Guest post by David Stringer.
We live in a world filled with cultural and biological diversity, which is nowhere more vividly on display than in so-called language hotspots – parts of the planet with extremely rich variation in languages, which are also almost invariably places with extremely high biodiversity. Take, for example, the island of New Guinea. Over the course of 40-50,000 years of continuous human habitation, its peoples have developed about 1,000 languages, in 26 different language families. To have an idea of just how diverse this is, consider that English, Italian, Russian, Greek, Latin, Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit all belong to a single family, with a common ancestral language.
The dreams, poetry, songs, stories, myths, and religions of humanity are expressed through the diversity of the 7,000 languages spoken throughout the world. However, the future of this diversity is looking very bleak. According to linguists, one language disappears every two weeks. Over the next 50 years, nearly half of the world’s languages will vanish, and within 100 years, that figure is expected to grow to more than 90 percent. As most languages are still oral (not written) systems of knowledge, when elders can no longer pass on their language to new generations, a whole knowledge system vanishes. When the last speaker dies, it’s like a library of traditional knowledge going up in flames.
The ecosystems that support biocultural diversity are currently subject to unsustainable pressure, due to wholesale destruction of the natural environment and the pressures of globalization. To understand the current rate of ecosystem destruction in relatable terms, consider that the area of rainforest that is cut down every day is about the same size as 80,000 football fields. Actually, that’s still hard to imagine. Let’s try again: Every minute, an area the size of more than 55 football fields is destroyed. Every year, about 50,000 species disappear from the earth as the trees are cut down around them. And just as importantly, the human cultures that have lived in these places for thousands of years are also going up in whirls of smoke.
The IU Cinema three-part documentary series Biocultural Diversity: A Film Journey shines a light on efforts to stem the tide of mass extinction of languages and species, while simultaneously celebrating diversity in culture and nature. The Linguists is a hilarious and poignant chronicle of two scientists—David Harrison and Gregory Anderson—racing to document languages on the verge of extinction, in places such as Siberia, India, and Bolivia. The Shaman’s Apprentice is a vivid account of Mark Plotkin’s adventures in ethnobotany in the Amazon rainforest. Pulitzer-Prize winner E. O. Wilson gave a succinct review of this film: “Superb. Compelling. Definitive.” Finally, Baraka is a unique, beautiful, genre-breaking film that conveys a holistic vision of the beauty and fragility of biocultural diversity in images and music, without language. The late, great film critic Roger Ebert suggested that if we could send one film up in a space capsule to represent humanity, this could be it.
This series will be screened as part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Themester on Diversity / Difference / Otherness. Everyone should feel free to join in the viewing of this beautiful, thought-provoking series and to participate in the post-film discussions, which promise to be lively.
IU Cinema’s series Biocultural Diversity: A Film Journey begins on October 9 with The Linguists. Post-film discussions led by Professor David Stringer will follow each screening. This partnership is supported through IU Cinema’s Creative Collaborations program.
David Stringer is an Associate Professor of Second Language Studies at the College of Arts and Sciences, and an affiliate of the Integrated Program in the Environment. His research focuses on language acquisition, language attrition, and bilingualism.