Lost languages as teen cyphertools

Paul Raven @ 06-07-2011

We’ve talked about social steganography before; for teenagers and other folk restricted to communicating in public and/or monitored virtual spaces, a shared coded language becomes a necessity for the communication of ideas which you don’t want the watchers (be they parents, governments or whatever else) to be able to parse.

But why invent a new language when there are dozens of them lying around, discarded in the margins of a globalised culture? Via Kottke, Mobiledia reports on kids reviving nigh-extinct local languages as a way of carving out their own cultural spaces:

Samuel Herrera, who runs the linguistics laboratory at the Institute of Anthropological Research in Mexico City, found young people in southern Chile producing hip-hop videos and posting them on YouTube using Huilliche, a language on the brink of extinction.

Herrera also discovered teens in the Phillippines and Mexico who think it’s “cool” to send text messages in regional endangered languages like Kapampangan and Huave.

Almost as soon as text messaging exploded on the world stage as a means to reach anyone, anywhere, and anytime, young people began to find a way to scale it back, make it more exclusive and develop their own code or doublespeak to use on the widely used devices.


the adoption of a discarded language makes perfect sense, to keep texting’s cachet among teens exclusive. And linguists are pleased that dying languages are helping teens communicate, keeping the languages alive in the process.

“This really strengthens the use of the language,” said Herrera, who is pleased to find this naturally occurring, albeit somewhat unconventional, solution to the problem of dying native tongues.

In fact, according to Dr. Gregory Anderson, young people need to be the ones reviving a dying language. The director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Oregon, says that somewhere between the ages of six and 25, people make a definitive decision whether or not to say to stay or break with a language.

Score up another point against the Rejectionistas.

Related: via The New Aesthetic, here’s a Flickr pool titled “Faces Illuminated by Displays”. Welcome to The Now.

Hiding in plain sight: social steganography

Paul Raven @ 26-08-2010

There’s always room for another compound neologism! Via Bruce Schneier, Danah Boyd on social steganography:

Carmen is engaging in social steganography. She’s hiding information in plain sight, creating a message that can be read in one way by those who aren’t in the know and read differently by those who are. She’s communicating to different audiences simultaneously, relying on specific cultural awareness to provide the right interpretive lens. While she’s focused primarily on separating her mother from her friends, her message is also meaningless to broader audiences who have no idea that she had just broken up with her boyfriend. As far as they’re concerned, Carmen just posted an interesting lyric.

Social steganography is one privacy tactic teens take when engaging in semi-public forums like Facebook. While adults have worked diligently to exclude people through privacy settings, many teenagers have been unable to exclude certain classes of adults – namely their parents – for quite some time. For this reason, they’ve had to develop new techniques to speak to their friends fully aware that their parents are overhearing. Social steganography is one of the most common techniques that teens employ. They do this because they care about privacy, they care about misinterpretation, they care about segmented communications strategies. And they know that technical tools for restricting access don’t trump parental demands to gain access. So they find new ways of getting around limitations. And, in doing so, reconstruct age-old practices.

And in doing so, make Google CEOs look surprisingly clueless.

(Incidentally, Schneier does this, too; most people who aren’t sf fans don’t know that Schneier’s an sf fan, but he leaves little Easter Eggs from time to time if you know what to look for.)