Tag Archives: oral tradition

Mass digitization and oral traditions

In the previous post, I looked at a possible ramification of “mass digitization” of text. But what about the spoken word? And more precisely verbal presentations, performance, and broadcast in languages often described as having “oral traditions” (and generally less material in writing)? Can we do something significant to capture significant amounts of speech in such languages in digital recordings?

There are some projects to digitize older recordings on tape, and certainly a need for more effort in this area, but what I am thinking of here is recording contemporary use of language that is normally ephemeral (gone once uttered), along with gaining access to recordings of spoken language that may not be publicly accessible. One place to start might be community radio stations in regions where less-resourced languages are spoken.

The object would be to build digital audio libraries for diverse languages that don’t have much if any publication in text. This could permit various kinds of work. In the case of endangered tongues, this kind of thing would fall under the rubric of language documentation (for preservation and perhaps revitalization), but what I am suggesting is a resource for language development for languages spoken by wider communities.

Digital audio is more than just a newer format for recording. As I understand it, digital storage of audio has some qualitative differences, notably the potential to search by sound (without the intermediary of writing) and eventually, one presumes, to be manipulated and transformed in various ways (including rendering in text). Such a resource could be of use in other ways, such as collecting information on things like emerging terminologies in popular use (a topic that has interested me since hearing how community radio stations in Senegal come up with ways to express various new concepts in local languages). Altogether, digital audio seems to have the potential to be used in more ways than we are used to thinking about in reference to sound recordings.

Put another way, recordings can be transcribed and serve as “audio corpora,” in a more established way. But what if one had large volumes of untranscribed digital recordings, and the potential to search the audio (without text) and later to convert it into text (accuracy in this area, which would not involve the normal training involved with use of current speech-to-text programs will be one of the challenges)?

Can digital technology do for audio content something analogous to what it can do for text? What sort of advantages might such an effort bring for education and development in communities which use less-resourced languages? Could it facilitate the emergence of “neo-oral” traditions that integrate somehow with developing literate traditions in the same languages?

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