The Global Extinction of Languages Is Threatening a Vital Type of Human Knowledge

As human languages are driven to extinction around the world, a verbal encyclopedia of medical knowledge is on the brink of being forgotten.

Among 12,495 medicinal uses for plants in indigenous communities, new research has found over 75 percent of those plants are each tied to just one local language. If these unique words trickle out of use, so too may the knowledge they contain.

“Each indigenous language is therefore a unique reservoir of medicinal knowledge,” researchers write, “a Rosetta stone for unraveling and conserving nature’s contributions to people.” 

Language extinction is a tragic phenomenon that’s been occurring worldwide, as languages spoken by precious few people are replaced by larger ones. Roughly one language ceases to be spoken every four months, and 3,054 languages are currently endangered around the world.

New research on indigenous languages in North America, Papua New Guinea, and the northwest Amazon reveals just how much crucial information could be lost as this occurs. 

In fact, our collective knowledge of medicinal plants appears more threatened by the loss of indigenous voices than it is from environmental destruction.

Of all 3,597 medicinal plant species analyzed in the study, researchers found less than 5 percent are on the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Some of these plants have not undergone a proper conservation assessment, so further research is needed to figure out how they are actually faring. That said, current data and machine learning suggest very few species we are keeping a close eye on are at risk of dying out.

Instead, it is the knowledge surrounding these plants, passed from generation to generation for hundreds if not thousands of years, that is at risk of vanishing. The vast majority of plant species in the study were found to have medical properties described in just one indigenous language, many of which are themselves endangered.

In North America, for instance, the authors found waning indigenous languages held 86 percent of all unique knowledge on plant medicine. In the northwest Amazon, on the other hand, 100 percent of medicinal plant knowledge is restricted to languages on the edge of extinction. 

Read more: Science Alert

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