A virtual Tower of Babel

That India is virtually a modern-day representation of the mythical Tower of Babel is a fact too well known, but what might not be known to many is that a significant percentage of the thousands of languages spoken in the country are from the Northeastern region. Many of these languages, spoken by small ethnic communities and tribes, are facing the threat of extinction with the increasing usage of English, lack of their own written scripts in many cases and no effort to properly codify them.

But now, a group of professionals from the region, located all over the world, have joined hands to systematically document and preserve these languages with the help of the Internet, effectively creating a virtual Tower of Babel. Appropriately named Xobdo, the Assamese word for the Sanskrit equivalent "Shabda" which means both word and sound (the "X" denoting the "Sha" as it is softly pronounced in Assamese), the four-year-old not-for-profit portal is the result of a joint effort by over 1,300 volunteers scattered all over the globe, whose aim is to finally build the most-comprehensive online dictionary for all these languages. The brainchild of an Abu Dhabi-based petroleum engineer Bikram M Baruah, the idea first was to build an online Assamese dictionary, the biggest and most commonly spoken language in the region. But even as Assamese words continue to be the biggest component of xobdo.org / xobdo.net, slowly but surely it is also becoming a platform for the smaller languages of the region. The portal is not merely about words alone. It has now expanded to include traditional proverbs in various languages, along with their meanings.

However, those managing the effort are concerned at the slow pace of contribution of words to the various smaller, ethnic languages, and have just come out with an appeal to the Northeastern people living in various parts of the world to associate themselves with the "movement" vigorously. "We need more volunteers for languages like Dimasa, Karbi, Meeteilon, Tai, Bodo, Hmar, Khasi, Mising, Kok-Borok, Bishnupriya, Nagamese, Mizo (Lushai), Garo, Chakma, Apatani, Ao, Monpa, Kaubru (Reang), etc.," says Buljit Buragohain of IIT-Guwahati, the spokesperson for Xobdo. A cursory look at the word count on the site reveals how the smaller languages are still lagging behind.

By December 27, 2009, the online dictionary comprised 24,440 Assamese words, followed by 12,839 words in English, 2,726 in Dimasa, and 1,395 in Karbi. Words in languages like Meeteilon (932), Tai (915), Bodo (825), Hmar (632), Khasi (405), Misig (366), Kok-Borok (306), Bishnupriya (233), Nagamese (138), Mizo (Lushai) (120) and Garo (117) still have not touched four figures, while those in Chakma (87), Apatani (75), Ao (73) and Monpa (18) are too few for comfort.

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