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Time to speak Tuvan. The Southern Siberia language is featured in National Geographic's project

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12 March 2012


The Tuvan language of southern Siberia features in a new digital talking dictionary aimed at preserving some of the world's most endangered languages.

It has been included by linguists from National Geographic's Enduring Voices project who are racing to document and revitalise minority tongues among the 7,000 or so spoken in the world today.

National Geographic Fellow K. David Harrison, associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, US, a linguist behind the project, unveiled eight new talking dictionaries at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada.

'Endangered language communities are adopting digital technology to aid their survival and to make their voices heard around the world,» said Harrison who claimed: 'This is a positive effect of globalisation'.

The bridge to the Fortress of Por Bazhin, named 'a treasure of Tuva'. Picture: Russian Geographical Society 

The dictionaries contain more than 32,000 word entries in eight endangered languages, more than 24,000 audio recordings of native speakers pronouncing words and sentences, and photographs of cultural objects.

Tuvan, the native tongue of the nomadic people of Tuva republic in Siberia has around a quarter of a million native speakers. The language also has speakers in Mongolia and China.

It is less vulnerable than some of the endangered languages with just a few hundred users. Indeed some authorities see it as the least endangered of dozens of indigenous Siberian tongues.

There are now 7,459 entries in Tuvan on the digital project with 2,972 audio files and 49 images.

The remarkable website allows users to get Tuvan translations for English words.

The language is also known as Tuvinian, Tyvan or Tuvin, and is Turkic in origin.

Experts say it uses roots from Mongolian, Tibetan and Russian.

In Siberia, there are distinct dialects of Tuvan, according to Wikipedia's guide to the language.

These are Central, which formers the basis of the literary language and includes the sub-dialects of Ovyur and Bii-Khem; Western, found spoken near the upper course of the Khemchik River, and significantly by interaction with the Altai language; Northeastern, also known as the Todzhi dialect, which is especially spoken near the upper course of the Bii-Khem River, and contains a large vocabulary related to hunting and reindeer breeding not found in the other dialects; and Southeastern, which includes most influence from the Mongolian language.

Across Siberia, one expert pointed to 59 with Yakut having the largest number of speakers, around 350,000.

In eastern Siberia where there are 23 languages, according to the Swarthmore experts, among tongues in most peril are Alutor, with under 200 speakers, Chukchi-Koryak; Orok, with 50 or fewer speakers, and Yukaghir with 100 or less.

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