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Google to Help Preserve Calabrian Greek Language

Calabrian Greek
A picture of Woolaroo in action, translating the word “tree” into Calabrian Greek. Credit: Google.

Woolaroo is a new open-source program, part of Google’s Arts and Culture division, which is dedicated to preserving indigenous languages, including Calabrian Greek. The application which was released last Wednesday, can now be accessed online and through the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.

The application works by inviting native speakers of ten specially-selected endangered languages to add and correct words on the app’s database in order to create a program that can translate these languages into English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Italian.

Groundbreaking Woolaroo Application

Woolaroo is an open-source program, which means that Google has made the code to the software freely available for people outside of their employee base to view, modify and add to. This has the advantage of allowing anyone that has the knowledge to improve Woolaroo the ability to do it, for the good of others.

Woolaroo currently supports ten global languages: Louisiana Creole, Calabrian Greek, Māori, Nawat, Tamazight, Sicilian, Yang Zhuang, Rapa Nui, Yiddish and Yugambeh.

The application works by allowing anyone using it to take a photo of something in their surroundings, which is then identified by the program. It then comes up with the word for each object in the photograph in your chosen language, including a recording by a native speaker to teach users how to pronounce the words.

Ian Pattison, the Head of Retail Customer Engineering for Google Cloud UK, says of the recent release:

“Crucial to Indigenous communities is that Woolaroo puts the power to add, edit and delete entries completely in their hands. So people can respond immediately to newly remembered words and phrases and add them directly.

“So if you, your grandparents or people in your community speak any of these languages – even if just a few words –  you can help to expand the growing coverage of Woolaroo.”

Calabrian Greek

There are two minority Greek languages officially recognized in the south of Italy. Greko and Griko — both spoken by the “Calabrian Greeks” — are both living testaments to the ancient Greeks’ colonization of southern Italy in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., some 2,700 years ago.

Now, both languages find themselves on the brink of extinction, and Calabrian Greeks, who are the last living trace of the Greek population which once formed “Magna Graecia” in ancient times, are trying desperately to preserve their language.

A brief history lesson reminds us that Greek was in fact the dominant language and cultural influence throughout a large portion of Italy, including modern-day Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia, and eastern Sicily, up until the 14th century.

However, the introduction of Italo-Romance languages in the region, paired with the region’s isolating geography, caused the Greek language to evolve into its own distinct dialect. In fact, it became two Greek dialects, one spoken in Calabria, named “Greko,” and another, spoken in Puglia, called “Griko.”

With a high estimate of only 20,000 (mostly elderly) people speaking Griko today, there is reason to fear that this ancient language may soon die off. Some estimates place the actual number of those who speak it at only around 2,000 total individuals.

The languages are simply referred to jointly as “Calabrian Greek” in the UNESCO “Red Book” of endangered languages, where it is listed as “severely endangered.”

Google’s new application “Woolaroo” could be the saving grace for the endangered Calabrian Greek language.


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