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A World of Languages

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As forests are cleared and species vanish, there’s one other loss: a world of languages

A new report shows a direct link between disappearing habitats and the loss of languages. One in four of the world’s 7,000 spoken tongues is now at risk of falling silent for ever as the threat to cultural biodiversity grows

A Nenets reindeer herdswoman in Russia’s Arctic region. Photograph: Staffan Widstrand/WWF (go to The Guardian and click on picture for graphic depicting global language loss)

Benny Wenda from the highlands of West Papua speaks only nine languages these days. In his village of Pyramid in the Baliem valley, he converses in Lani, the language of his tribe, as well as Dani, Yali, Mee and Walak. Elsewhere, he speaks Indonesian, Papua New Guinean Pidgin, coastal Bayak and English.

Wenda has known and forgotten other languages. Some are indigenous, spoken by his grandparents or just a few hundred people from neighbouring valleys; others are the languages of Indonesian colonists and global businesses. His words for “greeting” are, variously, Kawonak, Nayak, Nareh, Koyao, Aelak, Selamt, Brata, Tabeaya and Hello.

New Guinea has around 1,000 languages, but as the politics change and deforestation accelerates, the natural barriers that once allowed so many languages to develop there in isolation are broken down.

This is part of a process that has seen languages decline as biodiversity decreases. Researchers have established a correlation between changes in local environments – including the extinction of species – and the disappearance of languages spoken by communities who had inhabited them.

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“The forests are being cut down. Many languages are being lost. Migrants come and people leave to find work in the lowlands and cities. The Indonesian government stops us speaking our languages in schools,” says Wenda.

According to a report by researchers Jonathan Loh at the Zoological Society of London and David Harmon at the George Wright Society, the steep declines in both languages and nature mirror each other. One in four of the world’s 7,000 languages are now threatened with extinction, and linguistic diversity is declining as fast as biodiversity – about 30% since 1970, they say.

While around 21% of all mammals, 13% of birds, 15% of reptiles and 30% of amphibians are threatened, around 400 languages are thought to have become extinct in the same time.

New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world, is not just the world’s most linguistically diverse place, it is also one of the most biologically abundant, with tree-climbing kangaroos, birds of paradise, carnivorous mice, giant pigeons, rats bigger than domestic cats and more orchid species than any other place on the planet.

Today, both its wildlife and its languages are endangered. According to linguist and author Asya Pereltsvaig, the language of Bo is spoken by 85 people, Ak by 75 and Karawa by only 63. Likum and Hoia Hoia have around 80 speakers, and Abom just 15. Guramalum in New Ireland Province had at the last count only three speakers and Lua is almost certainly extinct, with a single speaker recorded in 2000.

Ironically, Lua is now the name of a successful computer programming language.

More than half of New Guinea’s and one in four of the world’s remaining languages are threatened, says Jonathan Loh. This compares with estimates that suggest a quarter of all mammals, a third of all sharks and rays and one in seven bird species are endangered.

Video: Go to The Guardian to see

“There are extraordinary parallels between linguistic diversity and biodiversity,” says Loh. “Both are products of evolution and have evolved in remarkably similar ways, and both are facing an extinction crisis.”

But exactly why there should be such a close link between languages and biological diversity is unclear, even though it was noticed by Darwin. “Places of high diversity, especially tropical forests, have always been known to have high linguistic diversity, whereas tundra and deserts have low diversity,” says Loh. “It is possible in some way that higher biodiversity is capable of supporting greater cultural diversity. The explanation seems to be that both biological and cultural diversity depend on the same environmental factors such as temperature and rainfall.”

Conservationists fear that the loss of species due to man’s activities is accelerating. And linguists say that the wealth of the world’s human languages is now safeguarded by very few indigenous peoples, most of whom live precarious lives in developing countries.

Of the 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, half now have fewer than 10,000 speakers, and these 3,500 languages are spoken by only 0.1% of the world’s population – equivalent to a city about the size of London. These eight million people are now responsible for keeping the wealth of human cultural history alive.

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Colombia’s Lost City:

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Lore of the jungle

High in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains is the Lost City, a site which has been dubbed ‘the new Machu Picchu’. But local tribes says the city was never ‘lost’ to them – though much about their lives is now at risk

The ‘Lost’ City of Teyuna, Colombia. Photograph: Minh Chau/minhchau.me. Click on the magnifying glass to see a larger image

I must have crept a hundred metres away from the track, pushing through thick jungle then finding a faint trail that led downhill towards the roar of the river. Everything was alive down here on the forest floor. A tiny bird with brilliant puffy white beard and red legs stood his ground, emitting a sound like a pneumatic hammer, but what I wanted to see I could only hear, chuntering away to itself up in the tree tops.

Camera in hand, I craned my neck to get a view. Clouds of tiny flies swarmed around me, but I resisted the urge to swat them away. At the back of my mind was a warning from Eduardo, our guide, about snakes. Something rustled behind me and I span around.

Standing there was a little old lady in a white smock. Her hair was long and very black. She gazed past me impassively, her face expressionless; her fingers were busily weaving some fibres that she’d pulled from the bushes. At her feet, which were bare, was a small grey pig, behind it a chicken and behind that, a sleek hunting dog which also avoided my eye. I tried my one word of the indigenous Kogi language: “Anchiga.” No reaction. When I’d heard the language spoken it had sounded like something learned from prairie eagles a hundred thousand years ago. In this spirit, I tried again. “Aancheega.”

Nothing.

I took my field book out. She showed interest. By chance it fell open at the hummingbirds, of which Colombia boasts a staggering 162 species, many of them bafflingly similar. The old lady, without hesitation, pointed out the selection that live around her home, the jungles of the Sierra Madre de Santa Marta.

I pointed up into the tree and began leafing through the pages. At the toucans she stopped me and tapped a gnarled fingertip on the keel-billed toucan, a magnificent jungle beast with a rainbow-coloured bill as long as my forearm. She took a couple of steps to the side and pointed up. I followed her gaze and there it was, high in the canopy, stroking its bill on a branch and sunning itself in the early morning rays.

Combia map

I took a few photographs then turned to show her the results, but the woman and her menagerie of followers had melted away into the forest. She had not said a single word to me.

I was on the trail that leads to Teyuna, a ruined city deep in the jungled mountains of the Sierra Nevada, a snow-capped range reaching up to 5,500m high that is visible from the palm-fringed beaches of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Word about Teyuna has been trickling out of Colombia ever since its rediscovery by treasure hunters in the 1970s, but problems with rebel militants and narco-traffickers discouraged any visits until the Colombian Army finally secured the area in about 2005.

By that time expectations were high: “The new Machu Picchu!” “The Lost City!” Increasing numbers of intrepid backpackers began to do the five-day trek with guides from the coastal town of Santa Marta and now it sees about 8,500 visitors a year. In 2011, a million people went to Machu Picchu.

For the most part, those 8,500 people get in and out without any interaction with the inhabitants of this emerald forest. There are thatched huts beside the trail, a few sombre faces peering around corners or from behind trees. Sometimes a woman, dressed in white and barefoot, will skip past, avoiding eye contact. On her back will be a child, staring mutely at the strangers. They never speak or smile, these long-haired ghosts.

Most guides are Colombian, which means they’re outsiders, and know no Kogi or Wiwa, the two languages of the tribes along the trail. They march their visitors, almost all from Europe or North America, quickly onward. The point is to reach the Lost City and then get back to the fleshpots on the coast.

I might have done the same had I not had the good fortune of finding Eduardo, a guide with mixed Wiwa and Kogi parentage, who speaks both languages, as well as Spanish. Together with his two brothers, Eduardo has resolved to do something about the stranglehold that outsiders have on the trekking through his own people’s land and has set up a guiding business. I was with Eduardo and another guide, Zalemaku, who is Kogi.

Zalemaku on the steps of ancient Teyune, Colombia. Photograph: Kevin Rushby for the Guardian

It was Zalemaku who found me at the foot of the tree, entranced by the toucans. We rejoined the trail and pressed onward, soon catching up with Eduardo and his two younger sisters, Anna and Lucia, who had come along to see the city for the first time. The old lady was there too, chatting in Kogi, and we had to have another good look through my bird book.

We had started two days before, and the first overnight stop had come after a stiff three-hour ascent from a village in the foothills where the land was a mix of grass and forest, mostly owned by non-tribal campesinos. The second day, however, had brought us higher and deeper into the forest.

We slept in hammocks in a tin-roofed shelter and swam in the crystal-clear Buritaca river, while giant iridescent blue butterflies flapped overhead. Early explorers had collected these wonderful creatures, killing them with the reverberations of shotgun fire, but the tribes, Zalemaku explained, would never do anything like that. “If we kill anything, the mamos tells us to pay compensation to the mountain.”

“What is a mamo?” I’d asked.

“Like a priest,” was his explanation.

I had just rejoined the group when Zalemaku spotted an old man up ahead. “That,” he said, “Is a mamo.”

The mamo, like all the locals, was taciturn at first, but once Eduardo started chatting to him in Kogi, he soon relaxed and became friendly. I asked him what his role was.

“We take care of the forest,” he said. “This is the place of our ancestors and there are many spiritual sites.”

What concerned him now? Did he like the fact that tourists come up to see the Lost City?

He corrected me: “For us it was never lost. We like the tourists coming if they want to understand our culture. What changed this place is that the colonialists took away the gold from Teyuna. That is why things are wrong.”

The robbing of Teyuna by conquistadors happened in 1578, but for the mamo it seemed like a recent event. “The city is the Mother of the world’s equilibrium. We want them to put the gold back.” This is the core of Kogi philosophy: the earth must be kept in balance. In a remarkable documentary made by the BBC in 1990 called The Heart of the World, Kogi mamos called on the world to listen to their warnings about the environment, about the fatal imbalance that rapacious consumption was causing.

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