More use of the Ethnologue data...

There is a growing body of evidence that linguistic diversity and biological diversity are linked. A recent publication from Conservation International examines some of that evidence. The volume, authored by L. J. Gorenflo, Suzanne Romaine, Sara Musinsky, Mark Denil and Russell A. Mittermeier, is entitled Linguistic Diversity in High Biodiversity Regions and was published in 2014.  It examines the simultaneous patterns of mass extinction of plant and animal species (estimated to be 1,000 times higher than historic background rates) and the co-occurring massive loss of linguistic diversity with 50-90% of the world's languages predicted to be lost by the end of this century.

The authors of the volume propose that "...maintaining linguistic diversity is inextricably linked to the survival of thousands of small communities whose subsistence lifestyles are typically dependent on healthy ecosystems and access to land" (p.1). Further, the authors point out that the loss of the biodiversity on which those small societies depend inevitably affects their chances of survival.  Conversely, the loss of the knowledge that those communities have about the biodiversity adversely affects the maintenance of the survival of the flora and fauna as well. 

The research and analysis reported on in the volume uses the World Language Mapping System (WLMS), a joint product of SIL International and Global Mapping International, which provides geographic information systems (GIS) data linked to the Ethnologue language information.  All of the Ethnologue maps have been produced by SIL's cartographers using this technology. By overlaying GIS data showing levels of biodiversity on a map on GIS data showing the locations of the world's languages, helpful observations can be made about the relationships between biological and linguistic diversity. The authors comment that the dataset available through the WLMS is "remarkable both in its range and the detail it contains" (p.11).  They also say some nice things about the Ethnologue ("it still remains the best source of data on global languages" p. 10.)  That's good for us to hear and we are working hard to maintain that high standard.

The volume is replete with graphs, maps, and tables showing the intersection of these datasets. And, as is common with scientific studies, the results aren't entirely conclusive, but they are highly supportive of the general hypothesis that linguistic and biological diversity are linked.  What they found was "remarkable concordance between biological and linguistic diversity in regions of high biodiversity" (p. x).  In addition, many of the languages spoken in those high biodiversity regions, like the species that inhabit them, are unique to those regions. Many of those languages are spoken by small numbers of people, making them particularly vulnerable.  There are some exceptions, however, so we can't just flatly assert that high levels of biodiversity co-occur with high levels of linguistic diversity in every case.

There's a lot to look at and learn from this report. We're glad that the Ethnologue could contribute to the analysis.


Submitted by Mark Szymcik on Mon, 2015-05-18 18:31
I am really confused, Ethnologue claims the extinction rate of languages is high, but it also indicates that many languages, some of which were listed as extinct in previous editions as extinct are not extinct but merely dormant or being revived. How can the rate of language extinction be so high if so many are no longer "extinct"? The trend, according to Ethnologue, seems to be more languages are being saved, not vanishing.
Submitted by mplewis on Wed, 2015-05-20 15:23
Mark: You're question is a good one. I'm not at all trying to avoid answering you. In fact, I think the topic deserves a better treatment than I can give you here in the comments and replies. I'm going to make this the topic of the next Ethnoblog which will appear at the beginning of June. So stay tuned for that and if you still have comments or questions you can fire away at that point and we'll continue the discussion.