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Future Speak 

The Long Now Foundation wants to assemble every human language on one nearly indestructible disk -- and, maybe, to last forever

Wednesday, Oct 9 2002
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Today's data is tomorrow's gibberish, in other words. So where do you begin if you're Long Now, and you want to set up a 10,000-Year Library to go with your Millennium Clock? Brewster Kahle, who founded the Internet Archive (a project to back up the entire Web), recommended the group try an experiment in microetching. He knew of a promising firm in New Mexico that could engrave a bunch of information, digital or not, in tiny print onto a long-lasting metal or silicon disk. "It's largely no different than a big, giant, marble tablet," says Alexander Rose, Long Now's executive director. ("Just carved a little smaller," adds Mason.) The place to start with a microetched library, it seemed, was a collection of languages that would serve as a key for scholars in the future.

Rose clarifies: "What use is the library if people in the future find it but can't read the data? We have libraries like this now, like the Etruscan tablets -- largely totally untranslated. The language is there, but we don't know it." So Long Now decided to microetch a metal disk with 1,000 translations of an excerpt from the Bible, which has been translated not just hundreds of times, but hundreds of times more than any other piece of writing.

"It turns out there's just absolutely nothing anywhere close [to the Bible's prevalence]," says Rose. "Probably the closest accessible thing is the Declaration of Human Rights that the U.N. has. It's translated into a few hundred [languages], but nowhere near a thousand or 2,000. The next most translated text is some writing of Lenin's."

Rose says Long Now decided on an Old Testament excerpt -- though the New Testament has been translated more often -- because "at least it crossed three major world religions, and it was a Creation story." Using Genesis to preserve Igo (a Nigerian language) is certainly odd, but maybe not as odd as it would have been to use the Gospels to preserve Arabic.

So the Rosetta Project, a thousand versions of Genesis microetched on a disk, was conceived in 1999 as an experiment in long-term data storage. Rose and the others at Long Now figured it would be a straightforward matter to collect a bunch of existing translations. To manage the project, they hired Jim Mason, who had spent time in Papua New Guinea for an anthropology master's at Stanford and who impressed Rose, at the '99 Burning Man, as "someone more than willing to try desperately audacious tasks" -- like those big fire cannons. They found grant money for the project from the Lazy Eight Foundation, in Colorado.

Right away there were problems. How does one read a page of Buriat, for example -- top to bottom, right to left, or what? The team members didn't want to preserve a language upside down. Come to think of it, they didn't want to make any ignorant little mistakes. "The range of languages we were working with is one that no single individual or group of individuals was going to be able to cover," says Mason. "So, by coincidence, this very curious thing called the Net had started to happen, and it provided us a unique platform for a very geographically distributed collaboration," with hundreds of experts from around the world "contributing material, as well as reviewing material."

The Web site the team established (now at www.rosettaproject.org) was meant to be a "selfish" resource, to help finish the Disk. Long Now posted Genesis translations and added basic, descriptive details about the languages in question (grammar, phonetics, a simple list of near-universal words), then invited experts to criticize everything. "We just got besieged with interest," says Mason. "People were stunned that someone had set out on the audacious task of describing and collecting [language] documentation at this great a number."

"And all of a sudden," says Rose, "it became the largest collection of such things on the planet."


Linguists tend to be more interested in the Rosetta Project Web site than in the cool nickel Disk. When Mason traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2000 to introduce his Disk project to the International Society of Linguists -- and maybe ask for a little help -- the reception "was initially somewhat mixed," says Doug Whalen, vice president of research at Haskins Laboratories (which is affiliated with Yale). "It wasn't clear what practical purpose the Disk would serve."

The Web site was a different story. Linguists tend not to be tech-savvy, and there are a number of reasons why most academics would never attempt an All-Language Archive of their own. (Most of them are too smart, really: They would know ahead of time -- in a way that Rose and Mason didn't -- what the project involved.) Now that an archive exists in embryo, however, what academics in particular seem to like are those 200-word lists of near-universal terms (like "tree," "stone," "hand"), because comparing these words helps them research language evolution and migration. Whalen says such lists have been compiled for language groups all over the world, "but no one has done it for so many languages, and certainly no one has put it online. ... They help tremendously with figuring out how closely related languages are."

Time is running short for this kind of work, because linguistic diversity is going the way of species diversity. Hundreds if not thousands of tongues are spoken only by a few isolated and elderly speakers, so linguists need to get to those speakers before they die -- and take their rare words with them. The Rosetta Project wants to ease that problem, if it can.

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