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Wed 19 February 2020
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John Mitchinson on why biodiversity helps explain how we are all impoverished by the loss of languages.

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We humans are an odd species. As individuals, our generosity is endless when applied to conservation of national environments or endangered animals, but we seem peculiarly uninterested in the plight of human cultures.

While the World Wildlife Fund for Nature boasts annual revenues in excess of £250 million, Survival International, one of the largest global charities dedicated to indigenous peoples’ rights, operates on a mere £1.5 million. This is because most of us are functionally ignorant when it comes to the cultural extinction crisis our species faces.

Here are some basic facts.

Of the 7,011 languages currently spoken, 2,895 (41%) are now endangered, each with less than 1,000 speakers remaining. A language goes extinct every 3.5 months. By 2050, some estimate that 90% of the currently spoken languages will have gone forever. And, rather like climate change, this isn’t an inevitable erosion over time. Of the 420 language families known to have existed, a quarter have already gone – 90% of those in the past 60 years. To put that in perspective, if a language extinction is akin to the loss of a species, the loss of a language family is like losing all the whales or big cats.

Nor is language death restricted to the developing world. The depredations of imperial expansion and global capitalism, and the genocides and diseases that travel in their wake, sometimes blind us to the slow ebbing away of cultures on our own doorstep.

In what is today the USA, half of the 280 languages that existed when Europeans arrived no longer have native speakers. Of those remaining, 119 are critically endangered, with fewer than a dozen being taught to children. The situation in Australia is similar: fewer than 150 Aboriginal languages of an estimated 250 remain in daily use, and all except 13 are endangered. In Japan, the language of the indigenous Ainu people is spoken by fewer than 15 people, all of them over 65. Even in the UK, there are stories of loss. Since the death of her sister in 2017, Jessie Ross is the last speaker of East Sutherland Gaelic, the native language of the fishing villages of north-east Scotland.

So why should we worry about languages dying? Are we really impoverished if everyone speaks versions of English, Mandarin, Hindi or Spanish? Again, the bio-diversity argument seems relevant.

In his 2001 book Light at the Edge of the World, the cultural anthropologist Wade Davis argues that languages are not simply bodies of vocabulary but “old growth forests of the mind” that fix unique ways of being, thinking, and knowing. Language extinction reduces the “entire range of the human imagination”. Or, put another way, when a language dies a whole set of human possibilities dies with it.

For example, in the Aymara language spoken in the mountains of Western Bolivia, the past – what is known – is described as being in front of the speaker and the future – the unknown – is behind. Across the Andes in the Amazonian rainforest, the language of the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN) has no numbers, no fixed term for colour, no perfect tense and no tradition of art or drawing. They live in the observable present, which means that they have no use for creation myths. The linguist and former missionary Daniel Everett, who lived with the Pirahã for several decades, describes this: “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipío – ‘gone out of experience’. They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience’.” People spend good money on mindfulness courses to achieve exactly the same result.

Languages are the ultimate museums of culture. They preserve information about land management, kinship, social relationships, local customs, cosmology and even information about the natural world that might yet prove useful: an estimated 75% of plant-derived pharmaceuticals were discovered through traditional medicines. 

And there are encouraging examples of languages being brought back from extinction or near-extinction as Choctaw, Mohawk, Basque, Hebrew, Maori, Welsh, and Hawaiian show. And global projects such as Wikitongues help speakers to document and promote their languages online. But, mostly, what is required is political will and community pride. 

The last word is inspired by a last speaker. When Dora Manchado died in January 2019, she left behind extensive recordings of the Patagonian language Tehuelche, made with anthropologist Javier Domingo: “She knew perfectly well that language is not only about interaction, but also about trust, complicity and sharing with others. Thanks to the recordings, the rest of the community members now have, if they want, the possibility of affirming their past and reconstructing their identity.”

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.


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