Diversity and extinction of tongues and species

Some years ago, at a rather posh function in a swanky London venue, I got talking to a peer of the realm. By this point I had been drinking my endless glass of wine for some time (they have stealthy waiters at these kinds of dos), and didn’t quite catch his name, but he had been, apparently, head of a large supermarket chain. And his response to me mentioning the word ‘biodiversity’ has stuck with me. “When I took over at M&S”, he said - or was it Morrisons, or maybe Sainsbury’s? - “I noticed that we stocked loads of different kinds of tomatoes. I said that we should just stock one kind, but make sure it was a fucking good tomato. I sometimes think the same about biodiversity: focus on just a few species, but make sure they are fucking good species.”

Well, an interesting take I suppose, and perhaps the logical outcome of a purely utilitarian approach to nature. But not, I submit, a view that would go down well with many conservation groups. No place in this world for God’s own prototypes, the weird and the rare never considered for mass production. No place for a grass-powered bear reluctant even to reproduce, or a fish content to spend its entire life in a tiny pool.

So anyway I filed away the anecdote, to be dusted off from time to time when the occasion arises. But I got to thinking about it again just recently, after reading the excellent Lingo: A language-spotter’s guide to Europe by Gaston Dorren. Over 60 brief chapters, this book provides pen portraits of dozens of European languages, from the behemoths of English, German, and French to tiddlers like Manx, Monegasque and Sorbian. It is full of fascinating nuggets, such as the plural for the Welsh word cwm being (naturally) nghymoedd. There are also examples of useful words that English might consider - the German Gönnen, for example, “the exact opposite of ‘to envy’: to be gladdened by someone else’s fortune.” Interesting that we happily adopted Schadenfreude but not this… Other favourites include the Dutch Uitwaaien, to relax by visiting a windy, chilly, rainy place; the Sorbian Swjatok for the enjoyable hours that follow the end of the working day; the wonderful Greek Krebatomourmoúra, “similar in meaning to ‘pillow talk’ but with a greater element of discord”; and the Slovene Vrtičkar, “strictly speaking no more than a hobby gardener with an allotment, but the word also suggests that the person is more interested in spending time with other vrtičkars than in growing vegetables and flowers.”

More than these fun pieces of trivia, however, the book gives a valuable overview of the languages and people of my home continent, including useful tips - tricks to identify written languages, a primer in the cyrillic alphabet - as well as a potted history of conquest and subjugation. But it is also a study of loss: of the extinction and near extinction (and, more positively, occasional resurrection) of our continent’s linguistic diversity.

The parallels with biological diversity are striking, and of course I am not the first to make them. Indeed this lovely paper by Tatsuya Amano and colleagues  actually presents a full macroecological analysis of the world’s 6909 languages, formally assessing extinction risk based on the same criteria that the IUCN use to assess species. They show that around a quarter of all languages are threatened based on a small ‘range’ or population sizes (spoken in an area of less than 20 square kilometres, or by fewer than 1000 people), or an alarming rate of decline. Their maps showing hotspots of diversity and threats, and their analyses of drivers of change, also have a familiar look to those of us more used to examining spatial patterns in biodiversity.

Of course this seems sad, just as the loss of diversity within languages is also troubling, as we lose the ability to express uniqueness of place and of our connection with the landscape. But the thing with language is that it is so personal - especially for me, now, watching my kids go through the endlessly fascinating process of acquiring it. And so whereas I unequivocally want to prevent the extinction of species, as far as languages go - well, a little part of me agrees with the good Lord above. Diversity is great in theory, but in practice…? Basically, I want my kids to learn a fucking good language.

Happily, at this point in time, I have no conflict to resolve: English, for better or worse, is just such a language. But what if I’d got that job in north Wales a few years back? Not only might I have had to contend with the frankly unthinkable proposition of children on mine shouting for Wales in the Six Nations, what about the possibilities for mischief opened up by kids speaking a language I can’t understand? And while bilingualism has many advantages, wouldn’t it be kinder to your kids to have them fill the ‘second language’ part of their brain with something more ‘useful’? Spanish or Mandarin or something else that opens up new parts of the world to them?

No doubt this attitude arises in part from my monoglot culture, beautifully captured in the Eddie Izzard quote with which Dorren begins his book, “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed! Good Lord, man, you’re asking the impossible!” On the contrary, learning two, three, four languages seems perfectly possible in many parts of the world. But for those seriously threatened languages, well, keeping them alive - truly alive, not simply remembered - means that some people’s children have to learn them. And I can’t help wondering: is that really fair?