78 indigenous languages are being saved by optical scanning tech

By Melissa Locker

Like in countless science-fiction stories, researchers at UC Berkeley are using futuristic technology to save a piece of the past. Project IRENE is using cutting-edge optical scan technology to transfer and digitally restore recordings of indigenous languages, many of which no longer have living speakers, Hyperallergic first reported.

The recordings were gathered between 1900 and 1938 when UC anthropologists asked native speakers of 78 indigenous languages of California to record their songs, histories, prayers, and vocabulary on wax cylinders. Many of those cylinders are housed at Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and they are in a state of disrepair, degraded and broken. It’s a frustrating state of affairs, as many of the languages recorded on the cylinders have fallen out of use or are no longer spoken at all.

The “Documenting Endangered Languages” initiative, which has support from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is hoping to save this important history.

Using non-contact optical scanning, which collects millions of points from an object to build a complete digital model, the researchers are hoping to preserve about 100 hours of audio from the wax cylinders, even the broken ones. When the scanning is complete, the languages will be preserved in digital versions that will be saved for future generations.

The work can already be seen in this recently shared video from NSF:



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