Scattered across the Earth, there are biodiversity hotspots – areas where Mother Nature flaunts her outrageous imagination like a peacock flaunts its magnificent tail. These places are hotbeds of evolution – not just for biological species, it turns out, but for languages too.
We’ve had an inkling of this language-species affair for a while. But it’s only in the last decade or so that we’ve quantified this connection.
Researchers collated information on where species live, and then mapped this against where languages are spoken. Using statistics, they found that high biodiversity does indeed correlate with high linguistic diversity.
They churned out some numbers for us to get a deeper sense of this link:
- There are 35 biodiversity hotspots and five high biodiversity wilderness areas on Planet Earth – places like Amazonia, the island of New Guinea and the forests of Central Africa
- These hotspots are home to 67% of all plants and 50% of all vertebrate animals (that’s A LOT)
- They’re also home to 70% of the 6,900 languages spoken on Earth (whoa)
- They used to cover around a quarter of all land on Earth – but this has dwindled down to just 8% (crap…)
Here are those numbers again, in visual form, if that’s more your thang:
Why should language richness and species diversity mirror each other like this?
But let’s dig a lil deeper. What’s going on here?
Generally, tropical regions are both more biodiverse and linguistically diverse than desert and tundra areas. Perhaps, both types of diversity depend on similar environmental factors – like temperature and rainfall.
One possibility is that the abundance of natural resources in tropical environments reduces the need for groups to share and communicate with one another. So they don’t need a common language and the local lingos diversify as a result.
Maybe landscape barriers prevent communities from interacting and so different languages develop. After all, if a rugged mountain range separates you and your neighbours, you’re unlikely to pop over to say hello that often. Similarly, it is well-understood in biology that topographic barriers enable the evolution of species richness (this is a discipline called insular biogeography).
It’s also possible that biodiversity sustains cultural diversity in a symbiotic relationship – the richness of one supports the other, and vice versa.
One kinda crazy-cool idea is that biodiversity provides a greater range of natural reservoirs for our imagination. We draw on our surrounding environment to construct metaphors that form the basis of our language. This enables different languages based on different metaphor-concepts to evolve. Language is infused with nature. Our culture is not purely a product of who we are – it’s also deeply rooted in our physical environment.
In turn, the metaphors used by many Indigenous cultures in biodiverse regions remind people that they cannot exploit their natural resources carelessly and endlessly. This allows high biodiversity to persist. What a beautiful cycle!
“For the forest people, nature is defended by culture. Many rules concerning hunting and the non-exploitative use of resources – blunt ecological truths – are encoded in myths and magic, tales and enchantments that make up a society’s culture.”
-Jay Griffiths, writer
It’s not simple…
It’s probably not just one of these explanations, but rather, some combination of them.
Take, for example, the rugged tropical jungles of New Guinea – home to a vast array of species, from birds of paradise to tree kangaroos. This island is also the habitat for nearly 1,000 distinct languages.
Researchers zoomed in on this mother-tongue-menagerie to examine the language-species connection on a finer scale. Like previous global studies, they found a link. But the strength of this relationship depended on the scale you chose – the closer you zoomed in, the weaker the correlation.
This suggests that the link is multi-faceted – a complex brew of sociocultural and biogeographical factors.
In the case of New Guinea, the authors noted that the isolated, rugged highlands supported high biodiversity but low linguistic diversity, while the coastal lowlands were the opposite.
They suggested that lower malaria incidence in the inland regions allowed larger societies to form and language to diffuse among them. Meanwhile, elevated biodiversity was a result of the harsh terrain.
Madagascar is another interesting example. Its geographic isolation means it has a large proportion of endemic species (like lemurs and frogs). However it was only settled by humans around 2,000 years ago, meaning languages haven’t had much time to diversify.
What this means for conservation
There are sad but thought-provoking parallels between species extinction and language loss. They are driven by similar phenomena: expanding human population, migration and globalisation. Some researchers have suggested that linguistic and biological conservationists should team up for even greater impact.
But the New Guinea study suggested that on a local level, threatened species and endangered languages do not necessarily overlap.
Nonetheless, conserving cultures is integral to saving nature. Indigenous people look after the land and so provide all of us with essential ecosystem services – clean air, pollination and fresh water. Their participation in conservation is vital – diversity ensures the future of humanity.
“When wild lands are lost, so is metaphor, allusion and the poetry that arises in the interplay of mind and nature.”
-Jay Griffiths, writer
If you’re interested in Indigenous cultures, nature and language, I highly recommend the book Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths.