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English Communication: Change in the World’s 7000 Languages and What Happens When Languages Die

English Communication: Change in the World’s 7000 Languages and What Happens When Languages Die


Here’s some more information about the world’s current 7000 languages – information all communicating human beings should know.

English is the lingua franca of our digital age.  Those who use it as a second language may outnumber its native speakers by hundreds of millions.

Heterogeneity of dialects and language isolates arises from geographic isolation of small groups.  In other words, dialects and languages develop when small groups of people live in areas without exposure to other groups. That was probably true of Paleolithic hunters,

Nowadays, the most concentrated cluster of 800 languages exists in Papua New Guinea with its isolated small groups living in highlands and rain forests.

Linguists estimate that by the end of this century, as many as fifty percent of the world’s 7,000 languages will, at best, exist only on recordings and in archives.

Why the death of so many languages? Throughout the world, people are turning from their ancestral languages to the dominant language of their region’s majority. In other words, people, especially young people, are stopping speaking in the language of their grandparents and parents and talking only in the language taught in school and used in business—the dominant language.  In South America, the dominant language is Spanish, but Portuguese in Brazil.  In the U.S., that is English.  In Africa, that could be English or French.   Assimilation into or taking on the dominant language often gives big economic benefits, especially as Internet spreads and rural young people move to cities.  Ah, big economic benefits means that a person could make more money using and mastering the dominant language.

Linguists recite the many losses brought about when languages die.

One loss has to do with ethnobotany.  That is the study of the use of plants, including hallucinogens, by indigenous peoples in the rain forest.

Relatedly, ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery is, in essence, fieldwork guided by shamans and healers

What does ethnobotany and the ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery have to do with language, including spoken language — living languages and those that die?

The taxonomies and the vocabularies of indigenous people and their endangered languages often distinguish hundreds more types of flora and fauna than known to Western or Eastern science and knowledge. For example, the Haunoo, a tribe of swidden farmers on Mindoro, an island in the Philippines, have forty expressions for types of soil.

Other examples: In Southeast Asia, forest-dwelling healers have identified the medicinal properties of some 6500 species.  In the 1940s Richard Schultes, professor of biology at Harvard did fieldwork in the Amazon.  He identified the source of curare, a derivative is used to treat muscle disorders like those associated with Parkinson’s disease. In the 1950’s, researchers for Eli Lilly and Company worked on several continents to study old remedies for diabetes based on the rosy periwinkles.  They isolated an active ingredient – vinblastine—used in chemotherapy for Hodgkins’ disease.

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

To put it bluntly, deaths of languages mean also death of the cultural knowledge embedded in those languages.

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Rerun from March 23, 2016

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