Foundation for Endangered Languages

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3. Language Endangerment in the News

Endangered Languages in Nature

In an article entitled “Parallel extinction risk and global distribution of languages and species,” which recently appeared in the journal Nature 423, 276 - 279 (15 May 2003), William J. Sutherland, of the Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia (Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK) argues that: There are global threats to biodiversity with current extinction rates well above background levels. Although less well publicized, numerous human languages have also become extinct, and others are threatened with extinction. However, estimates of the number of threatened languages vary considerably owing to the wide range of criteria used. For example, languages have been classified as threatened if the number of speakers is less than 100, 500, 1,000, 10,000, 20,000 or 100,000 (ref. 3). Here I show, by applying internationally agreed criteria for classifying species extinction risk, that languages are more threatened than birds or mammals. Rare languages are more likely to show evidence of decline than commoner ones. Areas with high language diversity also have high bird and mammal diversity and all three show similar relationships to area, latitude, area of forest and, for languages and birds, maximum altitude. The time of human settlement has little effect on current language diversity. Although similar factors explain the diversity of languages and biodiversity, the factors explaining extinction risk for birds and mammals (high altitude, high human densities and insularity) do not explain the numbers of endangered languages.

It was widely picked up in the world’s media, making William Sutherland a popular talk-show guest for a couple of weeks, and even causing the FEL President to appear on the Richard and Judy Show on British ITV on 28 May. It provoked a comment in the New York Times: Science Desk, 27 May, 2003—Fading Species and Dying Tongues: When the Two Part Ways, by David Berreby, Section F, Page 3, Column 2.

The original article is available on the web through the homepage for the journal Nature and also (on request) from the Editor of Ogmios (nostler(at) Ogmios invites comments on the article and the author’s findings for its next edition.

Keys to Wisdom
© Jackie Kemp. The Herald. 4th Dec 2002.

Keys. You may have some jingling in your pocket or handbag. Take them out. Look at them. Describe them. Collins dictionary remarks that they are metal instruments that, when rotated, open locks. But there is more to them than that.

In a recent survey, one group used the adjectives "little", "lovely", "magic", and "intricate" to describe them while another chose "awkward", "worn", "jagged", and "serrated".

This cleverly designed study, reported in this week's New Scientist, attempted to prove scientifically what poets have always known. Language matters. The first group of describers were Spaniards, who see keys as feminine; the second were Germans, for whom they are masculine. The words they used were identified by "gender-blind" English speakers as gender-linked.

The situation was reversed in the case of bridges, for Germans "fragile", "beautiful", and "elegant"; for Spaniards "big", "dangerous", and "sturdy". The next step for Lera Boroditsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is to investigate if bridge design actually differs in the two countries or if it is simply a matter of perception.

Until now, the science of language has emphasised its universality. All humans are hard-wired for language. It doesn't matter, the argument has been, whether you identify the colour of blood as red or rouge, you bleed when cut. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Moving from language to language is, therefore, a simple matter of translation.



Just as psychologists believe they have proved that humans across the world identify the same female faces as "beautiful", decoding characteristics such as youth and symmetry which promise reproductive health, language scientists thought they had proved the universality of thought. Words were just labels for things we all understood.

But reality, it now appears, is much more complex. Because, if the universal pattern were really universal, then the model with the ring of confidence from the Colgate toothpaste ad would be the most desirable woman in the world. Of course, she's not.

It's the same with the universal ideas described by language. Boroditsky and her colleague, Dan Slobin of the University of California, are chipping away at the orthodoxy with studies designed to reveal the interaction of thoughts and language. They believe that from infancy our entry into the world of thought is governed by the language we hear around us and that, although we may see colours and other aspects of the physical world in the same way, our understanding of love, life, and time can be hugely different. For Mandarin speakers time is vertical, not horizontal as it is for English speakers. Ask a monolingual Mandarin speaker to point into the future and he will point down, not along like a satellite in orbit, as we would. How influential is that distinction in his making sense of the world? We don't know.

What we know is that half of the world's 6,000 languages are in danger of extinction. Does this elimination of diversity matter? Are these languages simply no longer useful in the modern world? After all, if you want to get a job in Nairobi or Alicante or Edinburgh, what you need to speak is English, not some antiquated tongue which hardly anyone understands.

Perhaps it does matter. At home, Gaels have long told us that the soul of Gaeldom and the wisdom of our forebears are held within their language and literature as a sailing ship contains its timbers and its sails. They believe that the poetry of the ancients can only be understood and appreciated in the tongue in which they were written. To translate them is to create something different. The meaning of the original can only be glimpsed in translation, not fully apprehended.Those trying to protect the language of Scots have described a pithy, couthy sense of being that is embedded in it.

This concept is perhaps hard to understand for monolingual English speakers for several reasons. One, because they are monolingual and therefore have a limited understanding of linguistic difference. Two, because English itself, in becoming universal, has done away with the particular. English exists in many forms, from journalese to business English; the broken English which globetrotting polyglots often use to each other; the English of the internet and computers; American, Australian, and Indian English; but most of these are comprehensible to most of us.

A succinct and lucid language, it is undeniably a useful tool, but its global status makes it relatively value-free. It can also be bland. The flowering of the Elizabethan age, when 10,000 new words appeared, has gone. Subcultures such as rap music throw up their own words, often expressing an alienated rage. Scrabble fiends and crossword fanatics will plunder a new Oxford dictionary, published this week, of weird and wonderful words - such as erinaceous for hedgehog-like - but most of us use a fairly limited vocabulary.

There is a victory in the fact that science now appreciates the poetry of language, languages can be keys to other, magic lands, keys to chests of wisdom, to hearts, and minds. To be monolingual is to inhabit only one room of the house of knowledge.