The media frequently discusses language decline in terms of numbers alone—many of us have likely heard the oft-cited statistic that one language goes extinct every three months or the projection that 30% of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of the 21st century.
Language extinction triggers the loss of unique medicinal knowledge, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, asks to what degree indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants is associated with individual languages and quantifies how much indigenous knowledge may vanish as languages and plants go extinct, and attempts to further contextualize this data, by exploring the unique knowledge held within many of the world’s Indigenous languages.
Specifically, the team of researchers from Switzerland’s University of Zurich observed the ways in which language decline can trigger the loss of medicinal and botanical knowledge unique to a given population of speakers.
“Unraveling the structure of indigenous knowledge about medicinal services has important implications for its resilience,” the paper reads. “Most indigenous cultures transmit knowledge orally. Therefore, if knowledge about medicines is shared widely among indigenous groups that speak different languages, knowledge resilience would be high.”
By researching linguistic and botanical trends across three different regions with many different endangered Indigenous languages and significant biodiversity (North America, the Amazon, and Papua New Guinea), the researchers concluded that a significant degree of knowledge surrounding medicinal plants is encoded in just one language alone. According to the researchers, most of the world’s knowledge on medicinal plants is unique to just one language—between 73 and 91% for each of the three regions observed in the study.
While the plants themselves are not typically endangered, the languages that encode information and knowledge about their uses are endangered, meaning that these plants and their medicinal properties will be rendered useless. The researchers estimate that knowledge about nearly 12,500 medicinal plants will be lost as the world’s Indigenous languages continue to decline in use.
“Our study suggests that each indigenous language brings unique insights that may be complementary to other societies that seek potentially useful medicinal remedies,” the researchers conclude. “Therefore, the predicted extinction of up to 30% of indigenous languages by the end of the 21st century would substantially compromise humanity’s capacity for medicinal discovery.”
Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, Jordi Bascompte
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jun 2021, 118 (24) e2103683118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2103683118