Readings on Linguistic Diversity and Biodiversity

On November 8th, 2017, the Global Language Justice Reading Group delved into the scholarly work of Suzanne Romaine. A linguistic anthropologist, Romaine has pioneered work establishing a link between biodiversity and linguistic diversity.  Indeed, in an essay entitled “Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas” (2012), Romaine argues precisely that: that all the most biologically diverse places on the planet are also the most linguistically diverse.  Unfortunately, the languages of these areas (mostly belonging to aboriginal and indigenous people groups) now face a plight much like the wildlife: they are quickly becoming extinct.  “Where Have All the Languages Gone?,” she asks in Vanishing Voices (2000), and why should we care?

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Romaine claims that the high correlation between biologically and linguistically diverse regions, while not causal, allows us to make some distinct claims about ecological/cultural precarity, resource management, and social justice.  In the aforementioned essay, Romaine clearly states that “certain cultural systems and practices, represented by speakers of particular indigenous and nonmigrant languages, tend to be compatible with high diversity” (8037).  Indeed, “indigenous economies and management practices essentially enable high biological diversity to persist,” such that some ways of life (represented by certain languages), are conducive to the planet’s ecosystems continuing to thrive, while others are not.  Romaine’s argument for linguistic preservation also claims that indigenous languages, much like the rainforests that their speakers may inhabit, could contain the key or clue that leads us to a groundbreaking scientific discovery.  Just as the cure for cancer could lie, currently undiscovered, in the Amazon, could not the key for understanding that cure – how it works and how it thrives – be lying in wait in an indigenous language?  If we allow all the endangered languages of the world – about 90% of them in the last count – to go extinct, we may never know.

Some questions, then, for the concerned reader: Can we conceive of any linguistic examples that make us treasure certain things more than others?  Does speaking a food-heavy language like Chinese, for instance, incline one more to nuances of taste?  Or does Japanese’s insistence on hierarchical formality attune its speakers more to group dynamics in social situations?  What insights or nuggets of wisdom do our languages hold, even if they are not ecological, that attune us to issues of precarity and mis-management?

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One could go even further to ask, of Romaine’s work: to what extent is linguistic precarity a matter of justice, something to which we can attach moral judgments and social values?  In Chapter 1 of Vanishing Voices, Romaine states that “every people has a right to their own language, to preserve it as a cultural resource and to transmit it to their children” (14).  What are the origins of these rights, and how can they be upheld?  Are they a human right like any other, or are they special in some way?  What way would that be?

For Romaine characterizes language as irreplaceable and unique: “While one technology may be substituted for another, this is not true of languages.  Each language has its own window on the world.”  She even describes language “as an activity, a system of communication between human beings” that “is not a self-sustaining entity.  It can only exist where there is a community to speak and transmit it” (5).  Language as activity emphasizes that it is something continually brought into being rather than an object with definable limits.  Language is thus as fragile as it is flexible, because it can only find fulfillment in thriving human communities; it is what Romaine calls a canary in a mineshaft, the first sign that an environment is in danger.  How do we talk about that important distinction, then, between a language and its speakers?  Can people even be called a linguistic community without their shared language, and can a language be defined or exist outside of the community that speaks it, if it does not exist objectively, as “a self-sustaining entity”?

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In the end, Romaine leaves us with many questions as to how this link between linguistic diversity and biodiversity can appeal to notions of social justice.  One could ask where this connection between biodiversity and cultural diversity collapses, and what are the long-term effects of using biodiversity as a corollary for advocating linguistic preservation.  Are there limitations in this logic of comparison, even as it allows us to access the language of exigency and activism?

Hopefully, the opportunity to answer this question will come later, rather than sooner, as diversity on both fronts narrows precipitously in the next few decades.

By L. Maria Bo, Graduate Research Fellow in Global Language Justice, Ph.D. Candidate in English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University.  The Reading Group on Global Language Justice meets monthly at Columbia University.


L. J. Gorenflo, Suzanne Romaine, Russell A. Mittermeier, and Kristen Walker-Painemilla. “Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas.” PNAS, 109:21, 2012, 8032-8037.

Nettle, Daniel and Suzanne Romaine. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. London: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Romaine, Suzanne. “Linguistic Diversity and Global English: The Pushmi-Pullyu of Language Policy and Political Economy.” Language Policy and Political Economy. London: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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