Voices on the Precipice

Links Between Language and Biology and Our Global Future

Raanan J Robertson
Jun 29, 2018 · 13 min read
Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) rock art in Kakadu National Park, Australia. Photo by Peter Eve, Tourism NT.

Ecosystem collapse. Shrinking biodiversity. A global energy crisis. Impending water shortages. Mass migrations. These possible futures are nearly invisible, seemingly inconsequential to the routines of urban life and separated by an undefined gulf of time. Despite widespread international consensus that sea levels already surge and glaciers melt at unprecedented levels, the perils enveloping the globe remain veiled to policymakers and individuals who execute decisions that affect their outcomes. How we frame our narratives toward these abstract futures will define their trajectory.

The world during the late glacial maximum, roughly 14,000 B.C. ©Martin Vargic.

It is true that our planet has witnessed a great deal of turbulent seas in its past. Not too long ago, geologically speaking, the last rising sea levels spurred by glacial melt of the late ice age inundated Australian coasts with powerful floodwaters that submerged islands and eroded the farthest reaches of the continent, a landmass rivaling mainland United States. During this post-glacial period, from 20,000 to 7,000 years ago, sea levels rose to their current elevation almost 400 feet, establishing a new status quo. The Australian landmass was far from a barren wasteland before the tide— in fact humans had inhabited Australia at least 40,000 years prior. Through the documentary work of Patrick Nunn and Nicholas Reid, the most recent floods have been corroborated by 21 Aboriginal stories distributed around the Australian coastline. The tribes of Port Phillip Bay recalled a time when the kangaroos were easier to catch. The Tiwi people describe the creation of the Bathurst and Melville islands of northern Australia as an old woman crawling through what was then a valley, a flow of water in her wake. What is now Fitzroy Island was at one time part of a shoreline stretching out almost to the Great Barrier Reef.

Ice core samples and bedded sedimentary layers contain valuable data for climate scientists and provide insight into the nature of these historical events and what may lie ahead. Eyes and mouths spanning millennia have retained testimony of a different sort — perhaps one more suited for motivating the universal human psyche.

The rate at which Earth’s climate now fluctuates is unparalleled, promising that a new chapter in Earth history will be painted on our modern walls. We may yet decide what that story will be. In a turn of fortune, one forgotten crisis inextricably linked to this formidable catalogue of catastrophes may play a hand in their salvation: language loss.

In language we find a human dimension, and language just might be what persuades us to care about invisible things. In language there is also pride. Humankind has endeavored repeatedly to name the one attribute that distinguishes itself from the rest of life on Earth; perhaps erroneously, some christen language our crowning achievement. It is ironic that this single sublime aspect is one we are content to lose, time and time again.

Ethnologue reports that roughly one third of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages are endangered, while the top 23 dominant languages account for half the world’s current population. When it comes to distribution, more than 50% of the world’s languages are spoken in just eight countries: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, China, Mexico, Australia, and Cameroon in descending order. Language death is often coupled with human death, rendering language diversity a matter of human rights. Language loss is entangled in a web of past and present circumstances: from the overt forces of genocide and displacement via loss of habitat, to the more subtle forces of economic incentives. Genocide and niche reduction strike at speaker populations directly, while others tug quietly from beyond, enticing new generations toward prestigious languages with monetary, technological, and social cachet.

Meanwhile, biodiversity follows a similar course. Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, authors of Vanishing Voices, put conservative estimates of species loss at one per day, or 365 per year. More egregious forecasts calculate roughly three species every hour. Their forecasts were made in the early 1990s, before the plight of the oceans had truly emerged with the social awareness it commands today. The task of quantifying species and languages is sometimes troubled by matters of definition — meaningful boundaries between them can be difficult to discern and are sometimes hotly contested. But whether you believe that the Northwest Bornean orangutans and Northeast Bornean orangutans are members of the same species matters little to the Bornean orangutans, whose habitat shrinks all the same.

The eroding of global biodiversity is our collective canary in the coal mine. Where activism on behalf of animals and plants is beset by our struggle to care for abstract entities in far-flung places, we may again invoke their link to language loss for a human component. The geographical similarities between linguistic diversity and biodiversity are compelling:

Global biodiversity, courtesy of Globaia.org. Red, warmer colors indicate diversity, while blue, cooler colors show homogeneity. Of course what this map omits is marine biodiversity.

Compare the map of global biodiversity, above, with a map of global linguistic diversity below:

Global map of linguistic diversity using the LDI (Linguistic Diversity Index), courtesy of Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 18th edition. Darker green indicates greater diversity. Political boundaries hide many of the regional nuances.

A remarkable degree of overlap is apparent in certain regions: highly biodiverse Papua New Guinea (containing over 5% of the total species on our planet) is also home to the highest concentration of linguistic diversity with over 850 languages. Regions within Greater Amazonia contain some 330 languages across more than twenty language families. Sub-Saharan Africa hosts one of the largest language families, Niger-Congo, with an astounding 1,500 languages (that’s over 20% of the world’s linguistic stockpile). Indonesia, India, and southern Asia abound in a richness and variety of speech, flora, and fauna. A general trend emerges in both bio- and linguistic diversity along the equator, dropping as the map extends in either direction toward the poles. This pattern has been recognized by many linguists including Nettle, Romaine, and P. H. Williams, and follows the ecological observation known as Rapoport’s Rule.

The broader measures of linguistic diversity are in numbers of languages and language families, where languages are genetically distinct if they are not mutually intelligible and contain unique features. But a finer resolution (within languages and families) involves variation in phonology and grammar systems along acute boundaries. Regions attract diversity because they occupy what Johanna Nichols calls residual zones —areas that typically correspond with geographical boundaries such as mountains, major rivers, coasts, and lowlands, and have incredible sticking power. Thus residual zones such as those in the map above accrue languages in pockets, or niches, where those languages remain for long periods of time, inviting innovation that spurs further diversity. What residual zones often lack in size they make up for in time-depth, surfacing not just in the grammar of a language but in its oral histories as well. Nichols notes how diversity is not entirely random:

“…residual zones will contain a good deal of the world’s possible linguistic diversity in microcosm, and both the existence of internal diversity and its actual profile are stable and obviously very natural situations. Diversity of a particular kind may even be regarded as the state to which a group of languages will naturally revert if left undisturbed.”

The very fact that the diversity of these residual zones is being threatened at this moment speaks to the failing health of a human cultural ecosystem.

Geographical continuity between language and biology leads to a third cause for concern: their shared vulnerability to climate change. Most estimates of future language loss are informed by previous annual rates and local causes such as transmission and threats to subsistence but do not take climate change into account. When factoring for areas affected by rising sea levels and other climate-related disasters, the picture becomes more grim:

Global map of the projected effects of climate change, courtesy of the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, published by Verisk Maplecroft.

Once again, those regions sharing abundance in species and languages are those hardest hit by future climate risks: Central America and the northern stretches of South America, Amazonia, most of sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Communities that reside along these “extreme risk” zones are vulnerable because of their geography, but also for economic and political reasons. Often local governments are poorly equipped to handle heavy natural disasters: some of them possess few resources to fight flooding, diseases, and fund reconstruction, and others have not historically prioritized environmental concerns from a policy perspective. The Congo Basin is a prime example. According to a statement by the African Development Bank Group, “Africa’s rate of deforestation is about twice the world rate, and the continent is losing more than 4 million hectares of forest cover every year. Deforestation and poor agricultural practices account for about 65% of Africa’s emissions. Addressing climate change requires action in reversing deforestation in the continent.” But in many cases climate inaction along the equator is not for lack of will, only lack of means. It must be emphasized that the bulk of responsibility for human-induced factors and emissions still rests with the polar countries. Consider further that, according to the Rights and Resources Initiative,

“Indigenous Peoples and local communities manage at least 24 percent of the total carbon stored above ground in the world’s tropical forests, or 54,546 million metric tons of carbon (MtC), a sum greater than 250 times the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global air travel in 2015.”

The land occupied by many indigenous groups harbors a tremendous cache of volatile carbon, rendering these communities more than figurative custodians of the Earth. A fierce feedback loop may develop where language diversity maps align closely with climate threats, escalating the havoc wreaked by warming as more carbon is released into the atmosphere. Overlaps such as these indicate that future language loss could be much higher than previously predicted.

So while it is true that languages and species are vanishing at an astonishing rate, this is partly due to where they live, and what regions of the globe have been historically most hospitable to diverse environments. It is also true that not everyone will be equally affected by degradation in the coming decades. In a final revealing graphic, this map of the world’s concentration of wealth paints a near negative of all previous examples:

World distribution of wealth, courtesy of Business Insider. Political boundaries somewhat distort finer degrees of concentration of wealth.

Wealth will largely shape our responses to global challenges in the coming century. It will be, predominantly, the countries in green above who decide how we spend, save, or squander our resources, and they are the nations pushing toward the poles. That means the ones holding the keys to the safe are also the ones least threatened by impending destruction. And according to the Pew Research Center, countries with greater carbon emissions (typically paired with industrialized wealth) are the least concerned about climate threats:

“Among the nations we surveyed, the U.S. has the highest carbon emissions per capita, but it is among the least concerned about climate change and its potential impact. Others in this category are Australia, Canada and Russia. Publics in Africa, Latin America and Asia, many of which have very low emissions per capita, are frequently the most concerned about the negative effects of climate change.”

There is one variable that renders this everyone’s problem, and that is migration. According to a recent report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), “future forecasts vary from 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, moving either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate.” That powerful nations are already fortifying their borders with stringent immigration policies may owe to a variety of political factors, but any walls of the future will be tested by waves of inevitable diaspora. Forced migrations of this magnitude carry their concomitant influences on language change, as languages and cultures are typically challenged by mass movements of people. Sadly, Nichols tells us that languages do not always move with people. “Residual zones can be technically described as refugia, but this does not mean that their populations are refugees from spread zones; in all instances that I know of, languages have been drawn rather than pushed into residual zones.” Upheavals brought upon by involuntary migrations often lead to assimilation, rather than intact relocation of the supplanted culture and language. Many myths, oral traditions, and lexicons of indigenous people catalog the flora, fauna, and sacred landscapes of their native homes, knowledge which does not transfer easily out of context.

If we can look neither to the polar nations nor to migration for hope in reversing the course of language endangerment, where can we turn? That answer may come by acknowledging one fatal weakness economically prosperous nations have in common: their homogeneity. The nations of the poles may be rich with currency but poor in narrative diversity. This leads to a final point: when the world loses its wealth of voices, it loses the power that accompanies multiple perspectives over considerable time, and with it the strength of resilience. Nichols observes how spread zones — regions of low structural diversity and highly conservative peripheries — are marked by relatively high linguistic turnover when the scope of time is broadened. Examples of homogeneous spread zones include western Europe, the Eurasian steppes, the Caucasus, central Australia, interior North America, Mesoamerica, and the Ancient Near East. These regions garner linguistic hegemony by spreading single national languages, or lingua franca, over vast geographical areas, but they acquire spatial dominance at the expense of time, hosting languages that are replaced in relatively swift succession. Those same regions listed above have also seen the world’s largest empires come and go, a story well documented by Nicholas Ostler. Many of them are now currently occupied by Indo-European languages. There is no guarantee that hegemony will last.

Attributes of a Type III, mature ecosystem. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature, by Janine M. Benyus.

The patterns observed by Nichols are not unique to human language, but arise repeatedly throughout the biological world. Here the link between language and biology comes full circle: diversity is a fundamental of ecological resilience. Janine Benyus posits a list of attributes (left) that characterize a healthy, durable ecosystem (what she labels mature, Type III ecosystems), much of which is grounded in her research at the Biomimicry Institute and around the world. She explains how monocultures, or single-crop fields with low genetic diversity, are chronically susceptible to pests, floods, diseases, and sweeping fires. Genetic diversity ensures that parasites targeting specific species cannot wipe out an entire ecosystem, bringing opportunity for regrowth. The world’s forests know a similar rule: young trees grow quickly and cover significant territory, but if they are not patched with sections of older trees and a multiplicity of species, they succumb easily to the wildfires we see racing through our landscapes today. Wildfires are yet another phenomenon we can expect to increase as a result of climate change. Biology presents this tenet of life: diversity, integration, and information-sharing play significant roles in warding off ecosystem collapse.

The geographical connection that endangered languages and endangered species share means they are existentially linked: the perseverance of one, to a degree, secures the other’s survival. In preserving habitats by curbing deforestation, excessive damming, greenhouse gas emissions, and other ecological intrusions, we also spare the homes that harbor speakers of endangered languages, and with them our collective linguistic diversity. Simultaneously, by standing with language speakers along humanitarian fronts, we empower those who are most attuned to the world’s regional biodiversity. Speakers of these languages have learned to coexist within these valuable habitats and are motivated in their enduring prosperity. By example, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe of Washington speak the endangered Salishan language Klallam and subsist on the salmon of the Elwha River. The tribe was instrumental in the removal of two Elwha dams in 1992 that blocked the flow of salmon upstream, hindered the flow of sediment and wood downstream, and brought severe challenges to the local ecosystem. Upon removal of the dams, salmon returned and biodiversity was restored, but the benefits didn’t stop there. The cathartic demolition of the dams brought rediscovery of the tribe’s previously submerged sacred creation site, as well as revelations of artifacts attesting 8,000 years of human habitation along the river. Here was a case where human rights, animal rights, language rights, and knowledge of deep history converged clearly and unequivocally.

Countless reasons for assisting endangered language communities in preserving their traditions have been offered. The arguments range the spectrum from the purely academic (with each vanishing language we lose valuable insight into the varieties of linguistic systems that populate the world), to almost histrionic claims of special abilities. Many of these arguments raise worthy concerns, yet so often the well-intended casual debater is prone to holding indigenous voices to impossible standards. They imagine either indigenous communities harbor superpowers or else they are hardly worth the effort. This polarity of valuation leaves no room for an intermediate step: documenting, listening, and honoring communities in situ as fellow humans. The task before us is neither to fetishize, nor to dismiss as irrelevant, those in the fading margins of today’s linguistic landscapes, for both would serve the same end of keeping them separate from us, a layer of abstraction removed. If maps of biodiversity and linguistic diversity teach us anything, it is that we are more connected to each other and to nature than appearances suggest. If we are to truly rise to our global potential, we must learn to shed the pride of language that divides us, that elevates one above the other. Benyus puts it well:

“Despite the fact that we face the same physical challenges that all living beings face — the struggle for food, water, space, and shelter in a finite habitat — we [have been] trying to meet those challenges through human cleverness alone. The lessons inherent in the natural world, strategies sculpted and burnished over billions of years, remained scientific curiosities, divorced from the business of our lives.”

Where empires of old have vanished because they occupied vast regions of notorious spread zones, erecting walls, armies, and fortifications that buried each region’s former occupants, those nations of today’s political climate may endure if they adopt one simple, innovative tool: investment in diversity. In so doing, they would replicate the advantage normally endowed to residual zones of the world that have persevered for millennia. The generation that prioritizes diversity will be the one that successfully turns our globe into the largest residual zone yet seen.

Action on behalf of unmet species, peoples, and unfelt futures relies upon our ability to sustain compelling narratives about them. And in indigenous communities there is no shortage of narratives. We must turn to their deep histories and oral traditions reaching much further back in time than our modern prestige languages can remember. They bear stories of crises, not too different from those we may soon face, and obstacles overcome in previous times of change. Their voices tell us about the Earth and about ourselves as connected humans. We would do well to cherish, preserve, and listen.


Wikitongues is a non-profit platform for every language in the world.

Thanks to Kristen Tcherneshoff and Wikitongues

Raanan J Robertson

Written by

Linguistics | Culture | Politics | Economics | Futures | Histories | Shared Narratives | Minds | Bodies |


Wikitongues is a non-profit platform for every language in the world.

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