Languishing Languages: Cultures at Risk
Raloff, Janet, Science News
Earth's inhabitants speak some 6,000 different languages. But within the next century, 90 percent or more of that linguistic diversity -- all but 250 to 600 languages -- will probably disappear, says Michael E. Krauss, director of the University of Alaska's Native Language Center in Fairbanks.
This trend may facilitate communications between different peoples. However, it also threatens to erase forever aspects of the cultural identity of the tribes or ethnic groups affected, he and other linguists argued in Atlanta last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Indeed, Krauss likened linguistic diversity to a cultural ecosystem -- a "web of life" inside which distinct social groups have evolved, each articulating its "different way of seeing the universe."
Language not only assigns names to objects and abstractions, it also reveals the importance a particular culture places on kinship and other relationships between individuals, observed Kenneth Hale of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some languages he has studied also suggest subtle, but potentially important cultural distinctions, such as whether a tree is considered animate.
Hale, whose research has taken him around the globe, has the dubious distinction of having studied with speakers of eight now-extinct languages.
Leanne Hinton of the University of California, Berkeley, studies a host of dying tongues much closer to home. Of North America's roughly 250 Native American languages, perhaps 25 percent are spoken in her state -- placing California behind only New Guinea and the Caucasus in linguistic richness.
However, none of California's native languages is being taught to children or used in daily conversation, she reported. Moreover, the vast majority of the state's roughly 50 extant native languages have 10 or fewer fluent speakers -- all of them age 70 or older. Of these languages, 18 linger in the memory of just one to four elders. …