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When languages die, ecosystems often die with them

Posted: Sun Nov 26, 2017 8:26 pm
by Erik_Kowal
"You probably know that much of the world's environment is under threat. But a new study says languages are disappearing alongside plants and animals.

The study, from the World Wildlife Fund, measured the threat to languages using a scale that tracks how threatened species are. Not only are many languages steadily losing speakers, says co-author Jonathan Loh, but "the rate of decline, globally, is actually very close to the rate of decline in populations of wild vertebrate species."

There's the obvious threat of in-demand languages, which many people start speaking more and more as the speakers of smaller languages dwindle. "Thousands of indigenous languages spoken around the world are being replaced by one of a dozen or so dominant world languages like English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese," Loh says.

But Loh, who's also a research associate at the Zoological Society of London, says that languages are dying off due to many of the same issues that plants and animals face.

"Some of the drivers that are driving the extinction of biodiversity — such as increasing global population, increasing consumption of natural resources, increasing globalization and so on — are applicable to languages as well," he says.

And that's no coincidence. Loh explains that languages have a lot of specific local knowledge built in. "The cultures have evolved in a particular environmental context, so they have an extraordinary amount of traditional ecological knowledge — knowledge of the local species, plants, animals, the medicinal uses of them, the migration patterns of animals behavior," he says.

So when the languages die off, much of that knowledge goes with them. "Then children stop learning the language, they also stop acquiring that traditional knowledge," Loh says."
This story (dated 2014-07-15) is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Re: When languages die, ecosystems often die with them

Posted: Tue Nov 28, 2017 6:22 pm
by tony h
An informative read. One might question whether the locally important words are being imported to the new language. Where I live you hear many "English" words in common use that do not appear elsewhere.

Re: When languages die, ecosystems often die with them

Posted: Tue Nov 28, 2017 9:33 pm
by Erik_Kowal
tony h wrote:
Tue Nov 28, 2017 6:22 pm
One might question whether the locally important words are being imported to the new language.
I suspect that the pressure to adopt a language understood beyond one's immediate locality is also accompanied in most cases by the pressure to conform to, and adopt or accept, the norms of a generally more aggressive culture (e.g. consumerism/attraction to fashion and brands, TV and internet connectivity, urbanization and industrialization, the lesser status associated with rural manners/mores and activities, increased car ownership, the local use of money rather than a system of exchange based on bartering, the desire to achieve increased political representation in national forums, etc.).

These pressures inevitably imply a growing disconnection with rural lifestyles, the natural world, and traditional ways of life that depend to a greater or lesser degree on an understanding of (or sympathy for) one's natural surroundings. That being so, I doubt that more than a minority of what you term 'locally important words' will usually be imported into the new language, because those words will be regarded as much less relevant in the new cultural landscape. They will be just another casualty of a relentless, remorseless globalized capitalist economic system that continues to grind the planet, and everyone and everything in it, into dust and disaster — except that this casualty is of the intangible and invisible kind.

Re: When languages die, ecosystems often die with them

Posted: Wed Nov 29, 2017 6:58 pm
by tony h
It reminds me of being told that the Welsh are a proud race and proud of being Welsh. Then learning many years later that the word Welsh comes from the word for "foreign", I forget which language. So linguistically to say "I am proud of being Welsh" is to say "I am proud of being Foreign". It doesn't sound like the declaration of self-worth it is meant to be.

Re: When languages die, ecosystems often die with them

Posted: Wed Nov 29, 2017 10:34 pm
by Erik_Kowal
Tony is right.

According to this Wikipedia page, "The name Welsh originated as an exonym given to its speakers by the Anglo-Saxons, meaning "foreign speech" (see Walha). The native term for the language is Cymraeg, meaning "British", and the name of the country of Wales is Cymru."

Another page on Wikipedia says: "*Walhaz is a reconstructed Proto-Germanic word meaning "foreigner", "stranger", "Roman", "Romance-speaker", or "Celtic-speaker". The term was used by the ancient Germanic peoples to describe inhabitants of the former Western Roman Empire, who were largely romanised and spoke Latin or Celtic languages. The adjectival form is attested in Old Norse valskr, meaning "French"; Old High German walhisk, meaning "Romance"; New High German welsch, used in Switzerland and South Tyrol for Romance speakers; Dutch Waals "Walloon"; Old English welisċ, wælisċ, wilisċ, meaning "Romano-British"; and Modern English Welsh. The form of these words imply that they are descended from a Proto-Germanic form *walhiska-.[1] It is attested in the Roman Iron Age from an inscription on one of the Tjurkö bracteates [i.e. medals or amulets], where walhakurne "Roman/Gallic grain" is apparently a kenning for "gold" (referring to the bracteate itself).

There's a lot more detail on that second page for anyone who wants to know more.