News: News Archives
Saving Endangered Languages
Of nearly 7,000 languages in the world, nearly half are in danger of dying out by century's end. If that happens, says linguist K. David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, an immense amount of knowledge about flora and fauna could be lost.
The Siberian Todzhu tribe has many different and complex names for reindeer, based on their place in the life cycle, Harrison said at a AAAS news briefing. Unless you've spent time among the Todzhu--a lot of time--you probably aren't aware that in the Todzhu tongue, the word chary means "2-year-old male, uncastrated, rideable reindeer."
"Information about local ecosystems is so intricately woven into these languages that it cannot be replaced simply through translation," reporter Gaia Vince of the NewScientist.com News Service wrote in an account of the briefing. "The indigenous taxonomy alone can provide a huge range of information about species, which young speakers in these tribes acquire instantly through learning the name."
Peter Calamai, writing for the Toronto Star, offered another example: "Recent research discovered that a butterfly in Costa Rica wasn't one species but 10 that looked identical. Yet the local Tzeltal people had already called the caterpillars by different names, because they attacked different crops.
In his story, Calamai quotes Harrison: "The knowledge that science thinks it is discovering about plants, animals and weather cycles has often been around for a long time. It is out there, it is fragile and it is rapidly eroding."
18 February 2007