As languages go extinct, so goes biodiversity, according to Penn State environmental science researcher Larry Gorenflo and team.
The last few centuries have marked the kick-off of the latest geological era, the anthropocene, where human activity has become the main driver of the entire planetary ecosystem. That kind of clout is the result of Homo sapiens have living large on the meal ticket of most other species on the planet. Current score: Humans 7,014,043,024, other species: Rates of extinction 1000 times above normal.
While the massiveness of this mass extinction event is hotly debated, there’s no question that biological diversity is on decline, especially in those biological hotspots where diversity is greatest.
These are the same spots where human languages diversity is rapidly getting un-diversified.
While this diversity link has long been observed, new data has revealed the importance and fragility of these hot spots. Findings indicate that these regions often contain considerable linguistic diversity, accounting for 70% of all languages on Earth. Moreover, the “languages involved are frequently unique (endemic) to particular regions, with many facing extinction.”
These endemic languages, spoken by isolated populations in the hinterlands where biological diversity has persisted, are living on borrowed time, along with the ecosystems they inhabit, as the tendrils of a global market extend into these previously untouched corners of the planet.
Julia Whitty of Mother Jones provides a readable summary of Gorenflo’s opaquely written paper. “The researchers examined 35 biodiversity hotspots—locations with an exceptionally high number of endemic species, which have lost 70 percent or more of their habitat… These hotspots comprise only 2.3 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet contain more than half the world’s vascular plants and 43 percent of its terrestrial vertebrate species. They also contain people speaking 3,202 languages—nearly half of all languages spoken on Earth.”
“In many cases it appears that conditions that wipe out species wipe out languages,” says lead author Larry Gorenfloat. ‘I think it argues for concerted conservation efforts that are integrated and try to maintain biodiversity and cultural diversity.’”
While the cause of the correlation between endangered species and endangered languages is uncertain, the researchers suggest that local cultures create conditions to maintain diversity and keep ecosystems intact. Which I guess is another way of saying that they don’t have the money to buy chain saws.
Next time, the story of Gyani Maiya Sen, last speaker of Kusanda, offering us a perspective on diversity from the ground up.