When Wikipedia Ceased to Be a Book

At Wikimania Conference 2010 in Gdańsk, there was some talk about why some Wikipedia versions are more liked than others.

As Jimmy Wales said in his lecture, the Bengali Wikipedia, e.g, has 21.000 articles, but the Bengali language is spoken by 230 million people. So what can be done to support Wikipedia versions that are written in non-european languages?

I find the question interesting and the goal laudable but, as it stands (and what I’ve heard about it until now), rather restricted and one-sided. But broaden the approach may unveil a rather astonishing impact of Wales’ question.

The article Extinct language in Wikipedia.en states that around 2050 90% of the world’s nearly 7.000 currently spoken languages will be lost or extinct (in contrast to dead languages that may have some kind of existence in a limbo). Languages cease to exist when nobody speaks them anymore. This may be due to colonization, cultural dominance and prestige, culture-specific phenomena like orality without written testimonials, replacement of language-uses in a population, etc. Languages have different ways of coping with and describing reality. By losing a language we not only lose ways to describe what there is and how things may be, we lose a whole ‘storage’ of knowledge pertaining to the very environment in which that language was spoken. Like the loss of species language-death has become a severe issue in a broader context of ecology.

At this point Wikipedia may enter: Use a localized Wikipedia version as a tool for cultural preservation.

Instead of merely asking how to support non-european Wikipedia language-versions, Wikipedia (or Wikimedia for that matter) should focus more on soon-to-be-extinct languages. By helping to create a Wikipedia version for those languages one might provide incentives for young people to (re-)learn their native language. The prospect of particular and different indigenous Wikipedia versions could entice young people to immerse in their culture (via the language), doing this in a new way, and become messengers of their culture to the world.

Interesting questions arise on the theoretical level as well:

  • Is a Wikipedia version for strictly oral cultures possible?
  • Would audiotapes be critically seen as tantamount to ‘written texts’ as they fix a certain state of the utterance?
  • How is cross-referencing between spoken ‘entries’ possible?
  • How does one access and edit a certain spoken dictionary entry?
  • Is it still possible to use ‘words’ as entries or will one have to move to phrases, sentences, questions, interests, intonation, melodies, etc., instead?
  • Is it possible or necessary to use pictures or images as dictionary entries? And how do you link those? (How to cross-reference, e.g., details or aspects in Tibetean mandalas, Navajo sand-paintings, etc.?)
  • What is an entry when it is not a phrase? What is a link between items when there is no semantical and syntactical standardization? How can, how will thesauruses then look like?

Pursuing such questions and directions will unleash much more the character of Wikipedia as a tool (instead of ‘merely’ an encyclopedia). Due to its rootedness in cultural settings with languages immersed in writing, we still tend to see Wikipedia as a book. Somewhat different in its organization, presentation, and accessibilty, but basically still modelled on the paradigm of books. However, the features of Wikipedia (online, collaboration, meta-indexing, etc) can be used without rendering a local Wikipedia version as a book. And what, then, will Wikipedia become when it stops being a book?

(You may find further thoughts here.)


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