Dying languages and scientific knowledge

I recently came across this article (Can Dying Languages Be Saved?) in the New Yorker, and it reminded me of a fascinating connection between languages and science. The article talks about how hard it is to save dying languages, and what that process can be like, with learning, researching, creating and inventing the language based on what’s known about it and what isn’t.

Languages are in danger of dying out when they are not being passed on to next generation of speakers. This might start with the language being used less and less, and eventually not being used at all. It would first move away from use in schools, hospitals, offices and all those kinds of public use spaces into only the home. Maybe friends and family would use it to speak to each other, and gradually it would become less common and only have a kind of symbolic role. Once the children stop being taught how to use it, the language is in danger of being lost.

As it says in the article,

… the loss of languages passed down for millennia, along with their unique arts and cosmologies, may have consequences that won’t be understood until it is too late to reverse them.

Languages contain within them the traces of the culture of their speakers. The important parts of a culture, whether they be respect for elder figures as in Japanese (the main language of Japan) or intricate bonds of kinship as in Warlpiri (an Indigenous language of Central Australia), are captured in the grammar and vocabulary of the language used by its speakers. A speaker group’s history and identity is also visible in the language it speaks. That’s one of the reasons why language loss is such a big deal: when you lose a language, you lose a way of life and generations of accumulated knowledge.

One of the most productive areas of knowledge that many small languages have is around the natural world. The thousands of languages that populate the deserts, jungles, mountains and forests of the world all contain knowledge about food, nutrition and safety. Over the generations, speakers discovered and classified the world around them, distinguishing between species of plants and animals and how to find and prepare them for eating. Those distinctions were incorporated into their language, distinctions that might easily be lost with the language.

Manus Island sunrise

The wilderness of Manus Island in Papua New Guinea might contain species known to the local communities but unknown to western science. Photo by Hadi Zaher, http://tinyurl.com/nb33hdg

That’s why trips to document languages in remote areas often bring along a biologist or a botanist as well as a linguist, because the local speakers have a huge understanding of the plants and animals all around them, often including specific knowledge of species completely unknown to western science. Back in 1985 in a paper called Mode of subsistence and folk biological taxonomy in the journal Current Anthropology, Cecil Brown wrote about this, and his work is described here by Andy Pawley in a chapter that he wrote for the 2011 book Documenting Endangered Languages: Achievements Perspectives:

Animals and plants are important, economically and socially, in the lives of Oceanic communities and names for animal and plant taxa make up a large part of the lexicon. Worldwide comparative studies show that farming communities living in environments with a rich diversity of plant species generally distinguish between 500 and 1500 plant taxa. I am not aware of a comparable world-wide survey but it is probable that most coastal communities on high islands in the Pacific tropical zone distinguish between 600 and 1000 animal taxa, with fish names being the largest component.

According to UNESCO, the loss of speakers and knowledge-keepers among the Amuesha of the Northern Peruvian Amazon has directly and negatively impacted the diversity of crops. Oral traditions and folk taxonomies are now recognised as being important for projects of endangered species recovery and restoration. Efforts by scientists to preserve biodiversity can gain significantly from engagement with local communities and linguists, where the linguists themselves can gain from the scientists’ experience.

Peruvian Amazon river

Species here could be saved with the knowledge of the local community. Photo from http://tinyurl.com/nsmh5ov.

Beyond the practical or purely scientific reasons we might have for wanting to learn more about the natural world, this knowledge that is embedded in the language is another part of the heritage, culture and tradition that so many people around the world are starting to lose. We often think of languages as unchanging things, tools for expressing ourselves, but they are actually amazingly complex and nuanced. They have a value that goes beyond their scientific content, but recognising the value that is there might be a good way to increase our awareness. The New Yorker article sums this up nicely.

Quinine, aspirin, codeine, ipecac, and pseudoephedrine are among the common remedies that … we owe to ethnobotanists guided and informed by indigenous peoples.

“Let’s be honest,” Kaufman said. “The loss of these languages doesn’t matter much to the bulk of humanity, but the standard for assessing the worth or benefit of a language shouldn’t rest with outsiders, who are typically white and Western. It’s an issue of the speakers’ perceived self-worth. The older people are the only ones who can tell you what their youth stands to lose. The young are the only ones who can articulate the loss of an identity rooted in a mother tongue that has become foreign to them.”


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