WASHINGTON–New research reveals the top five hotspots around the world where languages are disappearing most rapidly, taking millennia of human knowledge and history with them.
Field research and data analysis supported by National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages have mapped the hotspots: 1) Northern Australia; 2) Central South America; 3) Northwest Pacific Plateau; 4) Eastern Siberia; and 5) Oklahoma and Southwest United States. Linguists K. David Harrison and Gregory D. S. Anderson, both of the Living Tongues Institute, and National Geographic Fellow Chris Rainier are conducting the work as part of National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project.
Some 7,000 distinct languages are spoken in the world today, and one of them dies about every two weeks. Harrison, who is an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, says that the rate of language extinction far exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish or plants and that language loss often parallels loss of biological species.
Harrison estimates that more than half of the world’s human languages have no written form. “If the last speaker of many of these vanished tomorrow, the language would be lost because there is no dictionary, no literature, no text of any kind,” he said.
Losing languages translates directly into losing knowledge, Harrison added. “Most of what humans know about the world is encoded in oral languages. When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.”
Nearly all of the 231 languages spoken in Australia — such as Yawuru and Magati Ke — are endangered, and at least 50 of them have never been written. A July 2007 trip by the research team turned up a speaker of Amurdag on Aboriginal lands in the Northern Territory; the language had been thought extinct. Bolivia has twice the language diversity of all of Europe, the scientists said, but this diversity is in grave peril as dominant languages such as Spanish edge out smaller ones.
Harrison, Anderson and Rainier, who is a filmmaker/photographer and director of the Enduring Voices project, are traveling to the hotspots around the world to interview the last speakers of languages in critical condition. The project seeks to help revitalize these languages by recording them and providing cameras and other means of documenting them to the language speakers.
The researchers used three main criteria to determine whether a region should be considered a Language Hotspot: diversity of languages spoken; level of endangerment (number and average age of living speakers); and extent of language documentation.
Rather than target individual languages, the scientists searched for linguistic diversity, looking for entire language families that were on their way out. “For instance, it would be terrible if Portuguese were lost, but if it was, there would still be the related languages of Italian, Spanish, French, Latin and Catalan,” Harrison said. “But if Basque went extinct, we would lose a whole language family.”
Languages can disappear in an instant — such as when a small, geographically vulnerable community is struck by a tsunami — but most die a slow death, often victim of bilingual culture. “A child who grows up in a house speaking Mayan and Spanish will figure out quickly that Spanish is ‘better’ — it’s spoken at school and on TV. The child will unconsciously abandon the ancestral tongue,” Harrison said. “Ironically, adults think they are making decisions about languages, but often it’s actually the children.”
Dozens of examples of complex bodies of knowledge packaged into little-known languages can be found in threatened and poorly known tongues spoken by small populations: The 4,000 speakers of Brazil’s Kayapo tongue, for example, distinguish 56 folk species of bees — some previously unknown to science — based on flight patterns, aggressive behavior, sound, habitat, geometry of nest structure, shape, color, markings, smell of the bee, quality and quantity of honey, edibility of larvae, quality of wax and other criteria.
The top five hotspots identified by National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute:
Northern Australia (Queensland, Northern Territory, Western Australia). Number of languages: 153. Aboriginal Australia holds some of the world’s most endangered languages, in part because aboriginal groups splintered during conflicts with white settlers. In 2007 the Enduring Voices expedition team documented such tiny language communities as the three known speakers of Magati Ke (in the Northern Territory) and the three Yawuru speakers, in Western Australia. The lone speaker the team could locate of previously declared-extinct Amurdag could barely speak the tongue — he strained to recall the echoes of a language he had last heard from his late father.
Central South America (Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia). Number of languages: 113. Running along the Andes Mountains and down into the Amazon basin, the region has extremely high diversity, very little documentation and several immediate threats. Small and socially less-valued indigenous languages are being knocked out by Spanish or more dominant indigenous languages in most of the region, and by Portuguese in Brazil. Anderson and Harrison visited the Kallawaya, a group who have been herbalist healers since the time of the Inca empire. The Kallawaya use Spanish or Quechua in daily life but maintain a secret language used mostly to encode information about thousands of medicinal plants, some previously unknown to science, that they use as healers. “How and why this language has survived for more than 400 years, while being spoken by very few, is a mystery,” Harrison said.
Northwest Pacific Plateau (British Columbia in Canada and Washington and Oregon states, U.S.). Number of languages: 54. Every language in the American part of this hotspot is endangered or moribund (with youngest speakers over age 60). Indigenous languages spoken throughout the hotspot are threatened by English. An extremely endangered language, with just one speaker, is Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 languages once spoken on the Siletz reservation in Oregon.
Eastern Siberia (Russia, China, Japan). Number of languages: 23. While the number of languages is relatively low, the number of language families is great, and they are highly endangered. Government policies in the region have forced speakers of minority languages to use the national and regional languages (Russian, Sakha), and consequently some have only a few elderly speakers. The region’s language menu includes the so-called mixed language of Mednyj Aleut, a curious blend whose first speakers were children who had one Russian parent and one Aleut parent.
Oklahoma and Southwest U.S. (Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico). Number of languages: 40. Oklahoma has one of the highest densities of indigenous languages in the United States. This hotspot includes languages originally spoken in the area as well as those of tribes forcibly located to reservations in Oklahoma in the 1800s. A moribund language of the area is Yuchi, which may be unrelated to any other language in the world. As of 2005, only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe were fluent. The Yuchi, originally from Tennessee, shifted to speaking English early last century when its children were punished for speaking their native tongue at government boarding schools.
More information on the Enduring Voices project is available in the October 2007 issue of National Geographic magazine and at: www.languagehotspots.org.