LINGUIST List 11.100

Wed Jan 19 2000

Disc: Species Extinctions vs Language Extinctions

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Paul Klawinski, Species Extinctions vs Language Extinctions

Message 1: Species Extinctions vs Language Extinctions

Date: Sat, 15 Jan 2000 18:09:35 -0500
From: Paul Klawinski <>
Subject: Species Extinctions vs Language Extinctions

To all,

I am an ecologist who is married to a sociolinguist (with an interest in
endangered languages) so we talk about linguistics and ecology. While at
dinner the other evening, we spoke with some of my colleagues about the
parallels between species and language and culture. What follows are a few
propositions and questions that you might (or might not) like to comment on.

P1: Biological Species (BS) and Cultures/Languages (CL) are going extinct
at an alarming rate and this is a relatively recent phenomenon (compared to
the age of the earth, the age of living organisms in general or the age of
the human species specifically).

Q1: This caused us to to ask the question, "Do changes in culture and
language drive changes in ecosystems which then facillitate biological

P2: Our proposition was that, since most BS extinction is caused by
alteration, fragmentation or loss of habitat, cultural changes which lead to
changes in historical land use, agriculture, hunting/gathering, etc., will
necessarily lead to changes in habitat and thus BS extinction.

Q2: This caused us to ask the question, "What characteristics about BSs
prevent them from keeping pace with CL change," or stated another way,
"Does CL change faster than biological/evolutionary change and, if so, why?"

P3: Our answer: The dissemination of CL is contrained by technology
(transportation, communication, science and medicine, add your own) while
biological change is constrained by the biochemistry of mutation and the
contraints of generation times. Evidence for this can be seen by the
cultural changes brought about by the push of European exploration, the rise
of mechanization during the Industrial evolution and most recently the
increased globalization brought about by the "Information Age".

P4: We proposed that these are the changes which have led to increases in
the rate of loss of linguistic and cultural diversity that, in turn, drove
changes in land use which led to BS extinction.

P5: We also propose that if BSs were unconstrained, as humans are to a
large extent, then we would not see the rates of BS extinction that are the
cause of such concern.

P6: Therefore, we propose a model by which CL is uncontrained by its
methods of dissemination which leads to rapid and widespread changes in
indigenous cultures. This results in threats to cultural and linguistic
diversity and ultimately species diversity through alterations in land use,
resource utilization, populations sizes, etc.


Are the causes of the loss of cultural and linguistic diversity indirectly
the causes of the loss of biological species diversity?

What types of data are in existence (or could be gathered) to support (or
reject) this hypothesis?

Are the interests of linguists concerned with cultural and linguistic
extinction tied to the interests of conservation biologists more tightly or
less tightly than we might like to think?

And if so, what types of interactions among the two groups would be
productive in addressing these issues?

This is my first contact with the linguists list so I hope that you will be
patient with the thoughts of an outsider.

I hope to hear from you soon.

- -------------------------------------------------------------
Paul Klawinski, Ph.D.

El Verde Field Station
Institute for Tropical Ecosystem Studies
P.O. Box 1690
Luquillo, Puerto Rico 00773

Ph: 787.380.3220; 787.887.6026

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue