Cherokee Language Program manager attends Paris conference
Every effort to acquaint Cherokee Nation citizens with the tribe’s language can help, and CN Cherokee Language Program Manager Roy Boney displays a mousepad with the characters of the Cherokee syllabary. Boney in December was invited to the Paris UNESCO office for the “Language Technology for All Conference.” D. SEAN ROWLEY/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – For decades, the effort to preserve and expand usage of the Cherokee language has been underway.
It has required tireless exertion by many Cherokee Nation citizens, including Roy Boney, who traveled Dec. 4-6 to represent the CN and its language at the United Nations “Language Technology for All Conference” at its Paris UNESCO office.
Boney, CN Cherokee Language Program manager, has worked for years to meld the syllabary with digital technology, with much success.
“We have some agreements in place with Google and Microsoft,” Boney said before his departure. “Our administration signs off on MOAs (memorandum of agreement) every year to keep these projects going. They’ve been good partners with us to make sure the syllabary is digitized properly and compatible across the board. When you use your iPhone or tablet now, it’s all there. You’re not missing any components anymore.”
It is the partnership with Google and works with the nonprofit Translation Commons that resulted in the extension of a joint invitation to Boney. Members of the panel discussed their work to preserve Indigenous languages around the world. The CN’s efforts to move the language and syllabary into the digital age can offer lessons to others who can also share their ideas to enhance Cherokee language preservation.
Boney said the panel shared concepts. A Cherokee language poster display was in the lobby to detail work done to foster use of the language. The conference included about 400 people representing many Indigenous languages.
“Cherokee is a syllabary with a unique writing system, and a lot of other languages don’t have that,” Boney said. “They write their languages with the Latin characters. But there are some languages that do have their own writing, and sometimes it is only handwritten in the community. How do we help them make that transition from their unique writing to digital technology? Having gone through this process, we understand how it works. We can help other communities do this.”
When he started working for the CN more than a dozen years ago, Boney realized the language didn’t yet have much digital utility.
“My background is in graphic arts, and we were creating classroom curriculum posters,” he said. “We had an old Cherokee font and we could use it for basic stuff, but people were moving toward the internet and online interactions, so a lot of the Cherokee language didn’t work in that capacity. It wasn’t standardized, and you could have problems from one computer to another if you wanted to use a website.”
The CN language department began an investigation, particularly for the benefit of students at the Cherokee Immersion Charter School, to figure out some way to make the language more compatible with the digital tech of the day.
“We have contracts with Apple and Microsoft to purchase their products for government computers,” Boney said. “Since we have a relationship with them, we wondered if they could help us get our language compatible with their products. That opened the doorway to working with the tech industry to make it happen.”
Apple was the first company to put the Cherokee language on its desktop systems and laptops. Shortly after the iPhone was introduced, Apple released the Cherokee font keyboard for the smartphone. Boney said other companies noticed, and also wanted to produce products incorporating the language.
“Over the last few years that has been one of our big goals, to make sure any digital technology – smartphone, tablet – will work with the Cherokee syllabary,” he said.
Boney said the Google partnership has been essential, with many Cherokees using Android devices.
“(Google software engineer) Craig Cornelius has been our point person there,” Boney said. “He has a passion for languages in general. He made a connection with a Cherokee citizen, and learned about the language and syllabary, so he asked if he could help.”
Today, Gmail and the Google search engine are available in Cherokee, and the language can be typed on an Android system.
“I’ve been fortunate to be a part of this process,” Boney said. “I work with the engineers and font developers. I have some background in typography design, and we work with them to make sure the syllabary moves from the printed page to the digital era.”
Boney said the concept of language preservation experts sharing their ideas is not new. He pointed to the global interest from other cultures when Sequoyah invented the Cherokee syllabary.
“This is kind of a continuation of that,” he said. “We would like to help get their writing systems into the digital world also…. We have the Cherokee Language Consortium, where the three tribes get together. It would be great if that could serve as some sort of model. They create a lot of new terminology.”
But Boney said he would also listen for suggestions that might help Cherokee language preservation. Preserving a language and encouraging its use doesn’t happen easily.
“A big challenge is that there is always this barrier in technology where either people in the community can’t afford the new gadgets, and many who are fluent and could use this technology to its full potential are elders who don’t use a lot of technology,” he said. “How do you bridge that gap between people who have all this great knowledge and the younger generation that is trying to learn it? Sometimes technology can help, other times it can be a barrier. So how does a community deal with that challenge?”