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Endangered languages visualized and printed by UCL researchers

Alex Pillen and Emma-Kate Matthews used parametric design software to visualize the sound and grammatical patterns of four different languages

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According to an article written by Rima Sabina Aouf, Alex Pillen, from University College London (UCL)’s anthropology department, and Emma-Kate Matthews, from the Bartlett School of Architecture have collaborated on a unique way to preserve endangered languages – by capturing their character in the form of 3D printed objects.

The UCL researchers made use of parametric design software to visualize the sound and grammatical patterns of four different languages and gave them a physical form using a 3D printer. The aim was to find a new way to document the world’s endangered languages and communicate complex aspects of language that are usually lost in translation.

“We do, of course, have recordings of these languages to preserve the way they sound, while the vocabulary can be preserved in a dictionary. But what is more difficult to preserve is the grammar because this is often presented in a very dry manner by linguists,” said Alex Pillen. “You get transcripts, annotated with very technical terminology. But by producing the geometry of grammar in 3D, we allow people to have an immediate intuitive relationship to these languages that are under threat – or that might disappear.”

The project began with Alex Pillen looking for a cover design for her book on the Kurdish language that would roughly be “the architecture of the Kurdish language incurred through an abstract design”. To realize this idea, she went to Emma-Kate Matthews – a Ph.D. student focusing on the intersection of music and architecture. Emma-Kate Matthews developed the parametric algorithm to translate the languages into visualizations using the 3D modeling software, Rhino.

Endangered languages visualized and printed by UCL researchers, Alex Pillen and Emma-Kate Matthews, using parametric design software.
Source: Rima Sabina Aouf on Dezeen.

The UCL researchers chose to build four models based on four languages: Kurdish, the Amazonian language Tariana, an ancient Mesopotamian dialect called Akkadian, and, for comparison, American English. They picked a speech sample to use for each, except in the case of the already extinct Akkadian, for which they used a written sample from a clay tablet.

The researchers wanted to focus on capturing the grammatical character of the languages due to the parallels they perceive between grammar and geometry. “Grammar is defined as the whole structure and system of a language, and has been compared to a geometrical order for centuries,” the pair wrote in their paper, which is published in the Nature journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications.

The pair honed in on the grammatical element of the evidential – a qualifier that is added to a sentence to indicate the source of the information that is being conveyed. According to Alex Pillen, evidentials are most prominent in Native American, Amazonian, and Aboriginal languages, which have complex grammatical structures, while English speakers have to add longer phrases such as ‘presumably’, ‘reportedly’, or ‘I was told’.

In the Tariana language, speakers are grammatically obliged to indicate the source of the information they are discussing at all times using a hierarchy of evidentials, which denote everything from the speaker having directly observed something to the repeating of information relayed by someone else. This gives the Tarianan 3D model its pattern of dramatic crests.

To translate these evidential systems into 3D space, the pair assigned each statement a numerical value corresponding to its evidential weight and plotted this onto the z-axis inside Rhino.

The number of syllables was plotted along the y-axis and the timeline on the x-axis, allowing the design software to turn these points into a smooth, undulating 3D shape.

Endangered languages visualized and printed by UCL researchers, Alex Pillen and Emma-Kate Matthews, using parametric design software.
The grammatical structure of English (left) and Tariana (right). Source: Rima Sabina Aouf on Dezeen.

The designs were then 3D printed, starting in nylon plastic before moving on to a silver alloy that better showcases the designs’ intricacy and a rubber-like thermoplastic polyurethane that has a fabric-like smoothness. The pair liken their approach to visualizing the “shape” of humanity’s natural languages to the envisioning of DNA as a double helix.

“The double helix of DNA and structure of virus particles are by now familiar as images that circulate widely,” reads their paper. “By contrast, the shape of humanity’s natural languages, and their high-dimensional form mostly remain to be explored and modeled as visual material… The contemporary software we have at our disposal and methods for digital design allow us to visualize the natural forms of human language.”

In the future, the UCL researchers want to expand their method to incorporate larger datasets and perhaps create moving images with evolving shapes. They also say that around 1,500 of the world’s languages are at a high risk of being lost in the next century – affecting the identity of people from those communities.

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