Biological and Linguistic Hot Spots Cooling Off

by Translation Guy on May 21, 2012

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.


  1. I’m having a hard time seeing the linkage between the two phenomena, I can accept that they are both occuring, it would be idiocy to try and dispute that; but the link is tenuous.

  2. Not necessarily true, look to Canada, where the Quebecois have militantly protected their culture and language rights to avoid becoming enveloped by English Canada.

  3. Ok, but how do we do anything about it?

    • Ken says:

      “man cannot control the current of events. he can only float with them and steer”
      ― Otto von Bismarck

  4. I think you have to accept that future cultural homogeneity is fait accompli, mass culture driven by consumerism seeks to make everyone want the same things, act similiar, talk similiar, etc. So linguistically, there will probably be only a few dominant languages (with regional dialects providing colour) down the road. Look at the rate of expansion of the Chinese and the cultural uniformity that has gone with them, such as the spread of Standard Chinese (Mandarin) at the expense of other Sinitic dialects.

    • Ken says:

      “It is the destiny of the weak to be devoured by the strong.”
      ― Otto von Bismarck

  5. Pissy Missy says:

    Yeah, but that’s still the protection of one dominant European language (French) from another dominant European language (English). They are both a function of Imperial European expansion, much like mass culture spreads English around the world today, look to the indigenous languages of Canada, how many of them survive with any robustness today, aboriginals are relatively marginalized or integrated by force to the dominant English language, same with other former British colonies.

  6. It’s not that hard to see a logical correlation between the two events, as biodiverse regions such as the Amazon or the Congo shrink due to human intervention, indigenous people with their native language and dialects are losing their traditional homes, hunting grounds and farming areas. Due to this they must generally either move along to new areas or emerge from isolation and integrate with modernity, therefore becoming exposed to new dominant communication forms such as English, Spanish, French, etc. After a few generations the language tends to die off, as they are largely unwritten languages and the use and need for them withers away.

  7. Cheryl says:

    What needs to be done is some sort of project for cultural/linguistic preservation to coincide to ecological preservation efforts, these languages need to be recognized and protected, with efforts made to maintain a record of them so they can continue on [admittedly as a secondary language to whatever dominates the region, but servival is survival and maybe a cultural renaissance emerges down the line]

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