Researchers Make 3D Printed Models of Endangered Languages


3D modeling can be used to illustrate the complexity and details of complex systems. Today we present a project that uses 3D modeling to map language. Alex Pillen, PhD researcher at UCL’s School at Antholopology, worked with Emma-Kate Matthews, an architect from the same school. They created a variety of models that were based upon four languages: Kurdish (an Amazonian Language), Tarania, (an Amazonian Language), Akkadian, and American English.

Method for Language Modeling

Researchers wanted to model a grammatical feature of these languages, specifically evidentiality. This is what it means If evidence is available for a statement, and if it is what kind; in Linguistics it is the way evidence is transmitted. In some languages, grammar is used to express evidence. Take Tarania as an example. The speaker uses four types of evidence with different grammar structures. These evidence types can be visual, nonvisual, inferred and reported. American English was used as a reference because English evidentiality cannot be expressed through grammar. The models were therefore not comparable to the others.

Alex Pillen (left) with Emma-Kate Matthews.

First, the team relied on an established theoretical link between grammar & geometry that dates back to the 17th century. To tackle the practical aspect of the project they used Rhino3D (Grasshopper). Cartesian coordinates can be used to map certain language features. They first manually formatted the transcript in Excel, giving each evidential a numerical numbering. The x axis represents the order of the sentences, as one phrase follows another. The y axis is the number of words in each line. The x and y-axes can thus represent the basic structure of language as reflected in a transcript. The z-axis is the indication of evidential grammar within the sample; these markers take on a ‘virtual weight’ which gives the model its 3D “wireframe” appearance.

First printed 3D models Selective Laser Sintering is used to make nylon plastic (PA12, polyamide) They also made another model using a silver alloy that allowed them to display finer details. A model was also printed in rubber to improve the ‘fabric-like’ nature. The researchers say they are looking to create more designs with as-yet undiscovered materials.

The blue highlights on the Kurdish model indicate word-forword quotation. This is a form evidence

3D Models of Language: Why?

In short, the researchers believe that traditional ways of portraying language are overly simplistic to the point of being ‘reductionist’. 2D models, notation and graphical notation are not able to do justice to language. A model must be based upon algorithmic design, they feel.

They not only wanted to prove the linguistic significance and grammatical evidentiality of grammatical eliability, but they also wanted preservation of endangered and lesser-known global languages. Pillen explains this importance: By producing the geometry of grammar in 3D, we allow people to have an immediate intuitive relationship to these languages that are under threat – or that might disappear.” This is just one example of many 3D-printed projects that use 3D printing to conserve and protect systems and resources at risk. Another example of such projects are 3D-printed coral Reefs for conservation and naval exhibitions to preserve the past.

A link to the research paper is available HERE.

What do you think about the 3D printing of languages? Let us know in a comment below or on our LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter pages! Don’t forget to sign up for our free weekly Newsletter here, the latest 3D printing news straight to your inbox! You can also find all our videos on our YouTube channel.

*All photos credit: Dr Alex Pillen, Emma-Kate Matthews; Natural language modelled and printed in 3D: a multi-disciplinary approach. Humanit Soc Sci Commun



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