Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Sun Aug 13 15:15:40 UTC 2006

Extinction of Languages Puts Plants and Animals at Risk

By Corey Binns
Special to LiveScience
posted: 11 August 2006
02:01 pm ET


The ears of linguists, anthropologists, and conservationists perked up
with the recent announcement that the federal government will continue
to support the digital documentation of languages on the brink of

More than half of the world's 7,000 languages are endangered[1]; many
face extinction in the next century.

Interestingly, the projects funded by the National Endowment for the
Humanities (NEH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) could save
more than just a few mother tongues. It might also protect plants and


When the nonprofit organization Terralingua mapped the distribution of
languages against a map of the world's biodiversity[3], it found that
the places with the highest concentration of plants and animals[4],
such as the Amazon Basin and the island of New Guinea, were also where
people spoke the most languages.

As well as serving as indicators of biodiversity, languages also act as
good signs of cultural diversity and a group's understanding of
surrounding environments, because people store communal knowledge in
their language.

"Wherever humans exist, they have established a strong relationship with
the land, and with the biodiversity that exists there," said
anthropologist and Terralingua President Luisa Maffi. "They have
developed a deep knowledge of the plants and animals, the local
ecology, as well as a knowledge about how to use and manage the
resources to ensure continued sustenance of biodiversity."

Languages hold valuable knowledge about how to preserve biodiversity.

Native languages have many names for plants that describe how and where
they grow, as well as their medicinal uses. But the meanings often do
not survive translation from one language to another.

"If you've learned something about a plant from a speaker of an
indigenous language, but you don't use the language, it's harder to
pass on that knowledge," said linguist Pamela Munro of UCLA.


As one example, members of the Native American group called the Sekani
practiced controlled burning of the forests of British Columbia to
regenerate the forest and keep the understory clear for game animals.
Their methods also kept the mountain pine beetle pest at bay.

A small pox epidemic decimated the indigenous people and the timber
industry took over the management of the forests, putting a stop to the
controlled burns.

Since the 1990's, without the regular burnings, the beetle's outbreak
has destroyed more than 7 million acres of forest.

"The forests have been made unusable because the native populations have
not been allowed to continue those practices," Maffi said. "Ultimately
their communities will have to disperse, which will lead to a loss of
cultural and linguistic diversity."


In Thailand, new protective measures are observing an age-old respect
for one of the world's largest freshwater fish by following ancient
fishing practices.

The Mekong giant catfish[5], called the "king of fish" in Cambodian, can
grow to more than 10 feet in length and has a regal history.

Cave paintings in Thailand dating back 3,500 years illustrate the Mekong
giant catfish's long-lived importance. Traditional fishermen in the
northeast of Thailand have historically believed that they should not
catch the fish. If they do, they hold a religious ceremony to ward off
bad luck, burning an image of the fish.

This summer, in celebration of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, fishermen
in Thailand and Laos took an oath to abide by these ancestral fishing
taboos to avoid fishing the critically endangered beast. The fish is
also legally protected in Cambodia.

By following tradition, the fishermen may save the catfish from being
the first extinct casualty in the Mekong River, a diverse habitat that
is home to more than 1,200 species.


Similarly, in Washington State, time-honored lessons are being heard.

Generations of the Tulalip and Yakima tribes and other Native American
groups have relied on Pacific salmon[6] as a key resource; they also
value the fish very highly and harvest with forethought.

"They treat salmon with respect so that the fish return every year,"
said ethnobiologist Eugene Hunn of the University of Washington.

The tribes hold annual salmon ceremonies to honor the fish. The first
catch of the season is celebrated with singing, dancing, and the
passing of salmon tales from generation to generation.

Yet commercial fishing has led to drastic reductions in salmon
populations—some species face endangerment.

Since a 1974 decision upheld the Indian's rights to harvest fish, the
tribes and the Washington Department of Fisheries have collaborated to
maintain a healthy population of Pacific salmon that will return to
spawn in the Columbia River and east of the Cascade Mountains.

"Salmon is sacred to them not just as a matter of maximizing profit,"
Hunn told LiveScience. "To preserve a resource for the people of your
community for the future without end imposes a different attitude
toward the fish. Now, these attitudes have become more widely

[2] http://www.livescience.com/animalworld/top10_species_success.html
[4] http://www.livescience.com/animalworld/060306_extinct_list.html
[5] http://www.livescience.com/animalworld/ap_050615_catfish.html
[6] http://www.livescience.com/animalworld/050414_salmon.html

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