Areas in the world that have high levels of biodiversity also contain more linguistic and cultural diversity according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study showed that 70 % (4,824) of the worlds known languages occur in an area that is less than a quarter of the Earth’s land surface.
More than 4,000 languages in the world have fewer than 10,000 speakers and of those 2,804 are found in hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas, which are under threat by development and population growth. Within that total, 1,219 of the languages are considered threatened because they have fewer than 1,000 speakers.
Conducted by experts from Penn State University, Oxford University and Conservation International (CI), the researchers focused specifically on 35 biodiversity hotspots (regions characterized by a high number of endemic species [species unique to a given hotspot] and a loss of at least 70 percent of natural habitat) and five high biodiversity wilderness areas (areas with a high number of endemic species and low human impact).
“Showing this relationship between linguistic and cultural diversity and areas with rich biodiversity is a critical step in understanding the importance that conservation has to humanity,” said Larry Gorenflo, an associate professor at Penn State University and the lead author of the study. “When you take a step back and examine how closely they are related, you can also understand that the same strategies we use to protect biological diversity can likely also help preserve linguistic diversity. Given the level of threat in the Hotspots, we think that coordinated efforts to conserve both biological and linguistic diversity are essential and must be implemented as soon as possible.”
Hotspots with highest linguistic diversity were the East Melanesian Islands, the Guinean Forests of West Africa, Indo-Burma, Mesoamerica and Wallacea, each with more than 250 languages occurring. The New Guinea wilderness area had the highest linguistic diversity with 976 languages, all but four of which are endemic to a single region.
“The hotspots are where the action is,” said Conservation international President and coauthor Dr. Russell Mittermeier. “Between eighty and Ninety percent of the WORLD’S critically endangered and endangered terrestrial species are in hotspots, and more than eighty percent of all major violent conflicts since 1950 have been in the hotspots. They overlap the centers of origin and diversity of our most important crop species and remaining natural habitats in the hotspots provide essential ecosystem services for a high percentage of the poorest of the poor. Now we see that a high percentage of the world’s remaining languages and the cultures that speak them are also found in the hotspots. These biodiversity-rich areas are also of high priority for the preservation of these languages and cultures, a large number of which are endemic to these regions and spoken by less than 1,000 people.”
The study builds on research by co-author Suzanne Romaine, a linguist at Oxford University, predicting between 50-90% of known languages will have disappeared before the end of this century. In the hotspots, 1,553 of the languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and 544 of those have less than 1,000 speakers. The Wilderness areas have 1,251 languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers and 657 are spoken by less than 1,000 people.
“Small groups are particularly vulnerable to environmental pressures leading to both language loss and habitat destruction,” Romaine said. “The extinction of languages is part of the larger picture of worldwide near total ecosystem collapse."
“This paper reinforces the relationship between people and nature,” said co-author and CI vice president of Social Policy and Practice, Kristen Walker Painemilla. “The connection between linguistic, cultural and biodiversity is intrinsic and holistic approaches and participatory processes must be implemented to ensure and protect biocultural diversity for future generations.”
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