Researchers' 3D-printed models help preserve endangered languages

You can touch languages.
Nergis Firtina
3D printed objects from English (left) and Tariana (right) prototypes.
3D printed objects from English (left) and Tariana (right) prototypes.


Over a thousand languages are predicted to disappear in the ensuing decades, with half of all languages in the world being endangered. A University College London (UCL) team has developed a groundbreaking 3D method to preserve ancient languages and many more.

Across 7,000 recorded languages are thought to be spoken by people all over the world, and UCL suggested that nearly 230 languages have been lost so far. The loss of 1,500 endangered and rare languages will likely occur during the next 100 years.

'Like a DNA helix'

Language is frequently imagined as words on a page or sound. But, much like the double helix of DNA, the "shape" of human languages and their high-dimensional form have yet to be thoroughly investigated and modeled.

By creating 3D-printed objects based on language patterns and syntax, researchers have now made it feasible to physically interact with a language extract in addition to just listening to a recording.

Researchers' 3D-printed models help preserve endangered languages
A nylon prototype made via the latest industrial type of 3D printing (Multi Jet Fusion), based on a language sample from an Amazonian language (Tariana).


Sound of the languages

The team drew inspiration from a language's sounds —the number of syllables in a line and its syntax, concentrating on a specific grammatical system known as evidential— to develop their 3D designs. They assigned a number to "evidential weight," which refers to the type of evidence being presented.

As said in the statement, the Amazonian language Tariana was one of the languages they concentrated on, for instance. Tariana requires speakers always to explain the type of evidence they are transmitting. There is a hierarchy of favored evidential in Tariana, ranging from information gleaned through direct observation of objects to the repetition of information related by another person.

They plotted points in three dimensions, with the numerical values derived from evidential along the Z axis, the number of syllables along the Y axis, and the timeline on the X axis. The design software then turned these points into a 3D shape, virtually filling in the digital weave of warp and weft to appear as a smooth, woven undulating surface.

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“You get transcripts annotated with very technical terminology. But by producing the geometry of grammar in 3D, we allow people to have an immediate intuitive relationship to these languages that are under threat - or that might disappear,” said Dr. Alex Pillen, an anthropologist at UCL.

Study abstract:

Natural language is a high-dimensional form that evolved through innovation and repetition over millennia. We tend to imagine language in the shape dictated by our writing system, as words on a page, or as sound. The aim of this paper is to explore how one aspect of this high-dimensional form could be rendered in 3D. Contemporary software developed for the production of film and video animation became a tool for us to model natural language. The paper begins with an overview of historical material about features of language and computational design that became relevant for our project. The whole system and structure of a language, its grammar has been compared to a geometry for centuries, as principles that define its shape. One aspect of this complex configuration was selected for 3D modelling; evidentiality. This aspect of every language points at the evidence for what people are saying. The paper lays out the research trajectory that allowed us to conceive of evidentiality as a third dimension, which is often lost in translation. We offer a step-by-step account of our methodology and 3D design process. Our findings consist of four introductory prototypes and digital 3D images, each one designed on the basis of a short language sample. The portrayal of a language excerpt as a digitally frozen shape enabled us to print natural language in 3D. Such 3D language objects not only extend the legacy of form-finding within computational design, but also allows for spatial intuition to help us get a more solid grasp of languages we may not speak.

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