Linguistic Diversity

There are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 spoken languages still extant in the world at the turn of the twenty-first century. Ten languages account for nearly half the world's people. The first language, or mother tongue, with the largest speech community is Mandarin Chinese, with 16 percent of the world population. English is in second place, with 8 percent, followed by Spanish (5 percent) and Arabic (4 percent). Four mother tongues— Hindi, Bengali, Russian, and Portuguese— are spoken by 3 percent each of the world's people, with French and Japanese each accounting for 2 percent. The remaining 51 percent speak other tongues as their first languages. Some 3,406 languages were found to have fewer than 10,000 mother-tongue speakers in 1995; 553 of these languages had 100 or fewer individual speakers. One-third of the world's living languages are spoken predominantly in Asia, and nearly as many—just over 2,000 languages—are found in Africa. Some 19 percent of languages occur in the Pacific, 15 percent in the Americas, and around 3 percent (some 230 languages) in Europe (UNEP, 1999, p. 23).

Actual or threatened language loss, environmental degradation, loss of habitat and species extinctions, and loss of cultural tradition are all intimately connected and interdependent phenomena. The continents with the greatest surviving linguistic diversity are Asia and Africa, but the largest number of endangered languages are spoken in the Americas and in the Pacific islands (Oceania), where the prospect of further language loss is disproportionately acute. Although different methods exist among linguists of counting and determining which dialects are distinct enough to constitute separate languages, Ethnologue tallied 6,809 spoken languages in the year 2000. Of these, 417 are considered to be "nearly extinct," defined as having "only a few elderly speakers" left alive. Some 161 of these languages are found in the Americas and 157 in Oceania. In extreme cases such as Eyak, a language of southern Alaska, only a single native speaker survives.

Linguistic diversity, often devalued as archaic and even retrograde in periods of rapid assimilation and socioeconomic change, can have a positive value for the maintenance of traditional communities and ways of life, sustaining distinct indigenous identities, the promulgation of self-determination and human rights, and the preservation of environmental knowledge and ecological balance. Biotic diversity is reflected in specialized lexica and classificatory variations. Smith (in Maffi, 2001) has found a regular pattern of correlations between ethnolinguistic diversity and biodiversity in native North America. Environ mental knowledge encoded in linguistic repertoires may be lost under circumstances of colonization, migration, or widespread occupational change. Language indirectly affects ecology through the formation and maintenance of speech communities; social domination of one ethnolinguistic group over another; discourse about landscape, resources, and technology; and conceptual specialization of terminology linked to climate, pharmacology and medicine, land, plant cultivation, and animal husbandry. Linguistic diversity and biocultural diversity are crucial for the preservation of local environmental knowledge and the maintenance of traditional ecologies in endangerment zones and megadiversity hot spots where much of the indigenous biota remains unknown to Western science.

Archaic forms of language hold valuable clues to history, prehistory, ethnogenesis, and environmental change. Greenberg's controversial protolanguage hypothesis is an attempt at reconstructing common ancient tongues from which modern languages branched off and evolved. This is a kind of linguistic archaeology, done through a constituent analysis of shared features found in related living languages, using necessarily speculative methods such as glottochronology to date the earliest forms. This complex form of educated guesswork is based on a wealth of data but inspires skepticism among many scientists. There may be some correlation among biological and linguistic relationships, but linguistic adaptation can and does occur independently of either biological or cultural assimilation. Borrowing, loan-words, and hybrid word forms are generally more reliable if less sweeping evidence of historical mixing among populations. Mufwene (in press) proposes an evolutionary model of linguistic ecology based on population genetics, with each language at the equivalent functional level of species, and personal variations on local dialects analogous to individual organisms. Through the language contact that takes place within polyglot individuals, distinctive features of languages undergo competitive selection and adaptation to survive within speech communities.

In South America, nearly two-thirds of the pre-Columbian languages spoken by an estimated 1,200 different indigenous peoples before European contact have been lost. Today there are approximately 422 indigenous eth-nolinguistic groups on the continent, comprising a population of some 10 million (as compared with an estimated 24 million in 1492). About one-third of those still surviving have fewer than 1,000 speakers left, placing their future viability in doubt. Excluding Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, Dutch, and Quechua, there are 146 South American languages still spoken by more than 1,000 people each. This figure indicates that about 12 percent of the estimated pre-Columbian linguistic diversity still exists (Lizzaraldo in Maffi, 2001). Economic and cultural change are major factors accounting for the erosion of indigenous South American languages. Continued shifting away from traditional subsistence practices is likely to result in further loss of environmental knowledge as encoded in linguistic terms for plants and of other biotic information.

In Mexico, ethnolinguistic diversity underwent drastic decline in the decades following conquest by the Spanish, as the indigenous population fell from some 22 million to under 1 million in less than a hundred years. Some 54 of the 120 indigenous languages spoken before the invasion are still spoken in Mexico, representing 8 million people (7.5 percent of the Mexican population in the 1980 census). For the past fifty years, the number of native speakers of indigenous languages in Mexico has been rising (Minnis and Elisens, 2000, pp.

46-47). In California, an area of former linguistic megadiversity, a multitude of native tongues has dwindled to a mere handful of moribund languages, some down to their last speakers, replaced principally by English and Spanish.

Greenberg (1966) classified 730 African languages in four large groupings labeled Congo-Kordofanian, Nilo-Saharan, Afroasi-atic, and Khoisan; these are divided into sixteen language families composed of forty-six subfamilies. Botswana, home to the greatest number of Khoisan languages, is also a contact zone where eastern and western Bantu languages meet and interact. As the biodiversity of the Okavango delta is threatened by pastoral and agricultural activities, so too are its indigenous languages being replaced by Tswana. Recent efforts at preservation have begun to succeed in changing negative attitudes toward minority tongues and stimulating regional policy to encourage the maintenance and transmission of local knowledge and minority languages in Botswana. This need must be balanced with the enhanced educational opportunity and economic benefits that minority individuals can indisputably gain by adopting more widely spoken languages.

The teaching of an indigenous language as a second language in school contrasts with primary language acquisition in the home. School-based instruction may be the next best option after home instruction. Such formal teaching can preserve and perpetuate language structures and vocabularies, but it can never substitute for the habitual use of native tongues among parents and children in the household. In the northern Soviet Union, government policies took the children of native reindeer herders away from the pastoral environment to boarding schools where they spoke only Russian. As a result, many minority languages are now familiar mainly to older people and may die out within a generation. Native language loss in Siberia was comparable to that experienced in western North America during the first half of the twentieth century. In Canada, for example, Indian children in government-run missionary schools were beaten for speaking their mother tongue. Revival efforts are aimed at reinstating indigenous languages at the elementary school level through classroom instruction and the publication of primers.

In northeastern Siberia, Sakha (Yakut) was spoken regionally and used for interethnic communication by Russians and minority peoples, as well as Sakha people before the Russian revolution. The Russian language and Cyrillic-based orthographies became more dominant in all the Soviet republics under reforms begun during the 1920s. Since the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sakha and other native languages are on the increase through conscious cultural revitalization efforts, including school instruction, radio and television broadcasting, and official government use. The Sakha are the most populous non-Russian group in the region, and their language has consequently been able to withstand the pressure of Russianization. Smaller minority languages in the north, however, continue to fade through attrition and lack of generational transmission. In Siberia and Kamchatka, elementary school readers and folk tale collections in the native languages of the small peoples (indigenous peoples with unique languages and cultures) of the north including Even, Evenk, Itel'men, and Yukagir appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. Continuity of native language and land rights are among the most vital threads necessary to ensure the long-term survival of small populations such as the Yukagir and the Itel'men as distinct ethnic peoples. There is hope that under favorable circumstances, northern languages will survive. In

Chukotka and neighboring regions of far northeastern Asia and the northern Pacific, all indigenous languages have reached the endangered status; some, however, have undergone unusual adaptations to Russian grammar and structure while retaining native morphology and vocabulary (a reversal of the more typical pattern whereby native grammar and structure are retained and applied to imported vocabulary), resulting in special regional dialects that continue to exist (Vakhtin in Kasten, 1998).

Alaska is the birthplace and cradle of diversity for Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene, two of North America's largest indigenous language families. In Alaska, four Eskimo-Aleut languages have almost disappeared in the past half-century. Two Yupik languages are still spoken by children in certain villages, while Alutiiq and eastern Aleut are in decline. Alaska's fifteen Indian languages face a similar urgent situation (Iutzi-Mitchell in ibid.). Eyak and the western Aleut dialect of Attuan are probably the most moribund of those that remain, with each retaining as little as a single elderly native speaker (Krauss, 1980). As elsewhere in the western United States and Canada, during the early twentieth century native languages in Alaska were repressed by missionaries, and children were punished for speaking their mother tongues in school. The Federal Bilingual Education Act of 1967 permitted but did not mandate instruction in languages other than English in the United States. Experimental programs in bilingual education began in Alaska in 1970. Shifts in the valuation and prestige of native languages, combined with school-based instruction and dissemination of mass media in indigenous tongues, offer some hope for linguistic revival in the form of second languages, at least among those still retaining a critical mass of speakers. Linguists continue to believe that parents speaking a language to their children in the home is ultimately the only way that true language survival can take place.

Sociolinguistics, or the sociology of language, focuses on the speech community, rather than the specific languages or dialects spoken within a group, as the basic unit of analysis. Language contact occurs in individuals who may practice bilingualism, multilingualism, diglos-sia (the use of more than one variety of a single language in different circumstances), or code-switching (alternating use of more than one language or dialect within a single speech situation). These deviations from monolingual speech, which linguists term interference, are the locus of language change in intercultural contact. As such, they are intimately bound up with other phenomena of acculturation and syncretism. In actual practice, the use of elaborated or restricted codes by a single individual can range widely across complex social and environmental variables, including the relative status of the speaker and the addressee, the cultural setting of the interaction, and the specific function of any given communication. Language planners designate ten different situations, which can overlap, for education: Indigenous Language, Lingua Franca, Mother or Native Tongue, National Language, Official Language, Pidgin, Regional Language, Second Language, Vernacular Language, and World Language (Eastman, 1975). Language planning takes place at the policy level to determine standardized use among national populations. Such legislation has profound effects on the degree of sociopolitical unity or disunity among diverse populations. Modern examples include the institutionalization of Swahili in Kenya and Bahassa in Indonesia (based on a Malay trade dialect of the Indonesian archipelago). Language planning and policy typically work against linguistic diversity in the interest of fostering national unity, but they can also be applied in the reverse direction. Combined with computerized database inventories, the development of instructional media tools, and conscious preservation efforts, planning and policy are being implemented to help stem the tide of loss of linguistic diversity in the twenty-first century.

See also: Biogeography; Cultural Survival, Revival, and Preservation; Ethnoscience; Indigenous Conservation; Organizations in Biodiversity, Role of; Population Growth, Human; Valuing Biodiversity; Why Is Biodiversity Important?


Cantoni, Gina, ed. 1996. Stabilizing Indigenous Languages. Flagstaff: Center for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona University; Eastman, Carol. 1975. Aspects of Language and Culture. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp; Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966. The Languages of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University; Grimes, Barbara F., ed. 2000. Ethnologue, 14th ed. SIL International,; Kasten, Erich, ed. 1998. "Bicultural Education in the North: Ways of Preserving and Enhancing Indigenous Peoples' Languages and Traditional Knowledge." New York: Waxmann Munster; Krauss, Michael E. 1980. Alaska Native Languages: Past, Present, and Future. Alaska Native Language Center Research Papers No. 4. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center; Maffi, Luisa, ed. 2001. On Bio-cultural Diversity: Linking Language Knowledge and the Environment. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press; Minnis, Paul E., and Wayne J. Elisens, eds. 2000. Biodiversity and Native America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press; Mufwene, Salikoko S. 2000. "Language Contact, Evolution, and Death: How Ecology Rolls the Dice." In Assessing Eth-nolinguistic Vitality, edited by Gloria E. Kindell and M. Paul Lewis. 39-64. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics; United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 1999. Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. Edited by Darrell Addison Posey. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.

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