Extinction of Languages Puts Plants and Animals at Risk

In time, synthetic insecticides from sugar esters will likely be commercialized and may be valuable for insecticidal use on flowers and ornamentals in the greenhouse, field, or nursery. (Image credit: Scott Bauer)

The ears of linguists, anthropologists, and conservationists perked up with the recent announcement that the federal government will continue to support the digital documentation of languages on the brink of extinction.

More than half of the world's 7,000 languages are endangered; many face extinction in the next century.

Interestingly, the projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) could save more than just a few mother tongues. It might also protect plants and animals.

Talk about diversity!

When the nonprofit organization Terralingua mapped the distribution of languages against a map of the world's biodiversity, it found that the places with the highest concentration of plants and animals, such as the Amazon Basin and the island of New Guinea, were also where people spoke the most languages.

As well as serving as indicators of biodiversity, languages also act as good signs of cultural diversity and a group's understanding of surrounding environments, because people store communal knowledge in their language.

"Wherever humans exist, they have established a strong relationship with the land, and with the biodiversity that exists there," said anthropologist and Terralingua President Luisa Maffi. "They have developed a deep knowledge of the plants and animals, the local ecology, as well as a knowledge about how to use and manage the resources to ensure continued sustenance of biodiversity."

Languages hold valuable knowledge about how to preserve biodiversity.

Native languages have many names for plants that describe how and where they grow, as well as their medicinal uses. But the meanings often do not survive translation from one language to another.

"If you've learned something about a plant from a speaker of an indigenous language, but you don't use the language, it's harder to pass on that knowledge," said linguist Pamela Munro of UCLA.

Destabilizing a forest

As one example, members of the Native American group called the Sekani practiced controlled burning of the forests of British Columbia to regenerate the forest and keep the understory clear for game animals. Their methods also kept the mountain pine beetle pest at bay.

A small pox epidemic decimated the indigenous people and the timber industry took over the management of the forests, putting a stop to the controlled burns.

Since the 1990's, without the regular burnings, the beetle's outbreak has destroyed more than 7 million acres of forest.

"The forests have been made unusable because the native populations have not been allowed to continue those practices," Maffi said. "Ultimately their communities will have to disperse, which will lead to a loss of cultural and linguistic diversity."

Ancient respect for fish

In Thailand, new protective measures are observing an age-old respect for one of the world's largest freshwater fish by following ancient fishing practices.

The Mekong giant catfish, called the "king of fish" in Cambodian, can grow to more than 10 feet in length and has a regal history.

Cave paintings in Thailand dating back 3,500 years illustrate the Mekong giant catfish's long-lived importance. Traditional fishermen in the northeast of Thailand have historically believed that they should not catch the fish. If they do, they hold a religious ceremony to ward off bad luck, burning an image of the fish.

This summer, in celebration of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, fishermen in Thailand and Laos took an oath to abide by these ancestral fishing taboos to avoid fishing the critically endangered beast. The fish is also legally protected in Cambodia.

By following tradition, the fishermen may save the catfish from being the first extinct casualty in the Mekong River, a diverse habitat that is home to more than 1,200 species.

Saving the salmon

Similarly, in Washington State, time-honored lessons are being heard.

Generations of the Tulalip and Yakima tribes and other Native American groups have relied on Pacific salmon as a key resource; they also value the fish very highly and harvest with forethought.

"They treat salmon with respect so that the fish return every year," said ethnobiologist Eugene Hunn of the University of Washington.

The tribes hold annual salmon ceremonies to honor the fish. The first catch of the season is celebrated with singing, dancing, and the passing of salmon tales from generation to generation.

Yet commercial fishing has led to drastic reductions in salmon populations—some species face endangerment.

Since a 1974 decision upheld the Indian's rights to harvest fish, the tribes and the Washington Department of Fisheries have collaborated to maintain a healthy population of Pacific salmon that will return to spawn in the Columbia River and east of the Cascade Mountains.

"Salmon is sacred to them not just as a matter of maximizing profit," Hunn told LiveScience. "To preserve a resource for the people of your community for the future without end imposes a different attitude toward the fish. Now, these attitudes have become more widely recognized."

Corey Binns lives in Northern California and writes about science, health, parenting, and social change. In addition to writing for Live Science, she's contributed to publications including Popular Science, TODAY.com, Scholastic, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review as well as others. She's also produced stories for NPR’s Science Friday and Sundance Channel. She studied biology at Brown University and earned a Master's degree in science journalism from NYU. The Association of Health Care Journalists named her a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Health Journalism Fellow in 2009. She has chased tornadoes and lived to tell the tale.