Utpal Borpujari

January 11, 2010

A virtual Tower of Babel, erected by North-Easterners

By Utpal Borpujari

That India is virtually a modern-day representation of the mythical Tower of Babel is a fact too well known, but what might not be known to many is that a significant percentage of the thousands of languages spoken in the country are from North-East India. Many of these languages, spoken by small ethnic communities and tribes, are facing the threat of extinction with the increasing usage of English, lack of their own written scripts in many cases and no effort to properly codify them.

But now, a group of professionals from the region, located all over the world, have joined hands to systematically document and preserve these languages with the help of the Internet, effectively creating a virtual Tower of Babel. Appropriately named Xobdo, the Assamese word for the Sanskrit word “Shabda” that means both word and sound (the “X” denoting the “Sha” as it is softly pronounced in Assamese), the four-year-old not-for-profit portal is the result of over 1,300 volunteers scattered all over the globe, who are constantly uploading words along with their meanings with the ultimate aim of building the most-comprehensive online dictionary for all these languages.

The brainchild of Abu Dhabi-based petroleum engineer Bikram M Baruah, the idea first was to build an online Assamese dictionary, the biggest and most commonly spoken language in the region. But even as Assamese words continue to be the biggest component of xobdo.org / xobdo.net, more importantly, slowly but surely it is becoming a platform for the smaller languages of the region, many of which are facing a great risk of getting annihilated in this age of globalization.

The portal is not merely about words. It has now got expanded to uploading the traditional proverbs in various languages, along with their meanings. Those behind the effort have quite a few other ideas up their sleeve to further expand the scope of the unique portal, though Baruah says it would take some time for their fruition.

In fact, those managing the effort are concerned at the slow pace of contribution of words in the various smaller, ethnic languages of the region, and have just come out with an appeal to North-Eastern people living in various parts of the world to get associated with the “movement” vigorously. “We need more volunteers for languages like Dimasa, Karbi, Meeteilon, Tai, Bodo, Hmar, Khasi, Mising, Kok-Borok, Bishnupriya, Nagamese, Mizo (Lushai), Garo, Chakma, Apatani, Ao, Monpa, Kaubru (Reang), etc.,” says Buljit Buragohain of IIT-Guwahati, the spokesperson for Xobdo. A cursory look at the word count on the site reveals how the smaller languages are still lagging behind. As on December 27, 2009, the online dictionary had 24,440 Assamese words, followed by 12,839 words in English, 2,726 in Dimasa, and 1,395 in Karbi. Words in languages like Meeteilon (932), Tai (915), Bodo (825), Hmar (632), Khasi (405), Misig (366), Kok-Borok (306), Bishnupriya (233), Nagamese (138), Mizo (Lushai) (120) and Garo (117) still have not touched four figures, while those in Chakma (87), Apatani (75), Ao (73) and Monpa (18) are too few for comfort.

The portal, which was launched on April 14, or Prothom Bohag, the Assamese New Year’s Day in 1996, is approaching its task as meticulously as possible, categorizing the words under various sections such as art & culture, cuisine, customs, festival, handicraft, history, literature, performing arts, religious-mythological, textile, business, legal, science & technology, and so on. “There are also 216 Fokora Jo`jonas, or Assamese proverbs, on Xobdo, which also has a ‘Paragraph Analyzer’ to quickly identify words still not in the database,” says Buragohain. The concept works in a completely open style, with volunteer contributors adding words, challenging their authenticity, and debating on the correctness of the spellings and meanings before they are finally updated onto the dictionary.  “Anyone can access and contribute to the effort for free, and we would welcome efforts to build dictionaries in languages that are not yet represented on it,” he says.

“The whole effort is to demolish the man-made language barrier and thereby fuel mutual understanding and cooperation among the people of the entire North-East India, as well as bring these languages to the fore-front of the IT age,” says Baruah. He points out that among the most active contributors are North-Easterners living in New Delhi and Bangalore.  Xobdo, he says, attempts to capture the languages as they are spoken, written and understood today in their original forms. “It does not attempt to enforce or express its own viewpoint about any spelling or semantics to be right or wrong. It also does not want to follow any specific dictionary or any glossary/word-list published by any authority or entity and neither does it accept opinions of any expert. Rather, it considers the present-day meaning to be the standard as it is evidenced in contemporary use, while also attempting to record the languages as they were used in the past,” says Baruah.

To motivate the volunteers, Xobdo sets certain targets for each year. As Baruah says, in 2008, the target was to have 20,000 Assamese words, while in 2009, the goal was to 100 per cent “Romanization” of Assamese words as well as 100 per cent quality control of their meaning and descriptions, apart from various word count targets for different languages. “Financially, it has been an easy journey as our only cost is towards the web-hosting, which is only US $40, or approximately Rs 2,000 per year. But in participation, we get mixed responses at different points of time. For Assamese, there is always a good flow of word submissions and we have a scarcity of editors to process the submissions, while for the other languages, the participation is not enough yet,” he says. But it is hope that is driving the effort – hope to preserve one’s language, and through it one’s identity in a world where smaller identities are getting submerged in the wave of globalization. And the Xobdo team is confident that this hope will drive more and more North-Easterners to join this unique database.

(An abridged version was published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 10-01-2010)

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/45921/a-virtual-tower-babel.html

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