Skip to content

Languages falling silent: Diversity in biological and cultural context

Updated Wednesday 19th August 2009

Yoseph Araya takes a look at what we mean by biocultural diversity, and what we can do to preserve it

We often hear about the multitude of environmental challenges facing the world: be it water, energy and/or biodiversity crises. But it is not only the earth’s physical and biological resources that are at peril, but also cultural diversity.

Kaapse Klopse Carnival in Cape Town, South Africa. Behind the diversity of performers is Table Mountain, part of the Cape floristic Region (one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots). [image by Yoseph Araya © copyright Yoseph Araya] Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: by Yoseph Araya © copyright Yoseph Araya
Kaapse Klopse Carnival in Cape Town, South Africa. Behind the diversity of performers is Table Mountain, part of the Cape floristic Region (one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots).

Simply defined culture could mean the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. Cultural diversity is a driving force of development, not only in respect of economic growth, but also as a means of leading a more fulfilling intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual life. [UNESCO defintion]

The disappearance of cultural diversity can at times be even worse than that of other biological diversity. For example, Professor Sutherland in his paper, Parallel extinction risk and global distribution of languages and species, notes: "Over the past 500 years, about 4.5% of the total number of described languages have disappeared, compared with 1.3% of birds and 1.9% of mammals."

Often the factors that determine the diversity of life and culture are very much similar. For example forest cover, tropical climates, heterogeneous topography and prevalence of pathogens are known to be associated with higher cultural diversity.

This emphasises the need to address the world’s heritage of biological, cultural and linguistic diversity together - as biocultural diversity.

Why?

There are many compelling scientific reasons for conservation of biocultural diversity – some of which relate to ecosystem of goods and services vital for our very existence on earth.

Moreover, extinction is forever, as the epitaph at the death of the very last Hawaiian snail in captivity sombrely reminds:

Here lies Partulina turgida: 1.5 million years BC to January 1996”

Lastly, on a more personal level, the earth is a very complex and fascinating place to live in and appreciate. The loss of a species, or the loss of human language diminishes the beauty of the world simply by removing a little of that complexity).

What can be done?

We should combine resources from all walks of life and work together to save our biocultural diversity. There are many approaches that could be tried.

Bringing awareness, documenting and sharing diversity knowledge go a long way in alerting experts as well as the general public.

Another approach is to explore new ways of linking cultural and biological diversity conservation schemes. There is currently growing interest as such e.g. religious communities are increasingly being involved into conservation activities and activism.

See, for example, BBC News reports on Faith leaders urging climate curbs or Beyond Belief: Linking faith and conservation from the WWF.

Watch: International Union for Conservation of Nature: Live Culture - An expert speaks

Not least is getting involved when possible or otherwise supporting organizations working towards this aim. Some notable examples include Terralingua and Global Diversity Fund.

Last word:

The well-versed advertisement for Patek Philippe, the Swiss watch company goes: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation.”

Taking this analogue, it would be a great shame (if not a crime) to bequeath an impoverished earth to our future generations.

Find out more

Saving Britain’s Past: What's your heritage?

BBC News: In defence of 'lost' languages

Terralingua: Index of Biocultural Diversity

Ecological influences on human behavioural diversity: A review of recent findings
Daniel Nettle, writing in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 2009

Parallel extinction risk and global distribution of languages and species
W J Sutherland, writing in Nature 423

Introducing Environment
Alice Peasgood and Mark Goodwin, Open University/Oxford University

OpenLearn: Diversity and difference in communication - free learning materials from the Open University.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Past-Time Lover: Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Neil Arnold article icon

History & The Arts 

Past-Time Lover: Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof

This article is part of a collection produced for Valentine’s Day. Who would you select for your Valentine from these iconic figures from history? 

Article
History battles – How we remember the past Creative commons image Icon By Lin Kristensen from New Jersey, USA (Timeless Books) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

History battles – How we remember the past

How we teach history could be changing. Back to the bad old days, or could the 'voices from below' make themselves heard?

Article
Five missing kings and queens – and where we might find them Creative commons image Icon Lucas under CC-BY-2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Five missing kings and queens – and where we might find them

Think Richard III is the only medieval monarch whose body went missing? Here's a list speculating where other kings and queens may lie.

Article
The City Of The Past: The Earliest Cities Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU article icon

History & The Arts 

The City Of The Past: The Earliest Cities

David Barber explains how the first cities began.

Article
Winter in Oxford Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: indiekidsdontdance under CC-BY-NC-SA licence article icon

History & The Arts 

Winter in Oxford

Getting to grips with the power of the press - Charles made good use of his winter in Oxford

Article
A 19th century autopsy unmasks a poisoner Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: gokalpiscan article icon

History & The Arts 

A 19th century autopsy unmasks a poisoner

14 physicians gather at a graveside to untangle a tale of American settlers, poison, weak alibis, murder and suicide.

Article
The Partition of British India: Timeline Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain article icon

History & The Arts 

The Partition of British India: Timeline

Track the key events during British colonial rule leading to the emergence of the independent nation-states of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Article
Has London always attracted young Europeans to do its low-paid work? Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain article icon

History & The Arts 

Has London always attracted young Europeans to do its low-paid work?

Long before the EU - back before the outbreak of the First World War - young people from the continent were descending on London taking up poorly-paid roles in the hospitality industry. This extract from the Daily Mirror explains:

Article
What is the evidence that King Edward VIII was a Nazi sympathiser? Creative commons image Icon Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-17964 / Pahl, Georg / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

What is the evidence that King Edward VIII was a Nazi sympathiser?

Was Edward VIII a Nazi sympathiser? Damning evidence in the archives suggests he wanted England bombed to force an Anglo-German alliance?

Article