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The colonising of culture and nature: losses in languages and biodiversity

What are the parallels between the loss of languages and the loss of biodiversity?

In We Haven’t Spoken For All Languages, Claire Bowern discusses the loss of languages around the world and the efforts to catalogue and ‘save’ these dying languages. The loss of languages is a concern as languages are the repository of so much more than just words, grammar and speech. As Bowern eloquently explains:

Language is a window into the brain and a window into culture. Studying the distribution of the world’s languages lets us look into prehistory and study human movement and contact. In many ways, the linguistic record is more complete and easier to access than the archeological record. But with the loss of languages, we are losing that opportunity to see into our past. For while a pot or piece of jewellery may be buried and later unearthed, once a language falls silent, it’s gone forever.

Cultures, societies, literature, religious beliefs even, are all intimately connected to the languages that gave rise to them. Losing a language means losing so much more than just words or names. It means the loss of vast swathes of knowledge, ways of understanding and interpreting the local environment, geography, and ultimately the world. The loss of languages is the loss of worlds.

What does the loss of languages have to do with the loss of biodiversity?

In so many ways the world is becoming smaller: humans have conquered the vast physical and cultural distances between societies and countries through curiosity, perseverance, ambition, innovation, learning, science, technology, and greed. Most, if not all, parts of the earth that humans inhabit have been mapped. The general geography is known, but not so all of the various and intricate local ecosystems and the biodiversity contained within them.

As explained in Rise of the planet of the homosapiens: the death sentence for other life, the consequence of humans colonising the earth is that countless species have been driven to the margins of existence. In a similar way, dominant cultures and nations have colonised and asserted their power and authority over other cultures and societies. Those who are colonised have often been driven to the margins of survival, as people, societies and cultures. Cultures and languages are being lost in a world that is becoming increasingly homogenised. Local cultural ‘ecosystems’ are being lost.

Neither biological nor cultural/linguistic ecosystems can be brought back after extinction. The nuances and context that form the intangible and crucial glue are impossible to recreate. Once lost, it is lost forever.




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