The Inextricable Link

Since the dawn of human history, everywhere on earth people have interacted closely with the natural world as the source of all sustenance: the source of air, water, food, medicine, clothing, shelter, and all other material needs, as well as of physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Through this vital link to the environment, over time each human community around the world acquired detailed local knowledge of plants, animals, and ecological processes. Each community also developed cultural values and practices that stressed respect for and reciprocity with nature: caring for the natural environment that sustains us.

This wealth of traditional environmental knowledge, values, and practices has been expressed and transmitted through language.

Credit: Terralingua.

That’s how language, knowledge, and the environment are intimately, some say inextricably, interrelated: in each place, the local environment has sustained people; in turn, people have sustained the local environment through the traditional wisdom and behaviors embedded in their cultures and languages.

Today, that biocultural link remains strong among people who have maintained close material and spiritual ties with their environments, such as many Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

Indigenous Peoples and local communities have been the main stewards of the natural world. Wherever they have been able to hold on to their ancestral languages and cultural traditions and to retain control over their lands, they have tended to act as skilled and respectful custodians and protectors of the ecosystems in which they live and upon which they depend.

The future of the world’s biodiversity is thus tightly linked to the future of Indigenous Peoples and local communities and the diversity of their cultures and languages.

Linguists estimate that there are about 7,000 different languages spoken on earth today (by perhaps 5,000 or 6,000 distinct cultural groups). But the distribution of the world’s population across languages is uneven. Over half of the global population speaks one or other of only 25 languages, each of which has millions of speakers (and in some cases over a billion).

The rest of the global population is divided up between the remaining 6,975 languages, most of which are spoken by smaller (and sometimes very small) groups of people, mainly Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

That means that the bulk of our global linguistic (and cultural) diversity is represented by the diversity of Indigenous and local languages (and cultures), pertaining to a very large number of smaller human communities.

linguistic diversity
Credit: David Harmon and Jonathan Loh / Terralingua
biocultural diversity
Credit: Rick Stepp / Terralingua

Now compare the geographic distribution of the world’s biodiversity with that of the world’s languages (and, by implication, cultures). Maps produced by Terralingua showed for the very first time that there are strong correlations in the global patterns of distribution of the two diversities. Areas of high biodiversity also abound in linguistic diversity — that is, a high concentration of many different languages. In areas of lower biodiversity, there tend to be fewer, more broadly distributed languages.

These patterns can be interpreted as the reflection at the global level of the local interconnection of language, knowledge, and the environment: human communities, their languages, and their cultures adapting to their ecological niches.

Locally, you can’t think of people as separate from nature. Globally, you can’t think of the biosphere as separate from the total network of human languages and cultures. 

It’s our fundamental unity in biocultural diversity.