Society & Culture - Posted by A'ndrea Elyse Messer-Penn State on Tuesday, May 8, 2012 13:24 - 0 Comments
‘Hot spot’ languages are in danger, too
PENN STATE (US) — Biodiversity hot spots are some of the most linguistically diverse regions on the planet, accounting for 70 percent of all languages on Earth.
Hot spots are considered the most rich biologically and the most threatened locations. High biodiversity wilderness areas are those that are biologically rich but less threatened.
In a new study published in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, conservationists write that, like a region’s species, the “languages involved frequently are unique to particular regions, with many facing extinction.”
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Currently, biologists estimate yearly losses of species at a rate 1,000 times higher than historic rates. Linguists predict that by the end of the 21st century, 50 to 90 percent of the world’s languages will disappear.
“Paul Ehrlich likened the loss of species to removing the rivets in a plane’s wings,” says Larry J. Gorenflo, associate professor of landscape architecture at Penn State.
“How many rivets can you remove before the wing falls off and the plane falls out of the sky? Similarly, how many species can you lose before an ecosystem fails? Unfortunately, stopping species loss in a world of 7 billion people is extremely challenging.
“We conducted this study to understand more about the people living in areas important for biodiversity conservation.”
Researchers used recently compiled global data showing the geographic locations of more than 6,900 languages compiled for geographic information system (GIS) applications by Global Mapping International. They used the locations of hot spots and high biodiversity wilderness areas compiled in GIS form by Conservation International.
“We looked at regions important for biodiversity conservation and measured their linguistic diversity in an effort to understand an important part of the human dimension of these regions,” Gorenflo says.
The researchers first looked at hot spots—locations with an exceptionally high number of unique species that also has a loss of habitat of 70 percent or more. Comprising only 2.3 percent of the Earth’s surface, intact habitats in 35 hotspots contain more than half the world’s vascular plants and 43 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species.
In these 35 hotspots—spread throughout the world’s continents with the exception of Antarctica—the researchers found 3,202 languages—nearly half of all languages spoken on Earth.
They also examined linguistic diversity in five high biodiversity wilderness areas, whose remaining habitat covers about 6.1 percent of the Earth’s surface and contains about 17 percent of the vascular plant species and 6 percent of the terrestrial vertebrate species.
These regions contained another 1,622 languages. As in the case of the hotspots, many languages are unique to particular areas and are spoken by relatively few people, making them susceptible to extinction.
“What ends up happening when we lose linguistic diversity is we lose a bunch of small groups with traditional economics,” says Gorenflo. “Indigenous languages tend to be replaced by those associated with a modern industrial economy accompanied by other changes such as the introduction of chain saws. In terms of biodiversity conservation, all bets are off.”
If losing species biodiversity is like losing rivets from an airplane, losing languages can also have a profound effect. According to Gorenflo, losing these languages can lead to the loss of a lot of environmental information that becomes inaccessible as the words, culture, and language disappear.
“I think it argues for concerted conservation efforts that are integrated and try to maintain biodiversity and cultural diversity,” he says, suggesting that without cultural and linguistic diversity, which increasingly appears to be tied to biological diversity, biodiversity loss likely will continue at alarming rates. “In many cases it appears that conditions that wipe out species wipe out languages.”
It’s unclear why areas of endangered species concentration and endangered languages coexist. Possibly indigenous cultures, supported by their languages, create the conditions to maintain species and keep the ecosystems working.
“I think basically this study helps to establish these areas of high biodiversity as the world’s most important landscapes,” says Gorenflo.
The study is a starting point to explore the relationship between biological and linguistic-cultural diversity, the researchers say. This will also help develop strategies for conserving species and languages in areas where rich diversity of both exists.
“We want to begin to look at selected places with high biological and linguistic diversity to begin to explore the connections between the two, such as Tanzania, where there are 130-plus languages,” says Gorenflo. “Also, the Indo-Burma hotspot in Southeast Asia, where there are nearly 400 languages, and the island of Vanuatu in the Pacific with 100-plus languages.”
Researchers from Merton College at Oxford University contributed to the work that was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through Conservation International and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, U.K.
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