Experts preserve Osage language through technology

BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
01/05/2018 12:00 PM
PAWHUSKA, Okla. (AP) — Mogri Lookout had been studying the Osage language for three decades when, in 2004, he was asked to lead the tribe's efforts to preserve it.

"It was what I considered to be a dying language back then," he said.

But interest in the Osage language — like the Osage people — now stretches far beyond the tribe's reservation in northern Oklahoma to Florida, California, Washington and across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain. Lookout knew he needed a way to teach Osage members their native tongue from a distance.

"Not everyone and their mom is going to come to Pawhuska, Oklahoma," said Mark Pearson, the Osage Language Department's webmaster.

The solution lied in Unicode, a worldwide computing code for languages. Lookout designed Osage characters for the code and traveled with Pearson to a Unicode conference in California this October, the Oklahoman reported . Later that month, the tribe released Wahzhazhe, its language app for phones and tablets.

The free app, written in English, has 500 entries in 33 categories. Click on "greetings" and you'll hear an Osage speaker tell you how to say hello, how to introduce yourself and ask basic questions. Click on "family" and you'll learn how to pronounce family titles, such as son, daughter, mother and father.

Games and quizzes allow learners to test their abilities. A culture section teaches Osage traditions and translates Christian songs into the tribal language. A searchable database acts as an Osage dictionary.

"We do have an endangered language and we want it to prosper from technology," Lookout said. "As technology gets better, we tend to get better."

A reviewer on iTunes, where the app has a perfect five-star rating, called it "a breath of fresh air to the Osage Nation and our people." The tribal member added that "Revitalization (of) our language is now being implemented via mobile technology!"

The app meshes the talents of Lookout, the Osage's premier language expert, with those of Pearson, its technological authority. The result is a learning tool for the tribe's young and expatriated members, keeping alive a language diluted by European influences and forced assimilation in the 20th century.

Lookout and Pearson traveled to California at the invitation of Craig Cornelius, a senior software engineer at Google. Lookout called it a "wonderful experience" at a "wonderful place." They met personally with engineers at the tech giant.

"The personal stories (of the Osage) help us understand the importance of supporting language and cultures with today's technologies," Cornelius said in a statement.

Unicode was a crucial step in the Osage Nation's technological progress, allowing them, within the next two years, to develop keyboards for Android and Apple devices, Pearson said.

Google recently launched an Osage language keyboard to be used with its online products, such as Gmail and Google Chrome. As more Osage text is posted online, search engines will find it, allowing the language to spread through the internet, according to Cornelius.

Pearson is eager for the day when an Osage member can purchase a computer with the Osage language installed on it and an accompanying Osage keyboard, though it's not clear when that day will come. He said Google engineers are full of intrepid ideas, such as programs that will convert and translate old documents.

"Who knows where they're going to go with it and allow us to do," Pearson said.

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