‘All things must pass,’ sang George Harrison. With time, suns turn into ice, civilizations into dust, and species go extinct. And so ‘black dwarfs,’ ‘biodiversity loss,’ not to forget ‘Armageddon,’ have all become part of our daily alphabet.
But that does not rate as headline news. If the power of James Fennimore Cooper’s narrative still makes The Last of the Mohicans a most present, although rather erroneous (1) memory, who knows of the recent disappearance of dozens of languages, like Kanoe (Brazil), Iowa (central USA), Mangala (western Australia), or Kamassian (Siberia, Russia) – each replaced by the dominant tongue of their administrative rulers?
There are interesting parallels to draw, up to a point, between linguistic and biological diversity. On a world map, their hotspots are distributed in roughly comparable ways, owing to the same causes and effects: the protection afforded by dense forests, habitat heterogeneity, forbidding mountain ranges, climate stability, the remoteness of ocean islands, etc. No wonder then that Papua New Guinea, which combines all these attributes, would emerge as the top location for both species (8% of world total) and linguistic richness, with 830 living tongues (12% of world total). No wonder either that in the high mountains of the Caucasus – another biodiversity hotspot – one finds on a territory no larger than the Iberian peninsula as many as five distinct linguistic families, compared to only three for the whole of Europe.
But the similarities between biological and linguistic diversity end there, as other patterns have nothing in common. Every ten years, on average, two species of mammals go extinct (a high rate spun by global environmental degradation) compared to … 250 languages that vanish in the same time span. This is not trivial, and it reminds us that the life and death cycle of human tongues has more to do with the historical extension of agriculture, emergence of centralized states, colonialism, cultural imperialism, and global communication networks than with Darwinian evolution.
Close to 7,000 distinct languages are still spoken today, more than half originating from just eight countries: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, China, Mexico, Cameroon, and Zaire. It is expected that by 2100 nearly half of today’s living tongues will have disappeared. If so, humanity will be considerably poorer. For each time a native language dies out, it is a distinct universe of mental constructs, with unique ecological wisdom acquired through millennia of direct contact with nature, which is lost. Gone is the refined Cheyenne technique of prairie management by fire in the dry mid-summers, almost gone the mysterious understanding of Namibian savanna animals by !Kung San hunters, and highly endangered the immense knowledge of the sea and its resources inherited by traditional fishing peoples from Oceania to the Arctic.
Prairie Meadows Burning. Oil canvas by George Catlin, 1832. National American Art Museum.
Among the thousand languages that will soon vanish, some are incredibly original, ‘language isolates’ on their own, others incredibly complex. Consider the way in which we count cattle, fish, or stars. By counting on their own fingers (and toes), humans have devised numerical systems with base 5, 10, or 20, which in turn shape how the world around us is expressed. For the Melpa, in the western New Guinea highlands, the word for ’10’ is ‘two-thumbs’ – our eight fingers augmented by two thumbs.
In Central America, the Maya for their part used a base-20 numerical system, the core of complex cycles in their astronomical calendar. This characteristic, together with the very rare VOS (Verb- Object – Subject) word sequence that survives in extant Maya tongues, proved essential to decipher the syllabic hieroglyphs that the pre-Columbian Maya left behind on stelae and temples in the dense Peten and Yucatan jungles.
The complexity, the very richness of a language is not immediately obvious. It is not even a function of the number of distinct words it contains. In so-called ‘polysynthetic languages’ (Caucasus, Himalaya, New Guinea mountains), the sophisticated addition of countless prefixes and suffixes will allow the speaker to express in just one word what would require a full sentence in English. One extreme example of that was related by Georges Dumezil, a French ethno-linguist who studied Ubykh in the 1930s (2). In this north-western Caucasian tongue one word sufficed to say: “If only you had not forced him to take once more all that I had prepared for them.” One long word, only one, could express that. I used the past tense as Ubykh died twenty years ago in October 1992, when its last elderly speaker passed away.
If a Museum of Extinct Languages did exist, Ubykh would be in good company. I lost count of the many spoken tongues that vanished during the last century but it must approach one thousand. Today some 600 native languages are just about to go extinct, each spoken by less than fifty elders and no longer transmitted to children. The diagram below, composed on the basis of the latest available data (3), is cause for worry.
NB: the vertical axis represents the number of nearly extinct indigenous languages; the number in blue its relation (in percent) to the total number of native languages still spoken in same country.
The continental USA, distantly followed by Australia, hold the dubious distinction of having the highest number of vanishing endemic languages. The narrative thread is the same: in recent years, or decades, their First Nations have massively shifted to English. A few tongues still resist, like Apache, Cherokee, Dakota, or Navajo, each with quite safe population levels above 15,000 speakers. But, as I write these lines, only one or two elders are left to speak Pawnee, Wichita, Osage, etc. Listen to these haunting words by Anita Edrezze, a (half) Yaqui Indian poet, lifted from a dusty issue of the National Geographic (4) that I kept through the years: ‘All the dark birds, / but one, / rush from the river / leaving only the stillness / of their language.’
Will a few of the ‘major’ languages now spoken by millions and millions of people ultimately dominate and squash all others? Only the future will tell. But it would be an ironic twist of history if our world, in the end, resembles the gigantic Tower of Babel where – founding myths tell us – only one tongue prevailed.
(1) J.F. Cooper used literary license, distorting the name of the Mahican people, an Algonquian tribe originally living in the Hudson Valley and now settled in Wisconsin. Mahican was spoken until the 1930s and is now extinct.
(2) Nicholas Evans. Dying Words. Endangered languages, what they tell us. Wiley, 2010
(3) This analysis is based on data extracted from the 2009 edition of Ethnologue – Languages of the World and the Atlas of the World’s Languages by Christopher Moseley, Routledge, 2007.
(4) National Geographic, October 1991. Special issue ’1491 – America before Columbus’.