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A 'like' for linguistics: Can social media save Mexico's unwritten languages?

Many indigenous languages alive in Mexico today don't have formal written systems, but a growing number of computer-savvy young people want to Facebook and tweet in their native tongue.

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A sign with Facebook's 'Like' logo is posted at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Many indigenous languages alive in Mexico today don't have any formal written system, but a growing number of young people, computer savvy and sometimes far from home, want to Facebook, tweet, and chat in their native tongue.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File

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When Hilaria Cruz chats online in Texas with friends back home in Mexico, she switches effortlessly between two languages: Spanish and her native Chatino.

The trick is that, until recently, no formal writing system existed to represent the sounds and tones of eastern Chatino, an indigenous language spoken by 20 small communities in rural southern Oaxaca. Ms. Cruz, a doctoral candidate in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, had a hand in creating the alphabet she now uses to post messages on Facebook.

Social media have become a crucial bridge between the academics, activists, and young people who want to preserve the more than 360 variants of indigenous languages alive in Mexico today and the communities who actively use them. Many of these don't have any formal written system, but a growing number of indigenous young people, computer savvy and sometimes far from home, want to Facebook, tweet, and chat in their native tongue. Both through social media, and perhaps because of it, they're joining a burgeoning movement to create alphabets and a way to write previously unwritten languages like Chatino.

In past years, the creation of a writing system was left to academics or local committees who were prone to interminable debates over minutia like whether there is a “p” in the Mixtec alphabet, says Michael Swanton, linguist and director of the Oaxaca-based San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center, a hub of language study. Young people learn from those efforts but seem more interested in practicality, Swanton says. “It’s taken the issue of writing a language out of the committees and the classroom and put it more and more into the hands of the people writing everyday.”

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