Has Wikipedia become a battlefield for oppressed languages?

Wikipedia has opened up new opportunities for activists fighting for the legitimacy of indigenous languages and dialects, especially in Africa where the legacy of colonialism continues to have an impact.

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Developed in the United States and the United Kingdom, it was only natural that the internet was originally created in English. But, for the development of our communication skills and the survival of less widely spoken languages, more content has to be created in different tongues to serve our multicultural societies and promote inclusion.

In other words, voice and visibility must be given to those who have been misinterpreted in traditional narratives of both history and daily journalism.

Language activists believe that Wikipedia, the open-content wiki-based encyclopaedia edited by volunteers around the world and hosted, together with the other projects, by the Wikimedia Foundation, can contribute to this aim.

Wikipedia was launched with an English edition in January 2001. German and Catalan versions were added in March of the same year, followed by the French soon after, and Italian. Today, Wikipedia exists in 326 different languages (with 315 currently active and 11 closed). In 2020, the English version surpassed a notable milestone with more than 6 million articles (and averaged about 255 million page views a day according to TechCrunch).

Over the years, it has become an online space where languages not considered ‘universal’ can thrive. For example, the classical Arabic language version of Wikipedia started in July 2003. As of June 2022, it had 1,170,790 articles. It is the sixteenth largest edition of Wikipedia by article count and ranks eighth in terms of depth among Wikipedias.

More recently a Wikipedia edition in Moroccan Arabic dialect was created in 2020, besides the Egyptian that existed before.

This has positively opened up a whole new digital space for language struggle.

For many around the world who are fighting for the legitimacy of their indigenous languages and dialects, they are reclaiming their identity and creating a different narrative that genuinely reflects their culture by creating Wikipedia articles in those languages.

By reinforcing its presence online, the largest free online encyclopaedia has provided another realm where recognition for historically oppressed languages can be obtained.

Particularly on the African continent where a myriad of languages coexist, but where the elites had often matured in the language of the coloniser, this has served as a crucial tool in reversing the whitewashed impacts of history.

South African lawmakers lobbied to add Kiswahili (Swahili in English), as the country’s official language. It is the national language of Kenya and Tanzania and is widely spoken in the East-African region. Today, Swahili is the African language with the highest number of articles on Wikipedia, about 69,000 articles.

It is worth noting that since the launch of Wikipedia, there have also been some controversies.

Although the Wikimedia Foundation is cautious about it, the online encyclopaedia has been defined as a ‘trustworthy source’ to be used in classrooms. Critics have mostly questioned Wikipedia’s lack of methodological fact-checking and political bias, among other issues.

Additionally, only 20% of Wikipedia’s biographies are about women.

Wikipedia is written by volunteer editors and anyone can register. The commitment to an open-content encyclopaedia that ‘anyone can edit at any time’ is then an opportunity that can attract a wide range of contributors and produce problems, such as biased articles, vandalism, hate speech and lively controversies.

However, in a sea of biased content, especially online, Wikipedia is one of the few free-access websites that strives for accuracy.

‘Edit-a-thon’ workshops — a portmanteau of the verb ‘to edit’ and the noun ‘marathon’ — are dedicated events that allow volunteer editors to build and improve Wikipedia’s content under professional guidance. They are organised around a specific topic of interest such as art, feminism and climate change.

In August 2018, the Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) programme and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) convened the first African Wikipedia edit-a-thon on climate change in Cape Town, South Africa.

The focus on languages, though, should persist as it is an issue for its creators.

Wikipedia has helped because it creates informative pages for the general audience. But as South African author Lwando Xaso pointed out, ‘we have multiple truths and truths that are spoken in different languages, not just in English… I think the truth hits differently when it’s in your own language.’

Xaso has been organising AfroCuration events, a series of multi-day workshops held in person and online during which participants are invited to create knowledge content for Wikipedia. The events are organised with local partners by WikiAfrica Education, a project of the Moleskine Foundation, an Italy-based non-profit.

Responding to the lack of multiculturalism in the digital space, these innovative actions hope to inspire a movement of African creators that generate online content in different languages truly reflecting their own culture.

Meanwhile, they promote a more comprehensive approach to the educational and institutional life on the continent, that (re)affirms the importance of languages, including the less widely spoken ones.

English and other European languages can reify histories of colonial dominance and violence over ethnic groups, and erasure of the relative indigenous languages, such as in the case of Gikuyu (or Kikuyu) in Kenya. The speakers of the language were perceived as a threat to British hegemony over Kenya under colonialism and particularly in the time of the Mau Mau uprising, among other revolts for independence.

In this respect, certainly for the African continent, Wikipedia has become an extension of the linguistic battlefield.

The online encyclopaedia is also not alone. It joins the African movie industry that has also actively encouraged the production of indigenous language films as an effective way to preserve languages that truly reflect all the diverse cultures within the continent and its diaspora.

Reflecting upon the cultural and political inequalities that shape multicultural societies, there are many reasons to be optimistic about rethinking Wikipedia’s commitment to a truly multilingual web. The use of specific words in its various articles reflects policy, research agendas, grassroots movements and society at large.

Society is changing in multiple ways, and the usage of a language, not to say the language itself, is a part that is also constantly evolving.

(this article was initially published on 14 June 2022 on The New Arab)

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