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Dying languages get digital home

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A SURF project has helped create a digital home for dying languages, writes Aad van de Wijngaart

Something strange has been happening in the field of linguistics. Old dialects from parts of Italy turn out to have more in common grammatically with Basque, Georgian, or Hindi than with the language of Dante. According to Roberta D’Alessandro, professor of Italian at Leiden University in the Netherlands, ‘It doesn’t fit in at all with what we used to think about “language families”, but it’s a fact that we cannot ignore.’

Such observations give great insight into the development of languages but can be missed when the numbers of people speaking a dialect become very small or the dialect stops being spoken. To ensure that the language can continue to be studied, members of D’Alessandro’s Leiden research group are taking recording equipment to the Abruzzi region to document the last native speakers of the region’s dialect.

But recording a language is only part of the story. The question that arose was how to store all the material to make comparative research easier. ‘At the other universities where I’ve worked, in Germany and the UK, everything was on a project basis,’ said D’Alessandro. ‘You ended up with a website with material that was then “frozen”, so to speak. You couldn’t expand or alter anything, let alone combine it with material from other projects. Here in Leiden, we wanted to have a shared platform for all our research. I want to be able to upload data or a draft version of an article and ask my colleagues what they think of it. After all, we are a research group.’

D’Alessandro aims were noted by SURF, which was looking for participants in the CARDS (Controlled Access to Research Data Stored Securely) project, which aimed to make it easier and more secure for researchers to manage and share data. After a number of exploratory talks, D’Alessandro phoned her university library. ‘Fieke Schoots and Peter Verhaar at the university library really listened to us every time we talked, presented what was possible, and then produced exactly what we wanted. They really did understand what it was all about! I’m extremely satisfied.’

A lot of hard work took place behind the scenes at the university library. As Peter Verhaar, the library’s project manager, explained, ‘CARDS involved exchanging a great deal of information, not just during meetings but also in the form of documentation, templates, questionnaires and other ways. To design the management system for research data properly, the data specialists need expertise in many different fields. Above all, however, they need to understand what the researcher is talking about.’

Effective communication meant that the research group soon had a digital workspace. The most important choices concerned the metadata for classifying the research data. D’Alessandro noted: ‘We linked up with the most relevant existing databases. That makes it easy for other researchers to reuse our material. At the moment, it’s still protected because people are using it to write their dissertations, but it would be ridiculous just to keep everything to ourselves. We’re not doing it for the money, of course, or even for our reputation. We’re dealing with languages that will soon have disappeared. They can continue to exist online.’

SURF’s CARDS project ran during 2011 and involved the DANS data archive and Leiden, Tilburg, Twente, Amsterdam, and VU universities. SURFnet, 3TU, and Utrecht University supported the project. The main recommendations in the final report of the project are: to formulate policy on data management; to ensure proper support; and to ensure an effective infrastructure for data management and data storage. Based on the experience gained during the project, a digital information package has been created for planning data management in the context of scientific research.

A version of this article first appeared in the June issue of SURF magazine, SURF02.