Changing Planet

Silent Plains … The Fading Sounds of Native Languages

‘All things must pass,’ sang George Harrison. With time, suns turn into ice, civilizations into dust, and species go extinct. And so ‘black dwarfs,’ ‘biodiversity loss,’ not to forget ‘Armageddon,’ have all become part of our daily alphabet.

Strange planet… though the risk of a 6th species extinction wave is quite real (see my previous post) and that of a future collision with a large asteroid not entirely negligible.


At the same time, native languages throughout the world are vanishing, fast (see the recent feature “Vanishing Voices” in National Geographic magazine and NG’s Enduring Voices project).

But that does not rate as headline news.  If the power of James Fennimore Cooper’s narrative still makes The Last of the Mohicans a most present, although rather erroneous (1) memory, who knows of the recent disappearance of dozens of languages, like Kanoe (Brazil), Iowa (central USA), Mangala (western Australia), or Kamassian (Siberia, Russia) – each replaced by the dominant tongue of their administrative rulers?

There are interesting parallels to draw, up to a point, between linguistic and biological diversity. On a world map, their hotspots are distributed in roughly comparable ways, owing to the same causes and effects: the  protection afforded by dense forests, habitat heterogeneity, forbidding mountain ranges, climate stability, the remoteness of ocean islands, etc.  No wonder then that Papua New Guinea, which combines all these attributes, would emerge as the top location for both species (8% of world total) and linguistic richness, with 830 living tongues (12% of world total). No wonder either that in the high mountains of the Caucasus – another biodiversity hotspot – one finds on a territory no larger than the Iberian peninsula as many as five distinct linguistic families, compared to only three for the whole of Europe.

But the similarities between biological and linguistic diversity end there, as other patterns have nothing in common.  Every ten years, on average, two species of mammals go extinct (a high rate spun by global environmental degradation) compared to … 250 languages that vanish in the same time span. This is not trivial, and it reminds us that the life and death cycle of human tongues has more to do with the historical extension of agriculture, emergence of centralized states, colonialism, cultural imperialism, and global communication networks than with Darwinian evolution.

Close to 7,000 distinct languages are still spoken today, more than half originating from just eight countries: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, China, Mexico, Cameroon, and Zaire. It is expected that by 2100 nearly half of today’s living tongues will have disappeared. If so, humanity will be considerably poorer. For each time a native language dies out, it is a distinct universe of mental constructs, with unique ecological wisdom acquired through millennia of direct contact with nature, which is lost. Gone is the refined Cheyenne technique of prairie management by fire in the dry mid-summers, almost gone the mysterious understanding of Namibian savanna animals by !Kung San hunters, and highly endangered the immense knowledge of the sea and its resources inherited by traditional fishing peoples from Oceania to the Arctic.

FB_Prairie burning-Catlin

Prairie Meadows Burning. Oil canvas by George Catlin, 1832. National American Art Museum.

Among the thousand languages that will soon vanish, some are incredibly original, ‘language isolates’ on their own, others incredibly complex. Consider the way in which we count cattle, fish, or stars.  By counting on their own fingers (and toes), humans have devised numerical systems with base 5, 10, or 20, which in turn shape how the world around us is expressed. For the Melpa, in the western New Guinea highlands, the word for ’10’ is ‘two-thumbs’ – our eight fingers augmented by two thumbs.

In Central America, the Maya for their part used a base-20 numerical system, the core of complex cycles in their astronomical calendar. This characteristic, together with the very rare VOS (Verb- Object – Subject) word sequence that survives in extant Maya tongues, proved essential to decipher the syllabic hieroglyphs that the pre-Columbian Maya left behind on stelae and temples in the dense Peten and Yucatan jungles.

The complexity, the very richness of a language is not immediately obvious. It is not even a function of the number of distinct words it contains. In so-called ‘polysynthetic languages’ (Caucasus, Himalaya, New Guinea mountains), the sophisticated addition of countless prefixes and suffixes will allow the speaker to express in just one word what would require a full sentence in English. One extreme example of that was related by Georges Dumezil, a French ethno-linguist who studied Ubykh in the 1930s (2). In this north-western Caucasian tongue one word sufficed to say: “If only you had not forced him to take once more all that I had prepared for them.”  One long word, only one, could express that.  I used the past tense as Ubykh died twenty years ago in October 1992, when its last elderly speaker passed away.

If a Museum of Extinct Languages did exist, Ubykh would be in good company. I lost count of the many spoken tongues that vanished during the last century but it must approach one thousand. Today some 600 native languages are just about to go extinct, each spoken by less than fifty elders and no longer transmitted to children.  The diagram below, composed on the basis of the latest available data (3), is cause for worry.


NB: the vertical axis represents the number of nearly extinct indigenous languages; the number in blue its relation (in percent) to the total number of native languages still spoken in same country.

The continental USA, distantly followed by Australia, hold the dubious distinction of having the highest number of vanishing endemic languages. The narrative thread is the same: in recent years, or decades, their First Nations have massively shifted to English.  A few tongues still resist, like Apache, Cherokee, Dakota, or Navajo, each with quite safe population levels above 15,000 speakers. But, as I write these lines, only one or two elders are left to speak Pawnee, Wichita, Osage, etc. Listen to these haunting words by Anita Edrezze, a (half) Yaqui Indian poet, lifted from a dusty issue of the National Geographic (4) that I kept through the years:  ‘All the dark birds, / but one, / rush from the river / leaving only the stillness / of their language.’

Will a few of the ‘major’ languages now spoken by millions and millions of people ultimately dominate and squash all others?  Only the future will tell.  But it would be an ironic twist of history if our world, in the end, resembles the gigantic Tower of Babel where – founding myths tell us – only one tongue prevailed.


(1)  J.F. Cooper used literary license, distorting the name of the Mahican people, an Algonquian tribe originally living in the Hudson Valley and now settled in Wisconsin. Mahican was spoken until the 1930s and is now extinct.

(2) Nicholas Evans. Dying Words. Endangered languages, what they tell us. Wiley, 2010

(3) This analysis is based on data extracted from the 2009 edition of Ethnologue – Languages of the World and the Atlas of the World’s Languages by Christopher Moseley, Routledge, 2007.

(4) National Geographic, October 1991. Special issue ‘1491 – America before Columbus’.


I lead the Mediterranean Science Commission [ - a network of 4000 marine scientists], which offers rare opportunities for action in a highly sensitive region of the globe. I was born in Paris, where I studied economics and oceanography. Thereafter I moved to the USA to complete a Ph.D. at the University of California. My early career focused on the dynamics of marine systems in the north Pacific, the north Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea. On the research side, I was fortunate to discover a series of ecosystem 'markers' and invariants in the architecture of food webs - now a full research sector of its own - which helped me publish a number of 'serious' scientific articles and books on the dynamics, conservation and management of complex ecological systems. Leaving North America I returned to Europe to oversee pluri-disciplinary programs in International Agencies (UNESCO, IUCN) before taking the lead of the Mediterranean Commission which federates 22 Member States. In this unstable corner of the world, I try to keep international marine programs alive (and well - if possible), and to bring researchers from all shores to work together under the CIESM banner - see our unique Monograph Series on Marine Sciences, now reaching 45 volumes: At the international policy level I am also quite busy promoting international Marine Peace Parks, and encouraging the United Nations to develop a reliable legal cover protecting all cetaceans on the High Sea. Long, tough but (I believe) essential battles. What now interests me the most is to connect tools & concepts from distant disciplines and distant regions in order to explore issues from an original angle (e.g., track historical shifts in art & science paradigms; or compare species vs linguistic diversity). Thank you for your interest.
  • Aimee Barry Broustra

    Thank you Mr. Briand for you article on the accelerated loss of native languages in America as well as the topical but limited link between biodiversity and linguistic diversity. My documentary film, “The Young Ancestors” explores these same issues but throughout the film there is a message of hope because there are young Native Americans who want to save their language and their culture. I invite interested parties to visit the film’s website in order to view the film’s two trailers. You may also see the growing conversation and concern about native language revitalization by liking the film’s Facebook page, The Young Ancestors.
    Aimee Barry Broustra

  • kastali

    all suns were registred

  • Manpreet Dhillon

    yes, quite true whatever you said. in the naga hills of eastern india and western burma there are specific dialects spoken only by one particular village, so infact each village has a unique language which has not even been documented yet. when you lose the language you lose the soul of the people.

  • Jason

    Only a privileged white guy, whose fluency in a widely spoken langue allows him to easily communicate with people across the globe, would bemoan other people giving up a langue only spoken by a handful of people in favor of one that allows them to greatly expand their own sphere of communication.

  • Dr. Amy Eisenberg

    From my Catawba friend in South Carolina:

    Tanake Amy,
    I usual go to the Headstart here on our Reservation on Fridays to teach counting, numbers, color,s and animal names to 4 classes. But because I knew it was Mother Language Day I went there today. I started out by asking them how many could count to 10 in English. Of course almost all hands go up. They are multi-ethnic children attending. I then ask how many of you can count to ten in Spanish.Over half of the hands go up.(Thank you, Dora the Explorer.) So I have them count to ten in Spanish. I tell them,
    ” you know I have been coming here for a while now, so how many of you can count to ten in Catawba”? All the hands go up and we precede to count to ten in Catawba. Once we do this I ask them did they know what it meant by the being able to count in! different languages. I told them that it meant they were tri-lingual counters. Meaning they could count in three different languages. Once I say that they all clap. Once they finish clapping I ask them did they know what that really, really, really meant by them being about to do that. And they all say nnnooo. (Real cute sounding and I grinning broadly at this.) I say that means you are all really, really, really smart. That’s when the whole class starts clapping and screaming proudly. Once things quite down, I continue with the Catawba portion of the class. Now here is where I swell with pride for them. One of the girls who has never took part in the class and shyly hangs down her heard when ask did she know what the word was for a color, animal or other words they were learning was the first one to shout out the answers. It made me swell up with pride even more and shocked her teach. ( still grinning broadly just telling you about it!)


  • Frederic Briand

    From New Mexico to Alaska, from India to Morocco native languages are endangered, This is not new. What is new is the unprecedented pace of the current extinction process which is hard to track as it happens in the rather insidious form of entire substitution by another language.- nowadays most often English.

    Of course it is important to have one (extra) language, spoken by many, at our disposal. How could I (a French scientist) discuss research results with, say a colleague in Japan or Korea otherwise? Thus having a lingua franca for global science is clearly an asset. But only as long as it is only an added layer, not a brand-new hard disk replacing the old one and all the culture that came along with it . Take the example of Catawba cited below. The bilingual kids are richer for that. But they would be immensely poorer if the price to pay for learning a new language was the loss of the tongue of their ancestors.

    The good news is that success stories do exist like the revival of Sami language in northern Norway, or the Kohanga Reo program which has done much to restore the Maori language in New Zealand for the past 20 years. But for those languages where only a couple of elderly speakers survive today I am afraid that the time is passed.

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