The modern world does not only threaten natural diversity: at least 40% of all languages face extinction, the United Nation’s cultural body, UNESCO, has warned. The UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs is even more apocalyptic, suggesting that 95% of languages may die out or be seriously endangered by 2100. ‘Humanity may well have only 300-600 oral languages left,’ it declared.
So the launch of the UN’s Decade of Indigenous Languages is timely. ‘With each indigenous language that goes extinct, so too goes the thought: the culture, tradition and knowledge it bears,’ Csaba Kőrösi, president of the UN general assembly, said in December, adding: ‘Language represents the dialogue of cultures and the culture of dialogue that the United Nations was founded to embody.’ He called for the safeguarding of indigenous peoples’ rights, with access to education and resources in their native tongues; ensuring that they and their knowledge are not exploited; and for governments to ‘meaningfully consult indigenous peoples, engaging with them in every stage of decision-making’.
Commonwealth countries lead the world in linguistic diversity, with five members boasting 2,399 languages between them. Papua New Guinea (PNG) ranks first, with 840 – or 12% of the global total in an area the size of Sweden. Nigeria is third with 517; India has 453; Australia 312; and Cameroon has 274.
While conflict was once the main reason why people were dispersed from their homeland, now the biggest threat to the world’s 6,700 or so languages is climate change. There are 476 million indigenous peoples, from more than 5,000 groups, in 90 countries, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. They make up just 6.2% of the world’s population (though 19% of the poorest) but their territories encompass 11% of the world’s forests and almost 80% of biodiversity. ‘With every language that disappears, the world loses a wealth of traditional knowledge,’ said António Guterres, UN secretary-general, in 2019. To protect the planet, we must listen to what indigenous people are saying in their own languages. Yet every two weeks, one of those languages becomes extinct.
A 2013 follow-up to a seminal study of the health of the world’s languages found that 317 languages were dead or dying in Australia and New Zealand; 47 in south Asia; 56 in west Africa; and 30 in east and southern Africa. While less than 10% of languages were found to be extinct or moribund in sub-Saharan Africa, nearly a fifth of the world’s languages are no longer being learned by children. Being uprooted from your home and forced to learn a new language elsewhere fuels this: in 2021, climate change-induced natural disasters displaced 138,000 Mozambicans and 107,000 Nigerians.
Those most vulnerable to climate change generally live in regions least responsible for it. And, in a further cruel irony, these places also have the most languages. Vanuatu is being washed away by ever-rising tides and storms, like many of the Commonwealth’s Pacific states. The archipelago also has the world’s highest density of languages: 110, or one per 111 sq km. Anastasia Riehl, of Ontario’s Queen’s University, says that for such small linguistic communities, the disruption of climate change ‘has a multiplier effect’. It is often, she says, ‘the final nail in the coffin’.
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A correlation between linguistic and biological diversity has been noted in several studies, as well as between habitat heterogeneity and linguistic diversity. The recent COP27 and COP15 climate and biodiversity summits disappointed many but one clear finding that emerged was the profound connection between successful conservation and indigenous people’s control over their land. The more protection for the land, and the greater their security of tenure, the more likely an ecosystem will thrive.
And as pharmaceutical multinationals have realised, indigenous peoples could be key to finding the next generation of antibiotics and cancer drugs. Knowledge of plants built up over millennia risks being lost to the world if indigenous knowledge is not protected. A 2021 study found that in three regions with high biocultural diversity, including PNG, more than 82% of medicinal knowledge about 12,495 plants was known only in one language – ‘more strongly associated with threatened languages than with threatened plants’.
A language can survive centuries of war, pestilence and famine only to be extinguished by the pettiest of reasons, such as when two neighbours, the last speakers of Mexico’s Ayapaneco language, stopped speaking to each other. Only eight old people in five northern Cameroon villages spoke Busuu in 1986; just three speakers remained by 2005. Brazil’s Akuntsu people first made contact with the outside world in 1995; by 2009 there were only three of them. In 2011, there were 20 languages with just one speaker; most of those are now probably extinct.
By contrast, Canada has shown how the erosion of indigenous languages can be stemmed. The Language Conservancy is developing picture books and videos for Manitoba’s Anishinaabe, posters for classrooms in Alberta’s Blackfoot Confederacy, and elementary vocabularies and grammar for Cree communities in Saskatchewan. Similar material has been produced for First Nations by 7,000 Languages, including Ojibwe and Dakota in Manitoba; Hän and Gwich’in in Yukon; Denesuline in Saskatchewan; Oji-Cree in Ontario; Quebec’s Naskapi; and Kwak̓wala – which has only 350 speakers – in British Columbia.
But you don’t have to go to the PNG highlands or the Canadian prairies to find indigenous languages at risk: only a few hours from the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, Scottish Gaelic faces extinction, spoken as a first language by a dwindling number of elderly islanders. Manx, the closely related Gaelic tongue of the Isle of Man, was declared extinct by UNESCO in the 1990s but is now taught in schools. And while Welsh has enjoyed a revival (with more than 800,000 speakers), it arguably took direct action to galvanise native speakers into defending their embattled language. The UK’s other indigenous language, Cornish, was extinguished in the 18th century but has been resurrected and now has a few hundred speakers. The Commonwealth should recognise the linguistic treasure trove it has and act before it is too late.
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.