The world’s languages are drying up. Last chance to hear.
WE ARE FAMILIAR WITH THE ENGLISH word “chary”, meaning cautious or anxious. But if you were an elderly Siberian Chulym reindeer herder, and one of the handful of people left who speak the ancient language known as Middle Chulym or Tuvan, the word chary would translate as “a two-year-old castrat-able rideable reindeer”. (In Siberia, it seems, two-year-old uncastrated male reindeer have reason to be, well, chary.) The word tells us something specific about the ecology of reindeer herding in Siberia.
The linguist David Harrison cited this obscure word in a fascinating address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week, as an example of the extraordinary interaction between language and biodiversity: the languages of ethnic groups, he pointed out, contain vitally important information about species often unknown to formal science. If the language is lost, so too will vanish the knowledge it contains about natural phenomena.
More than half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to die out by the end of the century, taking with them irreplaceable knowledge about plants and animals. Global warming, loss of habitat and pollution are not the only threats to the environment: lack of linguistic diversity poses a direct threat to biodiversity.
If we want to be drop dead serious about this for a second, I propose that we might turn this trend by increasing our fantasy novel and cult science fiction television series production. There’s nothing like nerd obsession to keep fictional languages alive.