Speechless Diversity – Talking ‘bout the Evolution

He must have felt lonely. Very lonely, as he couldn’t talk to anybody. At least not in his native language. The New Guinean Lua had indeed only a single speaker in the whole wide world, as recorded in 2000. Also other residents of the island won’t have a big debate club. The language Bo is spoken by 85 people, Likum and Hoia Hoia by 80, Ak by 75, Karawa by 63, Abom by 15 and Guramalum has only three speakers. In contrast, New Guinea features around 1,000 languages, making it the world’s most linguistically diverse place, where it is not unlikely to be greeted with Hello, Tabeaya, Aelak, Koyao, Selamt, Kawonak, Nayak, Brata or Nareh. Being ennea-lingual certainly dwarfs growing up with two languages.
Around 7000 languages are counted globally. But why? Wouldn’t a single global language make life so much easier? It would at least have avoided famous translation mistakes like the fast food slogan ‘finger lickin’ good’, which came out in Chinese as ‘eat your fingers off’. Also the Dairy Association’s campaign ‘Got Milk?’ would certainly not have translated to: ‘Are You Lactating?’ in Mexico.

The Awiakay language of Papua New Guinea, Embedded from The Guardian Youtube Channel


Murmuring Mates

This would also not have happened to animals which communicate, but don’t formulate words. While Birds only have their songs, primates are a bit more sophisticated with vocalization, hand gestures and body language; however don’t have a spoken language. In contrast, our ability to express complex and infinite thoughts with spoken language is one of the ways we are separated from our primate counterparts by evolution.
And evolution has its funny ways: just take feathers. They were an adaptation to keep freezing birds warm, and were only later used for flying. Likewise, between 30,000 and 100,000 years ago language developed as a result of other evolutionary processes in the brain. Cognitive structures that were used for things like tool making or rule learning happened to be also good for complex communication, as linguist Noam Chomsky and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argue.
Nevertheless, language is not a mere, random byproduct of evolution. Think the turtle and its shell which is an evolutionary adaptation, making a population change over time to better survive. Survive for example a bird in its brand new, cozy feather dress, picking at the poor reptile. A shell-protected animal would be more likely to survive than its naked fellow, and the innovation of the shell passed on from generation to generation. That’s natural selection at work. According to the scientists Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, similarly, Homo sapiens benefited big time, when they began to communicate while hunting, farming and defending themselves: ‘Watch out Arrg, there is a huge saber-toothed tiger over there!’ This gave a distinct survival advantage over their mumbling, murmuring mates, helping language use to spread. Moreover, language helped with successful social interaction. It is hard to imagine using Facebook without any language.

Tree-climbing Kangaroos

This might explain one language but not 7000. To better understand this diversity let’s go back to the second largest Island of the planet: New Guinea is not only linguistically diverse, but also in terms of biological abundance, harboring for instance the tree-climbing kangaroos and more orchid species than found anywhere else in the world. As seen with the turtle and the birds, both language and biological diversity are products of evolution and have evolved in remarkably similar ways. As a result, biodiversity hotspots, such as tropical forests feature high linguistic diversity, whereas deserts for example have few languages. Higher biodiversity can support larger cultural diversity. Both diversities depend on the same environmental factors like temperature, rainfall or topography. When animal populations get isolated long enough from each other, for instance by a mountain range, they split in new, different species. If this happens to communities, they may form new, different languages.

Language diversity is traditionally preserved by indigenous peoples who passed down their knowledge orally from generation to generation. In this way 90% of the world’s languages are spoken by less than 100,000 people. These languages are key to maintain the encyclopedia of traditional indigenous knowledge, cultural identity, traditional heritage and customary laws. Such laws are for instance the base for systems of forest governance that in turn foster the sustainable use and protection of biodiversity.

Inundated Island, Lost Languages

Since biological, linguistic and cultural diversity are inseparable and mutually reinforcing, it is not surprising that they also share the same fate: A quarter of all languages are now threatened with extinction. Linguistic diversity is declining as fast as biodiversity – about 30% since 1970. Different to endangered plants and animals, languages do not usually go extinct because an entire population of speakers dies out. Instead, they are lost within a few generations, as the speakers of a minority, often indigenous language change to a more prevailing one. Be it names, uses, and preparation of medicines, farming methods, spiritual and religious beliefs and practices, or animal and plant species – their loss is irreplaceable and irreparable. At the end of the day, both diversities are fading due to human population growth, increasing consumption and economic globalization, shrinking the differences between parts of the world. When an indigenous language is lost, so too is traditional knowledge on how to maintain biological diversity and address environmental challenges, such as climate change.

Climate change, ironically, often affects indigenous peoples the most, as they are closely dependent on the environment and its resources. This aggravates the difficulties already faced by vulnerable indigenous communities, including human rights violations, discrimination, unemployment or political and economic marginalization: Be it water shortage from shrinking glaciers and snow cover in the Himalayas, droughts and fires in the Amazon region, or vegetation loss that impacts on traditional cattle and goat farming in Africa’s dry Kalahari Basin. Also Papua New Guinea is affected, like much of the Pacific region which is comprised of small island states, the traditional lands of many indigenous peoples. But the sea level rise on PNG’s low Carteret Islands made its 2,600 indigenous peoples the first official climate change refugees, just before their island is predicted to drown next year.

Clashing Cultures

Paradoxically, indigenous communities worldwide contribute little to greenhouse emissions themselves. On the contrary, they are vital to the resilience of many ecosystems they live in. Often indigenous peoples react to the impacts of climate change in creative ways, drawing on their traditional knowledge: Take floating, flood protected vegetable gardens In Bangladesh, planted mangrove storm protection in Vietnam, or wind and solar power on tribal lands in The Great Plains of the US. These valuable contributions by indigenous communities are more and more recognized, after centuries of clashing cultures. All too often, there was conflict between indigenous peoples and conservationists, who saw native people as a problem to be solved by eviction. One of the oldest examples was the conflict in Yosemite Valley, California which became a national park in 1914 with frequently violent expulsions of the Miwok Native Americans who had lived in the valley for already 4,000 years. A more recent, sad reminder was the bizarre scenes of indigenous peoples who, armed with bows and arrows, clashed with the police, near Rio’s Maracanã stadium just weeks before the World Cup in Brazil.

Virtual Villages

It was in Brazils Kari-Oca villages where the Indigenous Peoples Earth Charter was affirmed in 1992, uniting one voice against the exploitation of natural resources upon which indigenous peoples depend. It took another 15 years until the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September 2007, emphasizing the rights of indigenous peoples to ‘live in dignity, to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their self-determined development’. This year the second international Decade for Action and Dignity ends with the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, 9th of August. Its theme ‘Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honoring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements’, gives a vision of peace, friendship and cooperation, which is supported in the region for instance by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). Supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), ACB focuses on just and sustainable access and benefit sharing of Southeast Asia’s vibrant biodiversity.
Protecting this biodiversity goes hand in hand with maintaining the rich diversity in culture and language. Language rights for indigenous peoples can be a first step, ensuring the recognition in constitutions and laws, to be educated in one’s mother tongue and to establish and have access to media in indigenous languages.

A new kind of media is tested in the village of Erindiroukambe, in the Namibian Kalahari desert. 3D visualizations of the village on tablet computers are supposed to help residents embed their knowledge in a virtual village, stored for future generations. Kasper Rodil, at Aalborg University in Denmark, is currently developing a drawing app for the tablet ‘which imitates the way elders draw diagrams in the sand to explain what they mean’. Let’s see… Perhaps soon Facebook will be used in Bo, Likum, Hoia Hoia, Ak, Karawa, Abom and Guramalum.


First Published 09 Aug 2014 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror