December 19, 2003

Franks, French, Freedom

Trevor has an enlightening piece here on the early history of Arabic words derived from Frank. Read the whole thing -- and the rest of his weblog too, it's a treat.

In passing, he makes an important point:

"ATILF (Analyse et Traitement Informatique de la Langue Française) has accumulated and created what look like some wonderful online French language resources. Unfortunately most of these are only available to other institutions, not citizens; this excludes me, since the only institution I am likely to enter in the next few decades will probably not have internet access. I just don't get it: does the Republic want to promote French to the world or not? Go on, let me in, even if it's just for Christmas!"

Worldwide, there are many enthusiastic and accomplished people like Trevor. The history of scholarship, linguistic and otherwise, is full of examples of important contributions by individuals without academic affiliation. The decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris is probably the best known recent case, but there are many others. I've written here earlier about the linguistic investigations of Thomas Jefferson, and there is a lot to say about the contributions of Hermann Grassmann, among many others who were amateurs in the best sense of the word.

It's now a commonplace observation that the internet allows people, in the academy or out of it, to find others with similar interests and to communicate within social networks that work in the way that such networks always have, on a human scale. This is part of the dynamics of free software, for example. But Trevor's problem with ATILF and similar resources exemplifies a real (and I think deepening) "digital divide". People without the right institutional connections are excluded from lots of cyberspace, and especially from key parts of the distributed digital library that scholars increasingly use in place of the physical research libraries of major universities. The excluded are not only individuals, but also researchers at institutions in many poorer countries, and sometimes even researchers at wealthy institutions that can't justify the subscription fees for a particular resource.

This is not a new problem, though it has new aspects and there are technical possibilities for new solutions. It's not only a problem of uncooperative, narrow-minded or greedy owners and administrators of online resources, though there are plenty of those. It's really a complicated set of related problems, not a single problem that is likely to have a single solution. However, it's worth trying to make things better in this area. This is partly for the benefit of people like Trevor, who get to satisfy their curiosity more fully, but mostly it's for the benefit of all the rest of us, who get to read the results of their research.

[Note: in fairness to the ATILF, I should note that some of its key digital resources, such as the TLFi, seem to be freely available to all online comers. Here, for example, is the entry for Franc. Trevor's general point stands, though.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 19, 2003 09:02 AM