Words are biotic

Is it a coincidence that areas of linguistic plurality are also areas of biodiversity?

Published: Friday 09 August 2013

Anvita Abbi, professor of linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, studied the language spoken by the Great Andamanese tribe and concluded that their language could be among the few paleolithic languages that exist in the world and may constitute the sixth language family in India  “When metaphors die, ideas pass away and a way of thinking is buried,” says Sakar Khan. He is not a linguist. He is a musician. He plays the khamaicha — a four-string instrument. Somewhere in his eighties, he is the most revered  musician of his tribe — the langas of Rajasthan. Reticently he shares his feelings, “I see today’s generation ignore the khamaicha. I can’t help it. Music, like language, can provide only a metaphor for a way of life. When people lose a way of life, their language struggles to survive.”

In a similar vein, linguists remember Tefvik Esenc, the last speaker of Ubykh, a language once spoken in the northwestern Caucasus. Some years ago they scampered to his village of Haci Osman in Turkey to meet him. He had three sons, all of them unable to understand his tongue, preferring Turkish instead. He had already decided upon his epitaph. “This is the grave of Tefvik Esenc. He was the last person able to speak the language they called Ubykh.” He died in 1992. The language passed away with him.

Then there is what linguist Bruce Connel recorded in a newsletter of the UK Foundation for Endangered Languages, under the heading ‘obituaries’. “During fieldwork in the Mambila region of Cameroon’s Adawawa region in 1994-95, I came across a number of moribund languages…one of these, Kasabe…had only one remaining speaker, Bogon. In November 1996 I returned to the Mambila region. Bogon had died on November 5, 1995 taking Kasabe with him. He is survived by a sister, who reportedly could understand Kasabe, but not speak it, and several children and grandchildren, none of whom know the language.”

Exactly what is lost when a language dies? Do we also lose what can be called a biotic world-view, the local knowledge and wisdom of which a language is a repository?

Most linguists agree that about 6,000 languages are spoken today. Not all languages spoken in the world have been ‘discovered’. Reports occasionally come in of new languages and communities being found in the islands of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the South American or Central African rainforests. In 1998 two such nomadic communities (the Vahudate and the Aukedate, comprising 20 and 33 families respectively) were found living near the Mamberamo river, 2,400 miles east of Jakarta.

David Crystal, author of the book Language Death and a linguist, says it is quite likely their speech is sufficiently different to count as a new language. Even in parts of the world where linguistic surveys have been carried out, the data remains incomplete and provides partial information. Perhaps this is why, of the 6,703 languages it lists, the Ethnologue marks 3,074 as those that require surveys.

The world’s languages are highly unevenly distributed. Four per cent of the 6,000 odd languages are spoken in Europe; about 15 per cent in the Americas, 31 per cent in Africa and 50 per cent in the Pacific and Asia. Just two countries put together, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, account for 25 per cent of all languages worldwide (about 1,500). India is home to about 380 languages.

It’s clear that the current geographical spread of languages surviving today is skewed. But so is the number of people that speak each respective language. Out of the full bouquet of 6,700 surviving languages, most are spoken by very small groups of communities and people. The world’s top 10 languages, in terms of the number of speakers, are spoken by approximately half the world’s population.

As Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a Sweden-based linguist and professor at Roskilde University, points out, “When we are talking about the world’s languages, even the biggest ones, we do not really know what we are talking about. Some of the variations are due to changes in classification systems. Of the others, some are results of real changes, but many are results of guesswork. The problem is that we don’t know which is which. We do not have even the basic information needed for efficient language planning and language policies. Even when speaking about millions of people, our figures are all but reliable. We know more about pigs than people.”

In fact relatively few people speak most of the world’s languages. The average number of speakers of one language is probably around 5,000 to 6,000. Communities of one million speakers and above speak fewer than 300 languages, meaning that over 95 per cent of the world’s spoken languages have fewer than one million native users.

The point is that some 83-84 per cent of languages spoken are endemic (local to the space in which they are prevalent). They are spoken only in a particular country and not shared between boundaries. In fact about 4,000-5,000 out of the 6,000 odd languages are spoken by indigenous tribes of the world. These can be as disparate as the 10-million strong Quechua descendents of the Inca civilisation, or fewer than 10 people in the Gurumulum band of Papua New Guinea.


Is there, therefore, a pattern to the geographical spread of languages? Where should we look to find that pattern, if any?

Most of the world’s languages are spoken in the tropical countries. There are two great belts of high density of languages (see map: Worlds of words). One belt runs from the West African coast through the Congo basin to East Africa, and the other runs from India and peninsular Southeast Asia into the islands of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Pacific. The seventeen major countries of these two belts (including India) contain about 60 per cent of the world’s languages and only nine per cent of the geographical land area.  Quite a few of these countries are some of the poorest in the world. They also harbour a great many of the world’s species. Just a casual glance at the biodiversity hot spots of the world and the geographical spread of languages shows a remarkable similarity.

Terralingua (a Washington-based non governmental organisation that campaigns for linguistic rights) along with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) carried out a cross mapping of indigenous peoples’ locations onto a map of the globally two hundred most fragile and important biological regions. WWF mapped out nearly 900 ecoregions of the world and found 238 of them to be of the utmost importance for biological diversity. These were termed the ‘global 200 ecoregions’. (An ecoregion was defined as a relatively large unit land or water containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities, and environmental conditions.) They then used the concept of ‘ethnolinguistic groups’, used to define a social unit that shares the same language and culture and uses the same criteria to differentiate itself from other social groups. In the mapping 4,635 distinct ethnolinguistic groups were found to inhabit 225 ecoregions, representing 67 per cent of an approximate world total of 6,867 ethnolinguistic groups.

Tropical rainforests, the world’s most biodiversity-rich areas, covering just seven per cent of the planet’s land surface, are home to at least 50 per cent, and perhaps as many as 90 per cent, of the world’s species. These ecosystems were also found to be the most culturally diverse, harbouring at least 1,400 distinct indigenous and traditional peoples. The total figure for all tropical forest ecoregions, including mangroves, amounts to 2,880 communities, which represents 62 per cent of all ecoregions in the global 200, and 42 per cent of all ecoregions in the world.

Mere coincidence?

Is there more to this overlap? Eric A Smith, professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, USA, studied the relationship between linguistic and cultural diversity in native North America and the biodiversity of the region. He recorded more than 275 languages spread in the domains of the native North American spoken at the time of contact with the Europeans. For measuring cultural diversity, Smith used the standard measure — ethnolinguistic groups — among other parameters. He measured biodiversity using a rather primary parameter, that of species richness in an area.  He used maps to superimpose diversity of one kind over linguistic and cultural diversity maps of the same area.

The results were quite revealing. Says Smith, “Four of the regions with the lowest tree-species diversity overlapped with the four of the least linguistically diverse areas.” Two of the three regions with the highest tree species also had the highest linguistic diversity. Analysis of the non-linguistic measures of cultural diversity also showed similar results when correlated with biodiverse regions. Smith concluded that liguistic diversity seems to be driven by environmental reasons as well as socio-political ones.” While the same forces may be at work to influence diversity of languages and biological wealth, the way they work are definitely regarded by experts to vary.

The foundation of such studies has been laid down very recently. Yet many anthropologists and experts have some ideas that are generally agreed upon today. David Harmon, co-founder of Terralingua, and author of In Light of Our Differences: How Diversity in Nature and Culture Makes Us Human, points out that several large-scale biogeographical factors affect both biological and linguistic diversity. These factors include the existence of large landmasses with varying terrains and ecosystems; island territories, especially with internal geophysical barriers; tropical climates, fostering higher numbers and densities. All these factors may increase linguistic diversity by increasing mutual isolation among human populations.

He also suggests a simple phenomenon. When people begin to live close to nature and modify it as they adapt to it, they develop a specialised knowledge about their environment. In order to convey this vital knowledge they develop lingual tools specific to their ecological regions and contexts. Over time these tools would have distilled into their lingual and cultural maps.

Face death now

Some languages are murdered, says the renowned Alaska Native Languages Centre-based linguist Michael Krauss, “It is a plausible calculation that  — at the rate things are going — the coming century will witness the death of 90 per cent of the human languages.” Others put it at 50 per cent. Krauss estimates that in the us and Canada 80 per cent of the native Indian languages (149 out of the 187) are no longer taught to children. Sixty languages were spoken in Canada. Now only four remain stable.

But the real Armageddon is turning out to be Australia. Ninety per cent of the 250 aboriginal languages are near extinction. Daniel Nettle, co-author of the book Vanishing Voices, believes only on or two of these will survive the end of the century. Africa isn’t far behind. Adds Nettle, “A recent survey has shown that virtually all African nations are affected to some degree”. The survey showed 54 documented languages were extinct and another 116 were on the verge of extinction.

Most obviously, a language dies if all the people who speak it are dead, or killed. Then there is the State with its ‘national’ agenda, a centralising imperative that scythes through linguistic multi-expressivity. Crystal says the third and probably largest factor in language death is globalisation. The invasion of technology into every corner of the world is exposing once protected pockets of unique cultures to the dominant languages in that area. In Canada, that is English. In South America, it is Spanish and Portuguese . In India, suggests Anvita Abbi, Professor of Linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, it is English.
Tove doesn’t like the phrase ‘language death’. She prefers ‘genocide’. The choice between the two words, she believes, has political connotations. “The most important direct agents in language murder are the media and the educational systems. Behind them are the real culprits, the global economic, military and political systems. The persistence of language is about power and autonomy.”

Today, as formal education reaches more and more people, schools can kill in one generation languages maintained for hundreds of years. Likewise, most minority education is guilty of linguistic genocide, points out Tove.

Assimilative submersion through education — where indigenous and minority children are taught through the medium of dominant languages — often leads to the students using the dominant language with their own children later on. Over a generation or two, the linguistic transfer is almost complete.

While the number of speakers of a language may help keep the language alive, it is not a guarantee. Neither is official support. The Hawaiian languages have been co-official with English in the state of Hawaii since 1978 but is still in a precarious condition. A continent away, in India, the story is not different. In India’s Living Languages, Sumi Krishnan points out that the 1961 census recorded 165 mother tongues in India, only 200 being spoken by more than 10,000 or more speakers.

More than a fourth of all languages recorded had five or fewer speakers each. One-third of the Kurukhs (Oraons) of central India had abandoned their language by 1979, the rate of decline being about 30 to 40 per cent every decade; it is the same for the Gonds of central India whose language is also slowly tumbling into oblivion.

Repositories of wisdom

Languages are like oysters holding pearls of wisdom. Tove shares one such: “Pekka Aikio, the President of the Saami Parliament told me this in 2001. Finnish fish biologists have just ‘discovered’ that salmon can use even extremely small rivulets leading to the river Teno as spawning ground  — earlier this was thought impossible. Pekka told me that the Saami have always known this —  the traditional Saami names of several of those rivulets often include the Saami word for ‘salmon spawning-bed’”.
This is ecological knowledge inscribed in indigenous languages. Languages are repositories of knowledge. When the languages vanish these treasure troves are also lost. This largely undocumented knowledge base is humanity’s lifeline. Over the ages, indigenous peoples have developed innumerable technologies. They have devised ways to farm deserts without irrigation and produce abundance from the rain forest without destroying the delicate balance that maintains the ecosystem. They have explored the medicinal properties of plants; and they have acquired an understanding of the basic ecology of flora and fauna.
Language captures these values in numerous ways, as cultural values, as oral myths and folklore. Even more intrinsically, in the very way the language structures are formed. If this knowledge had to be duplicated from scratch, it would beggar the scientific imagination. Much of this expertise and wisdom has already disappeared, and if neglected, most of the remainder could be gone within the next generation.
N K Bohra, from the Arid Research Centre, Jodhpur, narrates Rajasthan’s folk songs and verses that announce the severity of impeding famine or drought on the basis of ecologi¬cal indicators. M D Muthukumaraswamy, editor of the journal Indian Folk life, tells of therukoothu  — the traditional theatre form. In it the clown often challenges the hero to a verbal feat. For example, the challenge could be to name all the flowers in the surrounding valley, or birds of a certain kind. These are records of folk classification systems. This feat is also ‘performed’ in the textual form. In the anthology Patthupaatu, one travelling bard describes to another all the places he has been to. In the process, of course, the landscape is sketched out in detail. In one particular song, called the Kurincipaatu, the bard lists 99 flower varieties that he saw in the valley.

In some cases the classification is clear even today. In others, we can only guess as to why certain objects are clubbed together. For example, many oral epics list 80 indigenous grass varieties. But we can no longer distinguish between some of these, and nor do we know what some of them refer to. When ecological values and codifications get lost with the languages, very often people left behind are mere shadows of what they once were. The price they pay directly, and the world pays indirectly, is psychological as well as material.

Reinventing the wheel

Such loss of valuable knowledge is not only the indigenous people’s loss but that of the entire humankind. Michael Balick, director of the New York Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany, notes that only 1,100 of the earth’s 265,000 species of plants have been thoroughly studied by Western scientists, but as many as 40,000 may have medicinal or undiscovered nutritional value for humans. Many are already used by tribal healers.

Theodore Bhaskaran, a Chennai-based linguist, narrates the following: In Tamil the local dialects and vocabulary is being lost. So environmentalists re-invent the wheel. One example: there was a conservation effort in the Gulf of Mannar to save the dugong (sea-cow). There is a local word for the sea cow, but environmentalists, not knowing this, distributed pamphlets among farmers and fisherfolk that said save the ‘kadal pashu’ — a literal translation of ‘sea cow’. The result was that the locals thought the idea was to prevent cows from falling into the sea. The point is there is a problem if local dialect is not conserved. Embedded in the language is some feeling of the role the animal plays in the environment.
Bhaskaran talks of another case, “I met a farming tribal community called the Kadaar. Now in the same area there is the mouse deer, which looks like a miniature deer, but is an animal that is actually a relative of the pig. The Kadaar people identify the animal as a ‘marra panni’ or ‘tree pig’.” Now if conservationists don’t make a record of this, we end up imposing some ridiculous translation.

The thespian, Komal Kothari, and director of Rupayan, a Jodhpur-based non-government organisation working on Rajasthani folk traditions, says people have found out a million things that modern science rediscovers, repackages and gives it back to them, albeit with a price. “I was working with All India Radio travelling through Rajasthan when I came to know that very often people here pay a premium for seeds of some plants regurgitated out of the goats guts. I was intrigued. Asked some scientists to work on it. They came back and told me that the seeds got enzyme-coated which helped them germinate better.”

The markets and the governments in the developing world are getting wiser to the great economic potential of traditional knowledge. It is now a healthy business. The trade can rake in millions of dollars. But it is all locked in the languages and traditions of the people who have nurtured it for ages.

Eugene S Hunn, professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, USA, studied the Zapotec people, more specifically the Mixtepec Zapotec for how the traditional inventory of the people in the language fared against that developed in the dominant Spanish or English languages. He worked in San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxacathe. He says the 1,300 names categorised so far by the researchers in local Zapotec language are easily translatable in Latin but it is more difficult to find their Spanish or English equivalents. He asks: “What is the value of the local Zapotec to the programme of inventorying?” He answers: “They are the ones who point out distinctions between many flowers and their subspecies I miss out on. They are obsessed with flowers. They have far greater refined classification of marigolds than the usual botanical system.” He details how their classification of oak trees and century plants or magueys is so well done. They classify them by characteristic habits and primary uses, whether for fibre, medicinal use or habitat for some animal. He says, “It's clear that if Zapotec, or another comparable indigenous language were to be replaced by Spanish in rural Oaxacan communities, the result would not simply be lexical replacement but substantial lexical simplification.” In other words the treasure of knowledge collected by people over years of shared experience would be lost and would perhaps need to be rediscovered.

Language rights

Such small endeavours must be matched by more sensitive nations states. Take the case of India — a country of more than 300 languages — with only 16 state-recognised languages. Devi says, “While it is not essential that all languages be recognised as state languages, a state conscious of the existence of these languages is the first step in the right direction.”

Tove agrees and says, “The human rights system should protect people in the globalisation process rather than giving market forces free range.” She and many other linguists and experts advise that multiligualism is the only way out of the impasse. Suggests Crystal, “The two way relation (of languages) to ecology needs to be developed. While discussing ecological issues languages need to become part of the agenda.” He does point out that when basic needs are unmet even thinking of language maintenance or revival seems like an irrelevant luxury. But as Abbi says, “We will have to realise that in a place where these basic necessities are available to the resource-rich people as their right and not as a dole, the languages of these people will thrive automatically.”

What are the tools to fight a battle against the ‘killer languages’? Are these battles at all worthwhile? At a macro level the survival of languages is intricately linked with the socio-cultural policies of the state. Says Abbi, “Where will the languages survive if we cut down the entire forest of the Onges in the Little Andaman islands, turn them into refugees on their own homeland. The Gonds of central India, the Gaddis in Himachal Pradesh, the Penan tribe of Indondesia…all face a question of livelihoods.” But small steps at the ground level help change the cataclysmic direction in which humanity moves now. Devi’s organisation Bhasha is taking such small steps in Gujarat, reaching out to Bhils and other numerous tribal people, turning them into anthropologists who define their own terms of development.

The Angami Nagas believe in the beauty of multitude of languages. They have a myth that tells of people constructing a tower to heaven. As they build it, the goddess gets afraid that if they reach her abode, she will not have enough gifts to shower on them and that will create disharmony. So she bestows upon them the gift of languages. Unable to understand themselves they are unable to build the tower and live in peace. Question is: can the iconic Tower of Babel be turned on its head?

(Nitin Sethi, Anushka Meenakshi and Proteek Dey, Down To Earth, December 31, 2002)


Endangered Languages: Some concerns

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