Vanishing Worlds

John Tarleton May 16, 2008

The Garifuna struggle to maintain their communal lands and culture highlights one of the ironies of the era we live in. Cultural diversity is increasingly celebrated even as it is swiftly disappearing. One of the clearest measures of this is the disappearance of languages.

When Columbus arrived in 1492, there were as many as 1,500 to 2,000 languages spoken in the Western Hemisphere. Now there are no more than 500 or so.

The total number of languages in the world today is somewhere between 6,000 to 7,000, depending on who is counting. Many experts expect that figure to drop by half by 2100 — the equivalent of two to three languages going extinct every month for the rest of the century. Meanwhile, anthropologist Jarod Diamond predicts there will only be 200 languages (and the cultures they embody) left by 2100.

“Every one of those languages is the expression of a unique world-view,” Diamond says. “…Each language embodies the memory of hundreds of generations.”

The rapid loss of humanity’s linguistic and cultural diversity is increasingly being recognized as a crisis. Various university and non-profit groups like Cultural Survival, the Foundation for Endangered Languages and the National Endowment for the Humanities have launched efforts to preserve some of the world’s most vulnerable languages. Just like biologists might try to preserve a rare butterfly in a bottle, linguists are digitally archiving the words of the last elderly speakers of dying languages — like Euchee, Wampanoag, Piratapuyo, Saaroa and Kaw — in the hopes of reviving these languages in the future.

However, as the future of many other small, but still vibrant, cultures like the Garifuna hangs in the balance, perhaps there’s more to be done than carefully recording their demise. Somehow we need to slow down and reverse the capitalist juggernaut that is pushing so many unique cultures to the edge of extinction in the name of a one-sided “development” process that primarily serves the interests of corporate investors and their governmental sponsors.

For more information on Garifuna Culture and Music, see Ramor Ryan and Steven Wishnia‘s articles in this issue of The Indypendent

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