Pennsylvania man works to keep languages alive

Jason Nark
The Philadelphia Inquirer

When Daniel Bogre Udell turned 13, the small world he knew in the Poconos expanded into a much larger one in the kitchen of a local restaurant.

It was the first time Bogre Udell, now 27, heard people speaking to one another in Spanish. That job as a busboy in Monroe County sparked a passion that has led him on a mission to record and curate all the world’s languages.

“I definitely had a fairly homogeneous cultural experience,” Bogre Udell said of his youth in Poconos Pines.

Started Wikitongues: Today, Bogre Udell lives in Brooklyn, and New York, he said, is the most linguistically diverse city in the world. Wikitongues, the nonprofit he co-founded has probed even further, thanks to a network of hundreds of volunteers who’ve recorded themselves and others speaking, so far, more than 400 of the world’s 7,097 languages.

Bogre Udell said Wikitongues has recorded languages from the Brazilian rain forest that sound like “birds chirping,” along with the clicking consonants of Bantu spoken in central and South Africa, and Pennsylvania Dutch, the unique, small language spoken by the Amish in his own backyard.

“There’s about 500 languages that are seriously at risk,” he said.

Bogre Udell, who has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and a master’s in historical studies from the Parsons New School in New York, recalled seeing Mayan languages at ruins on trips to the Yucatan with family and said he first learned about the politics of language in the Catalonian region of Spain while studying abroad. The region has long sought independence and speaking Catalan was once banned under the dictator Francisco Franco.

One of the goals of Wikitongues, he said, is to give activists a platform to revitalize languages rather than fully assimilate them into larger ones.

“We’re like a front door to the broader process. Minority languages. Things have changed. Politics have changed,” he said.

The Wikitongues YouTube channel has close to 41,000 subscribers. The most popular video is a combination of English and Gullah, a distinctive Creole language spoken by African-Americans along the coast and on the islands off South Carolina and Georgia. Another popular video shows a woman speaking Shetlandic, from the Shetland Islands north of Scotland.

Rich history: The story of languages, Bogre Udell said, includes war, massacres and genocides and remoteness. Every two weeks, he said, a language dies. Sometimes existing languages are spoken by only a handful of people and can only be recorded, not revitalized. One that survived conquest was Basque, spoken in northern Spain and southwestern France.

“Basque was spoken there when the Romans showed up,” he said. “You’re listening to the voice of a people that has withstood conquest and invasion.”

Bogre Udell started WikiTongues as a project while studying at the New School but kept it going forward with co-founder Frederico Andrade, Many of Wikitongues volunteers are listed on its website, and the site’s work has been recognized by National Geographic. Borge Udell earns an income by working as a freelance web developer but said 70 percent of his life is dedicated to Wikitongues. The site runs through donations, and he said there are plans to work with the Library of Congress soon and, ideally, more universities and government agencies aimed at preserving culture.

“The European Union is one of the best places in the world for reviving and revitalizing unique languages,” he said.

Some of those languages include Greenlandic and Cornish, a revived language that was common in Cornwall in Southwest England up until the 18th century.

Constructed languages: Not all languages have ancient traditions, such as Klingon, inspired by the Klingons in, yes, Star Trek. Those languages are called constructed languages, or “conlangs,” and their popularity waxes and wanes with the times.

“Klingon is far less learned today,” he said. “Today, Dothraki, from “Game of Thrones,” is more popular.”

The largest constructed language is Esperanto, created in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof with the goal of uniting humanity. It is estimated that 2 million people can speak it.

“We certainly couldn’t turn down Esperanto.” Bogre Udell said. “It borrows from all the major languages in Europe.”