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Author: Yoseph Araya

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

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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]
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.


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.


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