is used on a given occasion. Few English-speakers have even heard of The Language Known to Wikipedia as Fula, and it would be a lot easier to talk about it if it had a settled name. Come to think of it, I guess the name Wikipedia uses is likely to become as much of a settled name as it has; chalk one up for the cultural influence of Wikipedia!

  18. Fula is a Manding name for the language and Fulani is a Hausa term.

    In the name of political correctness, we should use one of the names used by the speakers themselves – which is either Fulfulde or Pulaar (sometimes spelled as Pular)

    Fulfulde Wikipedia gives preference to Fulfulde:

    “Fulfulde walla pulaar maa pular ko ɗemngal Fulɓe”

    But I foresee a potential problem here, since Fulfulde and Pulaar are names for different dialects of this language, so by choosing Fulfulde over Pulaar we are risking to offend speakers of the latter dialect.

    Very difficult case

  19. “And in Spanish, there is a settled term in any given country.”

    Castellano is used in Latin America in everyday speech all the time. Along with Español, naturally. They seem utterly interchangeable there. In Spain itself I’d expect them to carry slightly different political political implications, while still describing the same language.

  20. Songhai and Fulah, recently made available in Firefox, are spoken mainly by poor, illiterate herders and farmers in the Sahel, who do not have smartphones. But when such people eventually get online, they will benefit more if they can do so in their own tongues.

    (Emphasis added.)

    In my extensive experience with illiterate smartphone users, the quality of translation of error messages isn’t their most pressing concern. (My children routinely change the language of various apps to Russian or Chinese and then ask me what it says. “Shut up and herd your camels”, I tell them.)

  21. @Glossy:

    Castellano is used in Latin America in everyday speech all the time. Along with Español, naturally.

    I second this point; the names are used interchangeably, at least in Argentina and Uruguay, and a quick look at CREA (damn its clunky interface and lack of export capabilities!) suggests that’s the case elsewhere. It’s only in Spain that the distinction reflects the speaker’s politics.

    (Minor nitpick: language names, like demonyms in general, do not take an initial capital in Spanish.)

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