Half of the 6,000 or so languages spoken in the world are threatened and human knowledge could be lost along with them. The ?Atlas of the World?s Languages in Danger of Disappearing? says dominant languages such as English, French, Spanish, Russian and mainstream Chinese are drowning out minority tongues at an fast rate.
?The dying and disappearance of languages has been going on for thousands of years as a natural event in human society, but at a slow rate,? says the study, which was funded by the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO. ?However, the past 300 years or so have seen a dramatic increase in the death or disappearance of languages...leading to a situation today in which 3,000 or more languages that are still spoken are endangered, seriously endangered or dying.? The study pinpoints threatened languages in ?crisis areas? from ?potentially endangered? to ?extinct.?
?The loss of any one language means a contraction, reduction and impoverishment of the sum total of the reservoir of human thought and knowledge as expressible through language,? the study says. ?To give just a few examples, many highly effective medicinal plants are known only to people in traditional cultures...When their languages and cultures are lost, the knowledge about the plants and their healing properties is lost too.?
The study says the Americas and Australia have the worst record over the past 100 years, with hundreds of Aboriginal languages now extinct in Australia as a result of harsh assimilation policies that lasted until 1970. But it also lists 50 languages that are at risk in Europe, including the Celtic languages of Britain, several of the Saami or Lappish languages of Scandinavia and northern Russia and the varieties of Romani spoken by Gypsies.
In Asia, minority languages are endangered in many parts of China while in Africa, between 500 and 600 of the 1,400 or so local languages are on the decline, with 250 of those under immediate threat.
The Atlas gives several reasons for the disappearance of languages, ranging from repressive government policies and assimilation to economic pressures, migratory trends, disease and natural disasters.
Some rescue efforts have begun. In Japan, only eight elderly people on Hokkaido Island spoke Ainu by the late 1980s, but government policies have since revived the language.
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Meanwhile, scientists have found that primates have developed a language with similar speech patterns to humans. A study in the west African country of Ivory Coast found that monkeys have developed a large vocabulary and they use the same kind of vocal inflection as humans to distinguish between words.
Dr. Klaus Zuberbuhler, from St. Andrews? School of Psychology in Scotland, also found that monkeys use specific ?words? for different situations. He studied the Campbell?s monkey and the Diana monkey, both of which are under threat of extinction from poaching and deforestation, and monitored their responses to recordings of their own warning cries.
Both groups have special warning sounds for specific predators, such as leopards or crowned-hawk eagles. In potentially dangerous situations the males in each group produced a ?boom? noise before issuing an alarm call identifying a specific danger. The ?boom? noise indicated they sensed danger but were unsure of the identity of the attacker.
?Although the analogies to human language remain suggestive, the results show that monkeys can ... implement the same sentence structure rules that humans use,? Zuberbuhler says. ?The use of the ?boom? could be compared to man?s use of the word ?maybe.??
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