Thursday, September 20, 2007

Language Extinction and Global Patterns

National Geographic online has posted an interesting (and depressing) article on language extinction, noting the presence of five global “hotspots” for the extinction of languages currently spoken by only small numbers of individuals. These hotspots are: the Northwest Coast of North America, Oklahoma, Central South America, Northeast Asia, and Northern Australia, which is also to say that Native American, Siberian, and Australian Aboriginal languages in particular are disappearing quickly at the present time. As the article discusses, this is a concern not just in terms of the loss of linguistic diversity, but also the loss of knowledge, e.g. of the natural environment, that was thoroughly embedded in each of these languages.

I’d simply note two things in terms of how these five hotspots reflect underlying global patterns. (These are likely obvious points for anyone who has thought much about culture globally, but worth remembering anyway.)

First, these instances don’t reflect just any random languages going extinct. Rather, they reflect particular sorts of interactional histories between quite different sorts of societies. Each is the end result of a few centuries interaction between societies (Native American, Siberian, Australian Aboriginal) with relatively low population densities and technologies that were less efficient for the specific purposes of armed conflict or intensive agricultural production (capable of supporting larger, dense populations) being faced with colonizers from much larger societies (European and Euro-American) with technologies that gave them a distinct edge in direct confrontation. (In the case of the Americas, especially, diseases brought along with Europeans were another major factor in the process of social disruption and linguistic disappearance.)

Second, the current hotspots of linguistic (and cultural) disappearance do not reflect a new phenomenon. They represent the tail end of a now centuries long process of social disruption, cultural loss, and cultural and linguistic assimilation. These hotspots represent remnant areas. What’s happening now in these areas already happened (often long ago) in other areas of the Americas with dense Euro-American settlement, in more densely populated Southern Australia, or in more westerly Siberian areas closer to the heartland of Russian culture.

Tragically, in all likelihood in the near future, very few Native American, Siberian, or Australian Aboriginal languages will remain. The ones that will remain will also not be random. They will in most cases be languages of cultural populations that had relatively high population numbers and densities prior to colonization (e.g. Mesoamerican or Andean languages and a few other North and South American languages), or populations settled in places where the effects of colonization have been particularly light on the ground.

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