Yesterday I finished reading the amazing book The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison, which chronicles a Yale-educated linguist's travels to Siberia, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, and South America to study and try to record some of the world's most endangered languages.
The central theme of the book is the idea that language diversity is analogous to biodiversity -- that having a great many languages is a sign of a stable, healthy, rich "cultural ecosystem." His claim is that language becomes the lens through which a person sees, describes, and understands the world, and therefore when a language dies, that cultural knowledge is gone forever, because other languages could never encode the same knowledge as deeply and thoroughly.
As a language nerd (my own MA is in linguistics), it's subject I think a lot about. Current estimates are that there are 7,000 languages in daily use by native speakers (so excluding languages such as Latin, which are in daily use in schools but of which no one is a native speaker). A great many of these are in danger of extinction -- they are only spoken by a handful of people, mostly the elderly, and the children aren't being raised fluent. It is an eye-opening fact that 96% of the world's languages are spoken by 4% of the world's people, and the other 96% of the world's people speak the other 4% of the world's languages.
Run that one around in your head for a while.
Top of the list is Mandarin Chinese, the most widely-spoken language in the world. English, predictably, follows. Of the people who speak neither Mandarin nor English, a substantial fraction speak Spanish, Russian, Hindi, or some dialect of Arabic. Most of the rest of the world's languages? Inconsequential -- at least in numbers.
The open question is "should we care?" Harrison clearly does; his passion for protecting the world's languages comes through with every word. His view is echoed by Michael Krauss, professor emeritus of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, who has stated, "... it is catastrophic for the future of mankind. It should be as scary as losing 90% of the biological species."
Are they right? I will admit that their argument has its points; but it also is specious in the sense that most languages can encode the same knowledge somehow, and therefore when the last native speaker of Eyak dies, we won't have necessarily lost that culture's knowledge. We may have lost the ability to figure out how that knowledge was encoded -- as we have with the Linear A writing of Crete -- but that's not the same as losing the knowledge itself.
The comparison to biodiversity is also a bit of a false analogy. Languages don't form some kind of synergistic whole, as the species in an ecosystem do, where the loss of any one thread can cause the whole thing to come unraveled. In fact, you might argue the opposite -- that having lots of unique languages in an area (such as the hundreds of native languages in Australia) can actually prevent cultural communication and understanding. Species loss can destroy an ecosystem -- witness what's happening in the Amazonian rain forest. It's a little hard to imagine language loss as having those same kinds of effects on the cultural landscape of the world.
Still, I can't help wishing for the extinction to stop. It's just sad -- the fact that the numbers of native speakers of the beautiful Irish Gaelic and Breton languages are steadily decreasing, that there are languages (primarily in Australia and amongst the native languages of North and South America) for whom the last native speakers will die in the next five to ten years without ever having a linguist study, or even record, what it sounded like. I don't have a cogent argument from a utilitarian standpoint about why this is a bad thing. It's aesthetics, pure and simple -- languages are cool. The idea that English and Mandarin can swamp Twi and Yanomami is probably unavoidable, and it even follows the purely Dawkinsian concept of the competition between memes. But I don't have to like it, any more than I like the fact that my bird feeders are visited more often by starlings and house sparrows than by indigo buntings.