Is Wikimedia’s ban on new Wikis for Sanskrit and Classical Chinese discriminatory?

Nota bene: I am a big fan of Wikimedia and Wikipedia. I contribute regulary to many of their projects and wish them every success. This issue is easily resolved, but it appears only if some attention from Wikimedia’s Board is applied.

Sanskrit and Classical Chinese both have Wikipedias; I cannot read them, and cannot vouch for their quality. Both are however actively edited.

Both Sanskrit and Classical Chinese are classed as “Ancient Languages” by the ISO, because they have lacked native speakers for a very long time.

Wikimedia’s language policy states that languages classed by the ISO as “ancient” are disallowed new Wiki projects as they “lack native speakers”; a kind of inflexible policy short-circuit that is bound to overheat if energy is applied to it.

So there will never be a new Sanskrit or Classical Chinese Wikimedia project, where there is newly authored text, like a Wikibooks, or a Wikiversity. If they were set up before the policy banned them in 2007, they are tolerated, but thus far, no further.

When asked about the reasons behind the policy, the Wikimedia language committee has suggested that the “no native speaker” ban exists because:

  1. “Dead languages” lack a natural audience, so information cannot reach a new audience;
  2. The lack of native speakers results in inaccurate language production with an inability for a project to self-correct;
  3. The lack of native speakers means that new terminology will not be produced and the language cannot be applied to the modern world.

As we discussed in another blog, this leaves Classical languages like Greek with a problem. While classical languages like Sanskrit, Classical Chinese and Latin:

  1. Are learnt by very many people across different languages and cultures, so information can have a natural audience and reach new people;
  2. Do have ways for second language speakers and writers to learn correct usage (and have had for a very long time); and
  3. Do have processes for coining new terms

they are banned from new projects under the policy, claiming native speakers are required. Classical languages are typically second language vehicles, and often actively used; but have long forgotten what it is to have native speakers.

It is also true that most ancient languages are not “Classical”, and really are truly dead and best left in their graves. There is no need for an Ancient Phoenician Wikipedia, nor for one in Hittite. That is fine and good.

Unfortunately, the inflexible short circuit of banning ancient languages because they are ancient leaves Wikimedia open to accusations of discrimination, particularly regarding Sanskrit, which is venerated as a Holy language by the Hindu community.

Under the Wikimedia language policy, however, Sanskrit is banned from further progress, beyond the Wikis it already has, as it supposedly lacks a natural audience, will be written inaccurately and probably can’t cope with the modern world.

This appears to me to be a dangerous as well as unreasonable policy position to take.

The position that Ancient Languages are automatically irrelevant is even less likely to be sustainable regarding Classical Chinese, where it has only fairly recently stopped being in widespread official use in mainland China; and is still in use for official purposes in Taiwan. Yet it too, sits deemed old and useless by the Wikimedia language policy. While this judgement may not be quite as incendiary as that applied to Sanskrit, it is certainly very unfair, and there are a lot of people who may feel aggrieved, if they understand the content of this policy.

The question of discrimination is different for Ancient Greek, but it is the case that Koine commands a particular and deep interest for many Christian communities, alongside active liturgical use, so users should be treated with respect at the least. And Ancient Greek can at least make a case to be operative for the three points above (audience, second language support and new terminology) but is currently simply disallowed from doing so, because it “lacks native speakers”, under the inflexible policy short-circuit the Committee have adopted. (Cue fourteen years of sparks, smoke and overheating discussion pages.)

As often with bureaucratic processes, the official reluctance to change comes from a lack of interest, and in this case the desire to “hold the line” against the Ancient Hittite Cuneiform Wiki Hordes, more than genuine desire to do harm, or actual prejudice. The policy was designed in a hurry, without consultation, with unsurprising rough edges, but it has mostly worked, and held off the Phoenicians and the rest.

I am sure the Wikimedia language committee do very good work as a whole. In this case, though, they do need to revisit their closed loop “criterion” and take note of the exceptions where it does not work, and may operate unfairly or cause offence.

Wikimedia’s Board should take note, as it appears very unlikely that any progress will be made without their intervention.

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