Linguistic Diversity Linked to Biodiversity

Interdisciplinary researchers report that areas with high biological diversity, such as biodiversity hot spots and high biodiversity wilderness areas, are also home to about 70 percent of the world’s languages. The report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, geographically links the endangered species to endangered languages.

“We looked at regions important for biodiversity conservation and measured their linguistic diversity in an effort to understand an important part of the human dimension of these regions,” said Professor Larry J. Gorenflo of Penn State University.

Hot spots, or regions with an exceptionally high number of species unique to that location and habitat loss of at least 70 percent, comprise 2.3 percent of the Earth’s surface and hold almost half of the world’s vascular plants and terrestrial vertebrate species as well as 3,202 languages, which are almost half of all the world’s languages. Many of these languages are unique to the area and are spoken by few people, leaving them vulnerable to extinction.

The researchers also examined five high biodiversity wilderness areas. These regions cover 6.1 percent of the Earth’s surface and hold 17 percent of plant species and 6 percent of terrestrial vertebrates. The high biodiversity wilderness areas are home to an astounding 1,622 languages.

“What ends up happening when we lose linguistic diversity is we lose a bunch of small groups with traditional economics,” explained Gorenflo. “Indigenous languages tend to be replaced by those associated with a modern industrial economy accompanied by other changes such as the introduction of chain saws. In terms of biodiversity conservation, all bets are off.”

The extinction of these languages would mean the loss of information about rare and fragile environment, as the people living in hot spots and high biodiversity wilderness areas are knowledgeable about the plant and animal life around them. The conservation and protection of these habitats depend greatly on the cultural and linguistic conservation of human inhabitants, while the survival of the people living in these regions depends greatly on the conservation of the environment.

“I think it argues for concerted conservation efforts that are integrated and try to maintain biodiversity and cultural diversity,” remarked Gorenflo.

The researchers do not know why endangered cultures and languages coincide with endangered species, but they hypothesize that the indigenous cultures and languages make wildlife and ecosystemic preservation possible. The researchers intend to continue their exploration of the relationship between biodiversity and linguistic-cultural diversity in hopes that their findings will lead to developing strategies for preserving both.