Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages

Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages

Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages

Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages

Synopsis

Few people know that nearly 100 native languages once spoken in what is now California are near extinction, or that most of Australia's 250 aboriginal languages have vanished. In fact, at least half of the world's languages may die out in the next century. What has happened to these voices? Should we be alarmed about the disappearance of linguistic diversity? The authors of Vanishing Voices assert that this trend is far more than simply disturbing. Making explicit the link between language survival and environmental issues, they argue that the extinction of languages is part of the larger picture of near-total collapse of the worldwide ecosystem. Indeed, the authors contend that the struggle to preserve precious environmental resources-such as the rainforest-cannot be separated from the struggle to maintain diverse cultures, and that the causes of language death, like that of ecological destruction, lie at the intersection of ecology and politics. And while Nettle and Romaine defend the world's endangered languages, they also pay homage to the last speakers of dying tongues, such as Red Thundercloud, a Native American in South Carolina, Ned Mandrell, with whom the Manx language passed away in 1974, and Arthur Bennett, an Australian, the last person to know more than a few words of Mbabaram. In our languages lies the accumulated knowledge of humanity. Indeed, each language is a unique window on experience. Vanishing Voices is a call to preserve this resource, before it is too late.

Excerpt

Few people seem to know or care that most of Australia's 250 aboriginal languages have already vanished and few are likely to survive over the long term. No young children are learning any of the nearly 100 native languages spoken in what is now the state of California. The last Manx speaker died in 1974. The same gloomy story can be told for many other languages all over the world: At least half the world's languages could be extinct in the next century. What has happened to extinguish these diverse voices?

The extinction of languages is part of the larger picture of worldwide near total ecosystem collapse. Our research shows quite striking correlations between areas of biodiversity and areas of highest linguistic diversity, allowing us to talk about a common repository of what we will call "biolinguistic diversity": the rich spectrum of life encompassing all the earth's species of plants and animals along with human cultures and their languages. The greatest biolinguistic diversity is found in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples, who represent around 4 percent of the world's population, but speak at least 60 percent of the world's languages.

Despite the increasing attention given to endangered species and the environment, there has been little awareness that peoples can also be endangered. More has been said about the plight of pandas and spotted owls than about the disappearance of human language diversity. The main purpose of this book is to inform the wider scientific community and the public of the threat facing the world's languages and, by extent, its cultures.

Although our story is a largely depressing one of cultural and linguistic meltdown in progress, we think this new millennium also offers hope. In May 1992 about 500 native delegates gathered in Kari-Oca on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, to attend the First World Conference of Indigenous Peoples and declare their desire for self-determination, to educate their children and preserve their cultural identity. The last decades of the twentieth century have seen a resurgence of indigenous activism from the . . .

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