CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
And now we turn to a modern solution to preserve an ancient language, and a way to say Happy Holidays in a new way, in Cherokee. The latest available information shows that only 8,000 of the Cherokee Nation's 290,000 members still speak the language fluently, but the tribe's leaders have been working to change that.
In 2011 they collaborated with Google to create a search page in the Cherokee language and their latest effort is a Cherokee language version of Gmail. It was just released yesterday.
To tell us more, I'm joined by Joseph Erb, language technologist for the Cherokee Nation. Also with us is Craig Cornelius, senior software engineer on Google's internationalization team. They both worked on the project.
And welcome to both of you.
CRAIG CORNELIUS: Thank you.
JOSEPH ERB: Happy to be here.
HEADLEE: Joseph, let me start with you because we promised our listeners that they'd learn to say Happy Holidays in Cherokee. How do you say that?
ERB: It's hard to translate exactly everything, but I guess you could say (foreign language spoken).
HEADLEE: So I'm not even going to try to repeat that, but let's talk about this 2002 study. It was conducted by the Cherokee Nation and showed, remarkably, no one under the age of 40 speaks Cherokee conversationally. In what way could Google or Gmail change that?
ERB: Well, the survey - you know, there is actually people that do speak it under 40, but it was one of those times when they tested and, when you take a certain poll, the test, some results are different than others, but there are some that speak. But it is the majority that speak are the elders in our community and Google helping us making sure that - the way that young people communicate today are electronically - is the way to actually keep the language going and it's been very exciting to use Cherokee language today with Google's help.
HEADLEE: Well, Craig Cornelius, the story of how you became involved in setting up the search function and then now Gmail in Cherokee is a pretty interesting one. Can you tell us that story?
CORNELIUS: Sure. It happened quite by accident. A man named Vance Blackfox and I were going to an event in the Santa Cruz mountains and, while carpooling, we talked about what we do. When I mentioned I worked with languages at Google, he immediately said that his tribe had been hoping to contact Google and start working with us on some language tools for them.
A few weeks later, I was in touch with Joseph Erb and a few others of the tribe and we began working on Google Web search in Cherokee. We started by basically making a spreadsheet of all the English translations on one column of the spreadsheet and then Joseph and the other folks in Oklahoma added the Cherokee versions and then we integrated that and eventually were able to release a Google Web search in the Cherokee language.
HEADLEE: You know, Joseph, explain to me how this works. I speak not a word of Cherokee, so would I be able to use this Gmail?
ERB: Well, what you can do is you can go ahead and try it out because Google has a lot of different languages it supports and so, if you go into your little gearbox to the right side of the Google search engine, you can go down there and click on it and go into the settings and adjust the languages. And, even if you don't speak Cherokee, you can try it out and, at the bottom right corner, you can switch back to English. Google has put a little safety button at the bottom if you want to switch back, so you can try it out and then, if you ever feel uncomfortable, you can click Google in Cherokee and it'll switch automatically back.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about the new Cherokee language version of Google's Gmail. Our guests are the Cherokee Nation's Joseph Erb and Google's Craig Cornelius.
So how did you translate this, Craig? We're talking about a language which, for a very, very long time, was verbal and then those characters are not the normal characters most of us are used to seeing in terms of the alphabet. So how did this work?
CORNELIUS: These are very good questions. Actually, the Cherokee people invented their writing system on their own in the early 1800s and Joseph can tell you all the details of that, but true to their experiences with technology and their willingness to try new things, the Cherokee folks have been out talking to companies and standards bodies so that they actually got their writing system into the systems that can write languages on the Internet. So Cherokee letters can be written by anybody on any computer, as long as they have the font installed.
HEADLEE: Right. But you don't need a special keyboard? It'll appear on your screen. Right?
CORNELIUS: One can set up a special keyboard or, in Google Web search and also in Gmail now, there's a little button that one can touch. It looks like a keyboard and it makes one's keyboard become a virtual Cherokee keyboard, so when that little icon is open, one is typing in the Cherokee keyboard and the 80-some characters of the Cherokee are there instead of A, B, C, D.
HEADLEE: So, Joseph, do you envision, actually, people hunting and pecking on their keyboards to type out emails to their grandchildren?
ERB: Well, you know, we didn't realize to the degree that the community would back this because we thought we were doing it for the younger people that were just trying to use the language with each other, but what we found is, you know, we have a lot of elder speaking people communicating with this just so that they can communicate in the native tongue so that they can email their sister or brother and email their grandchildren and use the language. And we didn't - we thought we were actually doing it for the younger generation, but we realize now it's actually for the entire community.
HEADLEE: You know, we often think of technology as sort of breaking down our language skills in ways that email and Twitter and social media has maybe lessened our ability to communicate all that eloquently in the language. How do you think this is actually going to help young people learn Cherokee?
ERB: Well, you know, actually, what it does is it exposes young people to Cherokee every day and it actually also gives the ability to communicate with elders and so the use of it is actually pretty exciting to think that one of the reasons our language is weakening is because you're not exposed to as much language. So much of the other - the outside language, English, has been coming in through TVs and social media and stuff. And this gives a chance to see Cherokee every day, every time you check your email and that's pretty exciting.
HEADLEE: And, Craig, could a non-Cherokee member learn some of the language by using this Cherokee Gmail?
CORNELIUS: I think it's possible, although a person probably would have to check back and forth to see the English versus the Cherokee for a while. I can read a few phrases myself, but I'm by no means proficient yet.
HEADLEE: And, Joseph, how do you say send me an email in Cherokee?
ERB: So email is (foreign language spoken) and it's actually an interesting word to us because it means lightning paper.
HEADLEE: Oh, wow.
ERB: And so, you know, we've had to come up with a lot of different terms and that was one of the ones that we had to come up with and, a lot of times, in the development of technology, the word lightning came into batteries and then it came into electricity and digital stuff. And so that's the word we use for email is (foreign language spoken), which is lightning paper, which is the explanation of very fast sent paper.
And, you know, that's what's really been neat about this process is we have to come up with more words that didn't exist in Cherokee language and this project is an example of the increased word count of the Cherokee language because language is - if their vocabulary is growing, then they're improving and getting stronger and that's what Google's really done for us on this project.
HEADLEE: I think that's the definition of a living language. That's Joseph Erb, language technologist for the Cherokee Nation. He joined us from member station KWGS in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And Craig Cornelius is senior software engineer on Google's internationalization team. He joined us from a studio at Stanford University in California.
Thanks to both of you.
CORNELIUS: It was wonderful to be here.
ERB: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.