When Languages Die

James was talking about endangered languages the other day. I have just finished reading David Harrison’s new book on “When Languages Die – The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge”, which I discovered via Michael Kaplan’s blog. It’s a fascinating account of language disappearance, which takes place because thousands of languages are gradually “crowded out” by bigger languages. Six years ago, there were an estimated 6,900 distinct languages and Harrison points out that by the end of our 21st century, only about half of these languages may still be spoken because their speakers will have abandoned them to turn to more dominant, more prestigious or more widely known languages. Harrison brilliantly demonstrates what language death or language extinction means for us. He focuses on the vast body of knowledge that will soon be lost and explores various knowledge systems (moon phases, folk taxonomies, knowledge encoded in traditional calendars, topographic naming systems…) to show how cultural knowledge is packaged in languages and cannot be transferred when people stop using their language. I found the discussion about number systems enlightening and captivating. He points out that counting systems provide a window into human cognition and that a lot is lost when the speakers of a language decide to move to the decimal counting system. His demonstration is simply superb. Harrison argues that it is urgent to document languages and to do whatever we can to preserve them and to encourage their speakers to go on using them.

Everyone must play their part there. As a software company, we have a number of initiatives to help linguistic communities (see, for instance, the Microsoft Local Language Program which provides Language Interface Packs (LIPs) in a wide range of languages, or the community glossaries of IT terms which are built by local volunteers with the aim of helping local groups promote and preserve their languages – I also talked recently, in French, about a new Breton speller for Office 2007 which was created by a Breton-speaking volunteer who devotes a lot of time and energy to the preservation of his language). We have talked a lot on this blog about proofing tools and building word lists for spellers and other types of tools such as thesauri or word-breakers is certainly something that needs to be done if one wishes to help communities access technology in their languages. To some extent, I feel that Harrison and a group like ours (and several other groups in the company, of course) share a common passion for languages and a common goal: “what scientists can do is to capture an accurate record in the form of recordings and analyses”, he writes. Our technology can certainly help and I hope we will be able to offer even more in the future to help communities preserve their languages. At the same time, Harrison points out that no one but speakers themselves can preserve languages, since there is no such thing as a living human language without speakers (p.10). My sincere hope is that we’ll manage to create the synergies that are necessary to preserve language diversity and perhaps to prevent some languages from dying. Meanwhile, I definitely encourage you to read David Harrison’s book. You won’t regret it.

Thierry Fontenelle – Program Manager


Comments (12)

  1. Thierry Fontenelle posted on the Office Natural Language Team Blog a nice entry on " When Languages Die

  2. Heather Graham says:

    Imagine the amount of IT Resources saved when everyone switches to English.

  3. Community Glossaries:  With terms of use like this ‘Unless otherwise specified, the Services are for your personal and non-commercial use. You may not modify, copy, distribute, transmit, display, perform, reproduce, publish, license, create derivative works from, transfer, or sell any information, software, products or services obtained from the Services.’  I think you need to reevaluate whether this is actually helping preserve the language.  Your terms essentially say someone can’t take the work that they did and improve it outside of the Microsoft process.

    The Breton spell checker creator must have had perseverance.  I’ve tried innumerable ways to find the right person who holds the legendary NDA for the CSAPI to even evaluate whether I am willing to sign such an NDA.  Perhaps this post will elicit a response from teh CSAPI fairy 🙂

  4. Hi Dwayne,

    Thanks a lot for your very useful feedback.

    We are working on a number of initiatives that could interest you. I’d love to get in touch with you to discuss some possible avenues. Do you want to contact me? Write to thierryf (don’t forget the "f" at the end of my first name), followed by [at] microsoft [dot] com.

    I look forward to hearing from you,


  5. Asbjørn says:

    When are you going to release Proofing Tools 2007? First it was August, then September. There’s no mention of it on the Office website. Proofing Tools is quite essential for our work, but luckily you can fool Office 2007 to use Proofing Tools 2003 in the meantime.

  6. Hi Asbjørn,

    If you are talking about the Single Language Packs which enable you to buy proofing tools for additional languages, they are available and were released several months ago for Office 2007: see


    See the note at the end of this post:

    Customers can only purchase products in the online store for their region (accessible from the localized Office Online sites). Otherwise, credit card validation will fail. So if you are from outside the USA, customers should not try to purchase these Single Language Packs from a US site. For Western Europe, for instance, the purchase site can be directly accessed via http://buy.trymicrosoftoffice.com/buyemea1. For the rest of Europe, the URL is http://buy.trymicrosoftoffice.com/buyemea2.

    Best wishes,


  7. Mon collègue James Lyle parlait récemment des langues en danger sur l’autre blog de notre équipe il y

  8. Asbjørn says:

    I wasn’t refering to Single Language Packs, but rather to a package containing all 37 languages (like Proofing Tools 2003). You mean there won’t be one anymore?

  9. MSDN Archive says:

    There will indeed be a Proofing Tools Kit (PTK), but it will not be marketed as it was in Office 2003. The 2007 PTK will actually be part of the Multi-Language Pack (MLP). This pack will consist of 3 CDs. The first two CDs will include all the Single Language Packs (SLP), each of which contain proofing tools (spell-checker, grammar checker, hyphenator, thesaurus…) as well as the localized user interface (UI) and localized Help for a given language.  The third disc will contain all the proofing tools by themselves.

    The MLP should be available fairly soon.


  10. Asbjørn says:

    Thanks for the information. Maybe there should be a bit more info on the Office site?


  11. MSDN Archive says:

    Dear Asbjørn,

    See http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/suites/HA102113691033.aspx?pid=CL101732621033 for more details on Language Packs for Office 2007.

    Best wishes,


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