Study links biodiversity and language loss

The decline of linguistic and cultural diversity is linked to the loss of biodiversity, a study has suggested.The authors said that 70% of the world’s languages were found within the planet’s biodiversity hotspots.Data showed that as these important environmental areas were degraded over time, cultures and languages in the area were also being lost.The results of the study have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Biologists estimate annual loss of species at 1,000 times or more greater than historic rates, and linguists predict that 50-90% of the world’s languages will disappear by the end of the century,” the researchers wrote.

Lead author Larry Gorenflo from Penn State University, in the US, said previous studies had identified a geographical connection between the two, but did not offer the level of detail required.Dr Gorenflo told BBC News that the limitation to the data was that either the languages were listed by country or there was a dot on the map to indicate the location.

“But what you did not know was if the area extended two kilometres or 200 kilometres, so you really did not get a sense of the extent of the language,” he explained.”We used improved language data to really get a more solid sense of how languages and biodiversity co-occurred and an understanding of how geographically extensive the language was.”

He said the study achieved this by also looking at smaller areas with high biodiversity, such as national parks or other protected habitats.

“When we did that, not only did we get a sense of co-occurrence at a regional scale, but we also got a sense that co-occurrence was found at a much finer scale,” he said.”We are not quite sure yet why this happens, but in a lot of cases it may well be that biodiversity evolved as part-and-parcel of cultural diversity, and vice versa.”

In their paper, the researchers pointed out that, out of the 6,900 or more languages spoken on Earth, more than 4,800 occurred in regions containing high biodiversity.Dr Gorenflo described these locations as “very important landscapes” which were “getting fewer and fewer” but added that the study’s data could help provide long-term security.

“It provides a wonderful opportunity to integrate conservation efforts – you can have people who can get funding for biological conservation, and they can collaborate with people who can get funding for linguistic or cultural conservation,” he suggested.

“In the past, it was hard to get biologists to look at people. That has really changed dramatically in the past few years. One thing that a lot of biologists and ecologists are now seeing is that people are part of these ecosystems.”

I saw this the other day and I wondered if there were any parallel conclusions that could be drawn with the decline of Gaelic in the Highlands? The rise of the large hunting and farming estates, economic pressures, emigration and clearance yes probably, but can we add language loss to that picture? The links between the names of things, places , flora and fauna were certainly linked to a culture that understood the value of these things in sustaining life and soul, but I’m not yet convinced the link is anything other than a parallel coincidental one. However, looking at the rich biodiversity of the Western Isles where there are over 50% of the population native Gaelic speakers we may yet draw conclusions that support the authors of this study.

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5 thoughts on “Study links biodiversity and language loss

  1. I like this theory. I even would go so far as to say I feel the link is definitely more than coincidental.Surely loss of biodiversity is also down to a ‘centralist’ economic mindset where we look to feed and clothe ourselves with produce from miles away, bought in shops and transported thousands of miles from vast mono-culture farms or factories, rely on globalisation and a common language (ie English, Chinese) to enable business dealings for all this sort of thing.To ‘get what we need’ or to ‘get ahead’ in the new global village we need to abandon our local languages along with our local resources. The question is why are we abandoning languages and whether this looking out and away from our native languages is linked to our greed and related environmental vandalism which is definitely the cause of biodiversity loss.

  2. You are absolutely right Lesley, when we deal with the local, we value and nurture the resources of that locality, be that through culture, community or ecosystems. So it would be with Gaelic culture. I have always been struck in the western isles when I’ve been to Ceilidhs that the songs are all about the local places, activities and people. It creates a strong sense of connection to place. Thanks for that insight.

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