If you’ve ever seen someone tweet in symbols and letters you can’t find on a standard keyboard, it’s likely thanks to Chris Harvey, a PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Toronto and self-proclaimed “language geek.” Harvey has spent the last 15 years offering free fonts and keyboard layouts for the alphabetic and syllabic characters used in Indigenous writing through his website, languagegeek.com. This makes it possible for Indigenous language speakers to write emails and build websites in their own language.
“Deep down, it’s a human rights issue,” Harvey says. “Why is it I can buy my computer and have it type English and French and Russian and Chinese, but if I want it to type Inuktitut, I have to pay $40,000 for it? And that’s how much companies were charging then for language support I could do in five minutes.” Harvey has since built downloadable fonts and keyboard layouts for dozens of Indigenous languages from all over North America.
Harvey, whose resumé includes working for the Indigenous Language Institute in New Mexico, is writing his dissertation on efforts to bring back from dormancy the Mahican language – an Algonquian family language that hasn’t been spoken since the 1930s. Because there are no recordings of the language, Harvey has been reverse-engineering documentation from German missionaries and linguistic transcriptions.
Harvey took a Cree immersion class in 1995 (which led to his Language Geek project), and later learned Welsh, also a vulnerable language, in an immersion program in Wales. He sees a connection – a kind of shared history – between his own Celtic roots and those of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. “The kind of institutionalized abuse that happened in North America was first attempted in Celtic regions of Europe,” Harvey says. “A lot of the residential school practices were invented in places like Ireland and Wales.”