Microblogs and the monolingual

Twitter-like microblogging seems a nice granularity for following thoughts expressed in languages you don’t speak.

In 1988 I passed my French language GCSE exam; it’s been downhill all the way since. A year ago in Argentina, I got to the stage where I could just about express myself in Spanish. But it’s been fading. Nevertheless I’m on the websemantique (french) and web-semantica-ayuda (spanish) lists (this is the good influence of Chaals from W3C and SWAD-Europe days), and will try to follow and occasionally respond (usually just a perhaps-relevant link). It’s a good exercise for English speakers to do, to remind them how many folk experience the primarily English-language dialog that dominates the technology scene.

So just now I happened to notice CharlesNepote‘s name on Twitter, from the websemantique list. And in reading his twitter stream, I realised this: twitter posts in a foreign language are easier to follow than either full blog posts, email threads or realtime IM/IRC chat. It’s a nice level of granularity that can bridge language communities a little, since someone with fading schoolkid or tourist knowledge of another language can use and reinforce it by reading microblogs in it.

A related SemWeb use case: yesterday in #foaf we had someone asking about RDF who would rather have spoken Italian. It should be easier to find the members of a multi-language community who can help in such cases. We have SemWeb vocabulary that lets people declare what language they speak, read, or write; and there are ways of expressing interests in topics, or membership of a community. What we’re missing is stable, reliable and queryable aggregates of data expressed in those terms. I think we can change that in 2008…

As snow through which the foot breaks

Originally uploaded by danbri.

In our daily lives we all respond urgently to dangers that are much less likely than climate change to affect the future of our children. … Feb. 2 will be remembered as the date when uncertainty was removed as to whether humans had anything to do with climate change on this planet. (Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program via New York Times)

I learned a new word last month. Köniuači – from the Yamama word meaning:

Not reaching unto, or fairly unto as a rail a little too short, the end of which cannot be secured to the post in consequence. Unsupported, unsecure, not fastened securely, treacherous, incapable of supporting, as snow through which the foot breaks, or as the crust over mud. Not firm or solid, but suddenly giving way where one expected otherwise, fallacious, deceptive, ajar, loosened, incapable of being secured as the end of a rail to a post which is either too short or shattered to receive and hold a nail.

Good to have a word for that familiar concept. Does having a word for it make it easier to bear the idea in mind? Regardless, it is awful to be losing the language it came from, both culturally and academically. The above definition from Thomas Bridges’s Yamana-English Dictionary.

There’s only one native speaker left now. There were recently two – but they weren’t on speaking terms. Sometimes you just have to laugh. Thin ice…

When I wasn’t taking photos of melting glaciers, I spent a lot of my recent time in Patagonia reading this dictionary and other history of the area, and remembering the Workshop on Endangered Languages I helped organize in 1995 in Bristol. When you walk into an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant reading a dictionary, the staff are prone to glance nervously at each other. But I didn’t pace myself well, and their business model survived. Unlike my plans for selling homeopathically-dilute genuine preserved Glacier water to the ecologically minded, with the story that they’d hold it “in trust” in their fridges until the gaiasphere were healed and it was safe to release it back into the wild. Sadly I hit my baggage allowance, so the precious fluid stayed in Buenos Aires.

Anyway, the photo was from the Martial Glacier, Ushuaia, Argentina last month. Don’t ask me how much carbon dioxide went into the atmosphere to get me there and back again. This year I’m going to start taking my carbon footprint more seriously…

If you’ve not seen An Inconvenient Truth, I do recommend taking the time to watch it.

The Website opens with a quote that jumps out at me, since I write this from Leiden, Netherlands visiting the Joost offices, following a trip to Berlin, and preceding another to Rome:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Instead of flying, should I be taking the train? Or a boat? Or getting better at remote meetings? Send money to plant-a-tree projects to clean my conscience? After a year and a half of working from the road or from home, it is great to actually be meeting up with people again, that much is clear. As I write, I wonder if there’s a “slow travel” movement akin to the “slow food” scene. I find a website of that name, though seems as-yet unconnected with issues of eco-disaster. Longer trips, perhaps by train, might make some sense. And more pleasant than stockpiling for the end-times.