Island of Memory

Interactive map of global languages at

Interactive map of global languages at

When I was a teenager, I had the privilege of tagging along on an archeological dig on the California coast. The goal of the dig was to salvage parts of a coastal Miwok village in danger of disappearance due to cliff erosion. The village had been inhabited until the early years of the 20th century, but was completely abandoned. All manner of interesting objects turned up, including a few that were difficult to identify.

An elderly woman who had been born in the village was asked to stop by, and one evening we all sat around a large campfire with her while she helpfully explained what the inscrutable finds were. Simple things, once you knew their use. A smoothly notched pebble was a fishnet sinker, and so on.

She had words for each item that were carefully transcribed and recorded by the researchers – the number of people who spoke this woman’s language was diminishingly small, even 30 years ago. In any case, she no longer knew any living speakers since her brother had died many years earlier.

I don’t remember the woman’s name, but I do remember thinking how sad and strange it must be to have your language and the world it describes shrink until you yourself are a small island of memory that no one else can share.

Credit: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Credit: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

A language goes silent every two weeks, along with the culture that created it and which it sustained. With patterns similar to the loss of biodiversity, many languages are dwindling into extinction.

Of the approximately 7000 languages on the planet today, it is estimated that at least half will have disappeared by the end of this century. There are organizations and projects trying to record these languages for posterity.

When we lose a language, we lose a unique worldview.


National Geographic article – Vanishing Languages by Russ Rymer

National Geographic article – Save a Language, Save a Culture by Tim Brookes

Endangered Languages, a project by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity

Future Tense

Image: 123rf

Image: 123rf

The concept of linguistic relativity posits that the structure of the language we learn to speak affects the way we see the world in concrete terms. Studies have been carried out to see whether the manner in which a language describes color impacts a speaker’s cognitive perception of color.

A recent paper offers another approach by asking whether language influences future-oriented behavior. In M. Keith Chen’s The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets, Chen looks across a spectrum of 39 languages and classifies them according to how they mark the future tense. In some languages, French for example, using the future tense is obligatory when talking about tomorrow, while in others (German) the present tense can be used in reference to the future (‘Morgen regnet es’ translates literally as ‘It rains tomorrow.’). What difference does it make?

Well, Chen suggests that by describing the future as distinct from the present, it is perceived as distinct and not necessarily connected to present. On the other hand, describing the future in present tense terms leads to a cognitive perception of the future as a continuation of the present. According to Chen, seeing the future as something separate from the present might mean that future-oriented behavior – in the case of the study, Chen used economic markers such as savings rates, etc. – would be less predominate. Seeing the future as contiguous with the present would encourage actions that are future-oriented because they are directly connected to the now.

Chen then compared national listings across the World Values Survey with the languages spoken in those countries and did indeed find a correlation. He even found a correlation within multi-lingual countries such as Switzerland, which showed different behavior patterns across the French-German linguistic divide. The German-speaking Swiss save at more than twice the rate of their French-speaking countryfolk.

Just as we have found that a language and culture must contain the concepts of equality or democracy before even beginning to embark upon their implementation, what might an examination of this concept across conservation and environmental values yield? Is the way we deal with the world around us determined by the language we speak? If so, how can we effectively communicate across languages?