Lost languages as teen cyphertools

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.

3 thoughts on “Lost languages as teen cyphertools”

  1. A linguist must have mixed feelings about that, though. Throw a primitive language into a modern context, and the language changes rapidly. e.g. Modern Hebrew. It changes in ways that aren’t easy to perceive, but the original sense of many idioms gets modernized right out. Pretty soon it becomes a different language, though with a lot of similarities to the original.

  2. True, but from what I’ve read (Pinker, and some of the easier-to-follow Chomsky), the changing nature of language is almost inevitable if it’s being used with regularity. And you only have to watch these here intertubes to see the meaning and contextual power of certain phrases mutate with astonishing rapidity. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I have some sympathy with your hypothetical linguist, but if the only alternative to a living language mutating through use is to pin it to a board in a dusty display case or preserve it in amber, I think its best to let ’em roam free and just try to document the changes as well as you can.

    It’s a bit like a guitar, really; if no one plays it, it’s just an expensive ornament. 🙂

  3. Yeah, I had similar thoughts as I typed my comment. I guess my point is that it’s virtually impossible to “preserve” a language, and maybe it’s also pointless. The interest here, then, would be to see an early language exert a new influence on modern communications.

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