screencap from the Lule-Sami website
screencap from the Lule-Sami website

How Social Media Is Helping to Save Endangered Languages

screencap from the Lule-Sami website
screencap from the Lule-Sami website

The far-northern European group of indigenous Sami languages is dying. Some, like Ter Sami from the eastern Kola Peninsula, only have two remaining speakers in the world. Sami youth are not learning their language, and if they know it, aren’t engaging with others in it. Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sami Parliament in Norway, wanted to find a modern way to solve this problem—so in 2013, she took to social media in an effort to revitalize the languages.

Using the Sami, Norwegian, and English-language hashtags #sámásmuinna, #saemesthmnnjien, #sámástamujna, #snakksamisktemæ, and #speaksamitome, Keskitalo encouraged Sami speakers to post a single word or phrase, paired with a photo and sometimes voice recording, on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

“We wanted to motivate young people to see social media as an arena for Sami language, and to show them that even if you only can write one word in your own language, you can still make a difference,” she says. “Language is a strong identity symbol, and it contains the Sami collective memory. It is important that the language is being transferred to the younger generations, and that they feel connected to it. We could lose our connection to our culture and our past without it.”

The campaign prospered for three years, bolstered by events, competitions, physical products, music and video programming, and blogs, before ending this year—but the hashtags and word packages still make an appearance online. In fact, the project had such a positive response that it sparked a similar social media campaign for the fast-dying Gwich’in language in Canada and Alaska: #SpeakGwichinToMe.

Social media has evolved to be so much more than just an outlet for personal chatter. According to the United Nations, more than 6,000 languages exist across the world—and half of them face extinction by the end of the century. But thanks to the incredible reach of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, speakers of endangered languages may be able to reverse this trend.

Ayapaneco, a language from Ayapa, Mexico, faces a similar fate to Ter Sami—only two living native speakers are left. In 2014, Vodafone collaborated with Professor James Fox from Stanford University to help preserve the language and reintroduce it to young children. They rehabbed an Ayapaneco language school in Mexico (where the two native speakers teach) and launched a website, Viva Ayapaneco, a social media-fueled language "adoption" service. Users either search for a word or receive a random word to adopt, listen to a recording of the pronunciation, and then record a video of themselves saying the word. Each video is stored on the website with easy links to share via Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

Facebook groups have a hand in language preservation as well. One of the five remaining speakers of Thao participates in a group called the Omniglot Fan Club—a 20,335-member page dedicated to language learning and linguistics-based culture on which users, including that Thao speaker, can share information about fading languages.

“Members of the group who speak endangered languages post information about them, which might encourage others to take an interest in those languages, and maybe learn them,” says Simon Ager, the group’s administrator. “Efforts to revive and revitalize languages are discussed and some members will find ways to support them, and even be inspired to set up similar projects in other communities.”

The Omniglot group and a similar group called Polyglots have taken it a step further, too. Members do a twice-yearly Lingua Franca Challenge, aiming to learn one language over the course of six months. Groups exist for minority languages, Uralic languages, European languages, and more.

“This kind of group gives people with a common interest in languages a place to talk and meet one another, if only virtually, to help each other and to learn from one another,” Ager says.

Keskitalo believes social media has become an essential tool in the preservation of endangered languages.

“We have lost so many arenas to speak [endangered languages],” she says, “that we need to conquer new ones.”

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The Easy Way to Reduce Robocalls on Your Smartphone

We can shoot a Tesla into orbit, but we still can’t stop telemarketing scam artists from calling us. The Federal Trade Commission fields an average of 375,000 complaint calls every month about these nuisance solicitations, which often disguise their identities using spoof numbers and are hoping to trick you into revealing your financial information. They’re annoying, illicit, and insulting, but they can be reduced.

According to Verge writer Chris Welch, robocalls sent to iPhone or Android smartphones can be thwarted a number of different ways. Many major cell carriers offer apps that block numbers suspected of being fraudulent. AT&T calls theirs Call Protect, for example, and alerts you when an incoming call seems dubious. You can then choose to ignore it or put it on a permanent block list. T-Mobile has Scam Block, which keeps tabs on known scam numbers and prevents them from getting through.

These services range from being free to leaving a minor ($2.99) surcharge on your monthly bill. For more aggressive blocking, third-party apps like Nomorobo and RoboKiller maintain huge databases of scam numbers and use them to compare incoming calls—once a robocall is detected, it’s cut off.

If you’re still not satisfied with one of these options, you may want to consider a hardware upgrade: Recent models from Samsung like the Galaxy S and Note use a Smart Call feature to curtail unwanted calls.

People who get calls on conventional landline phones shouldn’t give up hope, either. Broadband services like Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable) have a version of Nomorobo that will block calls from confirmed scam numbers.

[h/t the Verge]

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.
The London Lawyer Who Tried to Contact Mars via Telegraph
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.

Earthlings often like to imagine Martians as belligerent, as in the War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 or the 1996 movie Mars Attacks!. But for Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson, a London lawyer and former town clerk of Shoreditch, the Martians were a gentle people who only wanted peace.

Sure, the inhabitants of the Red Planet might look a little alarming—they were often more than 7 feet tall with huge ears and large shocks of hair, according to Robinson—but other than that they were much like humans, living in houses and driving cars, and enjoying simple pleasures such as drinking tea and smoking pipes.

Robinson knew all this because he had been telepathically communicating with a Martian woman named Oomaruru since the early 1920s, or so he claimed. In March of 1926, he had also held a séance with a psychic researcher and a medium whose hand wrote the Martian alphabet and drew a sketch of Oomaruru. A British newspaper, the Sunday Referee, later described the drawing, saying she had a “whimsical, half-smiling mouth, dark, penetrating eyes, curious nose, and very large ears.”

Though this all of this may sound absurd today, at the start of the 20th century, many scientists believed in the possibility of life on Mars. The discovery of what astronomers identified as canals on the Red Planet (first observed by Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877) had excited imaginations, and with inventions like the telephone and radio, science was continually turning what had once seemed impossible into the possible. Furthermore, the rise of Spiritualism in the 19th century—based on the idea of communication with the dead—remained popular, with notable advocates like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle encouraging people to believe contacting the beyond was a worthwhile pursuit. Was contacting Mars really so much of a stretch?


A 1926 memo from the Central Telegraph Office concerning Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson
BT Archives

In October 1926, Robinson decided to take his communications with Oomaruru to the next level—by going to the post office. At the time, London’s General Post Office had recently opened Rugby Radio Station, which served as a global radio telegraph hub.

A memo unearthed from London’s Central Telegraph Office explains that Robinson made arrangements to transmit a message for a standard long-distance rate of one shilling, six pence per word (then about 35 cents).

“Dr. Mansfield Robinson is singularly serious in this business, and we may expect other messages from him,” the memo reads. “I do not think we could have any conscience pricks as regards taking the money for he is perfectly sane and seems to have devoted his life to the study of possible intercommunication with the planet.”

The transmission, scheduled for 11:55 on the evening of October 27, used Robinson’s requested wavelength of 18,240 meters. It consisted of three words: Opesti, Nipitia, Secomba. Their meanings remain a mystery.

A handwritten letter from Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson to a telegraph office concerning his Mars transmission
BT Archives

Postal clerks stood by with a receiver tuned to a wavelength of 30,000 meters, which Robinson said was the Martian’s preference. Sadly, they received no response.

Undeterred, Robinson waited two years for the Red Planet to get close to Earth again. And then in October 1928 he made another attempt.

Once more, the post office agreed to dispatch his message. A memo states that its reasons were “mainly in order to obtain free publicity for Rugby.” Officials reasoned that press coverage would promote its rate far more efficiently than paid advertising.

This time, the messages read, “M M Lov to Mars x Erth" and "M M God is lov." They were transmitted at 2:15 am on October 24.

Again, no discernible message from Mars came through.

Robinson blamed the equipment. “The wavelength of 18,700 meters used by the post office does not go through the heavy-side layer of rarefied air, and therefore the signals are reflected around the earth,” he told the Associated Press. “The Martians were very annoyed that the signals could not come to them. They were sitting up for hours to receive signals.”

In December, Robinson made another attempt. This time he used a radio tower from Brazil, armed with wavelengths of more than 21,000 meters.

Unfortunately, changing hemispheres did not change the results.


Robinson’s mission went quiet until January 1930, when he apparently dispensed with radio communication and reported that he’d telepathically conducted an interview with Oomaruru for the United Press. In his alleged conversation, she suggested opening a College of Telepathy. She also expressed dismay at the lack of world peace after nearly 2000 years of “listening to the teachings of Jesus.”

Telepathy, Oomaruru believed, would make the world a better place. Not only would it help humans reach Mars, it would also help simplify communication right here on Earth. Robinson believed it was the “missing link in progress.” He was frustrated by the inefficiencies of the telephone (wrong numbers, busy signals), which would disappear, he said, “when the world learns to telepathize.”

Six months later, a United Press correspondent reported that Robinson had opened the College of Telepathy, staffed with six teachers and a telepathic dog named Nell. To help build the student body, Robinson offered free tuition for a month to the first seven pupils. He explained that each would be required to have “complete chastity and abstinence from flesh, alcohol and tobacco, coupled with good health and a desire to seek spiritual development.” Nell’s role was not clarified.

The article also noted that at the time of its writing there was only one student, named Claire. In addition to meeting the aforementioned requirements, she also signed a membership declaration in which she agreed to obey its rules, keep its secrets (unless “compelled by a competent court of justice”), and use her powers for the benefit of others.

No further details on attendance or successes were ever reported in the press. However, Robinson made headlines again in 1933 after claiming to be telepathically in touch with Cleopatra, who was living on Mars as a farmer’s wife. This may not have pleased his own wife, who once told reporters that she wouldn’t allow his experiments to be conducted at home. “There will be no foolishness around this house,” she said.

Robinson continued his telepathic communications with Oomaruru and Cleopatra for a few years, but died in 1940 at age 75 without ever having made radio contact with Mars. For the last several years of his life, at least, it seems he respected his wife's wishes and kept the foolishness to a minimum.


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