Monday, November 19, 2012
What happens when you put a Google engineer in a car with a member of the Cherokee Nation? Well, something we think is pretty amazing: Gmail in Cherokee, or ᏣᎳᎩ (pronounced "jaw la gee"), Gmail’s 57th language.
It was just coincidence that I, a Google engineer working on the internationalization of Google products, ended up carpooling back to San Francisco with Vance Blackfox, member of the Cherokee Nation (CN) from an event we’d both attended. But that coincidence kick-started a collaboration that would result in Google Web Search in Cherokee and, starting today, Gmail in Cherokee.
After a 2002 survey of the Oklahoma Cherokee population found that no one under 40 spoke conversational Cherokee, the Cherokee Nation saw an opportunity to use technology to encourage everyday use of the language among the younger generation. Vance connected me with the language technology department at the Cherokee Nation, and the Gmail team worked closely with their highly organized team of volunteers, which ranged from university students to Durbin Feeling--Cherokee living treasure and author of the Cherokee-English Dictionary. Together, we were able to find and implement the right words for hundreds of Gmail terms, from "inbox" (ᎧᏁᏌᎢᏱ) and “sign in” (ᏕᏣᏙᎥ ᎰᏪᎸᎦ) to “spam” (ᎤᏲᎢ).
Gmail in Cherokee and the Cherokee version of Google Web Search both include a virtual keyboard for typing the syllabary writing system invented by Sequoyah in the early 1800s. Now Cherokee students can easily contact their tribal elders, e.g., “Joseph wants to chat” (“ᏦᏏᏫ ᎤᏚᎵ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ”) and connect instantly. As Joseph Erb, Language Technologist at the Cherokee Nation put it, “Projects like these give more life to our language in our communities. It is not just about preserving our language and culture. It is about using our language each day and every day and continuing who we are as a people. And this give us that chance each time we check our email.”