05.21.03 | 2:00 AM
Scottish Gaelic, one of the Western world's least spoken languages, could get a boost toward survival from Microsoft.
Speakers of the ancient tongue -- used by just 58,650 people and falling -- plan to ask Microsoft managers to include a custom spell-checker with the language in the Office suite.
The outcome of their talks could have wider implications for speakers of other minority languages, from Icelandic to Catalan, who have long campaigned for customized versions of Microsoft's ubiquitous software.
Campaigners said a Gaelic spell-checker could help reverse its slow decline.
The number of Scottish Gaelic speakers has fallen 11 percent in the last 10 years to an all time low, according to the latest U.K. census figures released in February. Most were concentrated in rural areas in the north of Scotland.
Allan Campbell, chief executive of Bord na Gàidhlig, or the Gaelic Board, in Inverness said a spell-checker would give students and other speakers the confidence to overcome centuries of dominance by Scotland's English-speaking establishment.
"One of our main problems is that there are thousands of people who speak the language but can't read or write it," said Campbell. "It wasn't encouraged in school."
Gaelic folklore is full of old stories of teachers literally beating the language out of children.
"Over the years, Gaelic speakers were taught that it wasn't really a worthy language," said Campbell. "It was just something for consenting adults in private. The idea of having a spell-checker would be a huge boost for people who feel their Gaelic is not up to scratch."
A spell-checker, he said, would give people more confidence to use the language in everything from school essays and e-mails to business and government correspondence. It would also standardize Scottish Gaelic spelling which, until recently, varied from region to region.
If Microsoft gives the go-ahead for Scottish Gaelic, supporters will have a head start on the process of actually building a spell-checker. They will be able to build on an engine that's already been developed for Irish Gaelic (a closely related language) and released by Microsoft in February.
A team from the European Language Institute, which specializes in writing dictionaries for all languages used by local governments in Europe, has already started developing a database of 65,000 Scottish Gaelic words for a trial version.
Leo McNeir, who is leading the language team, will need to build his lexicon up to 250,000 for the final version. After that, Microsoft would test it to make sure it doesn't clash with any of its software packages. If the testing period for Irish is anything to go by, that could take up to two years.
"This would be a real coming of age for Scottish Gaelic," said McNeir. "It would be a rite of passage for what is a lovely, lyrical, delicate language."
The Scottish Gaelic delegation, which plans to visit Microsoft's office in Dublin, Ireland, will include representatives of Bord na Gàidhlig and the development agency Comunn na Gàidhlig, as well as people from The University of Dublin, Trinity College and the Linguistics Institute of Ireland who worked on the Irish Gaelic spell-checker.
A Microsoft representative said he could not comment on their request ahead of the meeting.
Microsoft's Office suite currently ships in 18 languages and the company has been persuaded to support minority tongues in the past. It developed a version of Windows for Nynorsk -- Norway's second language -- in December, reportedly after Norway threatened to boycott Microsoft software in its schools. It will also "translate" Windows into Dzongkha, a language spoken in Bhutan, after a charity agreed to fund the development work.
Nicholas Ostler of the English Foundation for Endangered Languages said Scottish Gaelic is currently 1,135th in the table of about 2,000 known languages with fully developed written systems. In all, about 6,800 languages exist, most only spoken.
While Gaelic is definitely suffering, he added, it has a long way to go before it reaches the position occupied by about 50 languages that have only one surviving speaker. Among those is Eyak, spoken by Marie Smith from Prince William Sound in Alaska.
The spread of television and the Internet to even the most remote corners of the world is taking most of the blame for the decline of minority languages, said Ostler. Some linguists estimate that up to 90 percent could be gone by the end of the century.
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