BBC News Science and Environment reports on a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that shows there might be a link between biodiversity loss and cultural and linguistic decline.
The study titled Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas, explores the long-suspected connection between natural biodiversity and human culture and language.
This theory is not new; the study acknowledges that researchers have suggested the same connection in past years after earlier studies showed that biological and linguistic diversity seem to occur often in the same places.
The new study focused on indigenous and nonmigrant languages, with special attention to languages that are in danger of extinction because of its remaining small number of speakers. According to the study, more than 4,800 of the over 6,900 languages spoken today are found in high biodiversity regions. Almost 70% of all languages that are presently in use are spoken in only about a quarter of the earth’s terrestrial surface, excluding Antarctica. Such a marked “coincidence” between biodiversity hotspots and indigenous languages is hard to ignore and dismiss as insignificant. In any case, history can attest to the fact that civilization has flourished in resources-rich places, which are in turn likely to be naturally rich in biodiversity as well. A way of life established in these environments entailed a language built on the environment and ecosystem type, and how people perceived and related to them.
The study suggests several reasons for this co-occurrence. One theory is that competition for the abundant amount of resources generated more linguistic diversity among the people living in these challenging environments. Another idea focused on the low risk and rich resources that allowed the people to lessen the need for communication with other groups regarding sharing of resources. These and other factors allowed people to develop highly unique culture and language over time.
But with the dangers biodiversity is facing, cultures and languages integrated with them are also put at risk. According to the study, the forces driving biological extinctions as well as cultural and linguistic homogenization appear to be the same. Large-scale human impacts and broad changes resulting from the expansion of an industrialized global economy puts natural habitats and the cultures and languages that have evolved with them at risk of extinction.
One positive result might be expected from the study’s findings. By pointing out the link between biodiversity and human culture, it provides a starting point for groups and individuals working on biodiversity conservation and those engaged in cultural and linguistic conservation to work together. The study’s authors propose the adoption of a shared framework to integrate both groups’ conservation goals. In this way, the status of both endangered species and languages are monitored and addressed.
As the world comes to recognize that biodiversity loss is not only a threat to our planet’s health but also to people’s identity, it is expected that efforts to conserve both will increase. When pieces of our planet are lost, it is only inevitable that parts of ourselves will also be gone. Protecting it not only benefits the environment but also protects our identity as unique peoples.
Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by Martin_Heigan via Flickr.
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