Why this 'language geek' provides hundreds of Indigenous language tools for free
Chris Harvey says it's his 'life's calling' to provide Indigenous people access to minority languages
CBC is doing a series of stories to recognize that the United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The observance is meant to raise awareness about the consequences of losing endangered languages, and to establish a link between language, development, peace and reconciliation.
Chris Harvey had a "pivotal moment" when he was in Grade 7. He found a book in the library on how to speak Moose Cree.
That's where he discovered syllabics, what he calls the language of his northern neighbours, and hasn't looked back since.
Harvey, 47, is the man behind languagegeek.com, a site that provides keyboards and fonts in more than 100 Indigenous languages, including all of the ones in northern Canada, as well as languages in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.
Harvey, who is from southern Ontario and not Indigenous, said he's had the "language bug" since those formative years and has made it his passion to provide Indigenous people with access to minority languages. He calls it a human rights issue.
"I figure it's only fair. I can get English and Russian and German on my computer, but why can't I get languages across Canada?" he said.
"Smaller languages need every bit of help they can, because the dominant languages of the world are constantly bombarding."
How it began
Harvey got his start in language programming in the mid '90s when he saw a brochure for a two-month Plains Cree language immersion course in Regina, and signed up.
At that time, Harvey said there weren't any computer fonts for syllabics at all, and he wanted to put his notes — which he always lost — on a floppy disk. So he learned how to program his own font. When word got around, his classmates asked for copies. Then Ojibway and Cree speakers in Saskatchewan came calling. Even after the course ended and he returned to Ontario, the requests poured in.
Smaller languages need every bit of help they can.- Chris Harvey
"A whole kind of plethora of language fonts started getting mailed out of my house to anybody who asked."
After he moved to Korea, Harvey said mailing floppy disks to Canada "wasn't really an option" — so he learned HTML and Language Geek was born.
Perfecting the fonts
Language Geek has keyboards that reprogram buttons on your keyboard and how they access unicode — the industry standard for text on computers. So by downloading a keyboard with Dene fonts, for example, a regular key on your computer will now have a new typeface, like this nasal e: ę́.
Over the years Harvey has been invited to Indigenous communities to work on computerizing their languages. Around 2006 the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute invited him to Fort McPherson, N.W.T., to work on transliterating its dictionary project from print to online.
Working with a language committee of elders and teachers, he said they had to decide right then and there what shape the orthography would take.
"What were the exact shapes of the accent marks? Where should they appear? Does the 'i' have a dot on it or not?" he recalls.
"All these sort of little fiddly things to make sure that the cultural institute and the elders were getting the exact look of the script that they wanted."
He's very patient and open.- Betty Harnum, CBC North
Years later he was invited to Inuvik to work on Inuvialuktun, then to Yellowknife for the Dene languages, like Denesuline and Tlicho.
Betty Harnum, a manager for CBC North's Indigenous archiving project, has worked with Harvey on language projects in the past. Harvey's fonts and keyboards are also integral for elements of the CBC archivists' work.
"He's very patient and open," Harnum said of Harvey.
Harnum said he has to take a lot of criticism when working through a language, but he always wants to get it right.
"He's just a wizard at the computer stuff," she said.
"Just for one person to take on that task and do it for — like he's travelled all over the world — and just constantly helps all these minority language groups to preserve their languages, it's really amazing."
Payment in fish
The fonts and keyboards are entirely free and Harvey does it all in his spare time. By day, he's a graduate candidate at the University of Toronto, and in charge of a Mohican language revitalization project in northern Wisconsin.
"I have taken payment in salmon or dried caribou. So that's acceptable," he said dryly.
For him, seeing his fonts out in the world — like a Cherokee Nation stop sign in Oklahoma, or dictionaries with his typeface — is rewarding.
"Working on this sort of stuff is a life's calling, it's a passion," Harvey said.
"I would rather be nowhere else than speaking with people, working on maintaining their language … I just think it's great fun and it's really important work."