Humans speak more than 6,000 languages. Nearly all of them could be extinct in the next two centuries.
University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emeritus Michael Krauss addressed that question during his presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, which begins today in San Francisco.
"I claim that it is catastrophic for the future of mankind," Krauss said. "It should be as scary as losing 90 percent of the biological species."
The reasons are multiple, he said. From an ethical standpoint, all languages are of equal value, he said. But the value of a language goes far beyond academic discourse, Krauss said. Languages contain the intellectual wisdom of populations of people. They contain their observations of and adaptations to the world around them. Humanity became human in a complex system of languages that interacted with each other.
"That is somehow interdependent such that we lose sections of it at the same peril that we lose sections of the biosphere," Krauss said. "Every time we lose (a language), we lose that much also of our adaptability and our diversity that gives us our strength and our ability to survive."
Krauss is one of four researchers scheduled to speak during a session on the dynamics of extinction Friday, Feb. 16, 2007 at the AAAS meeting at the Hilton San Francisco. The cross-disciplinary session focuses broadly on the phenomenon of extinction, including factors that cause endangerment and extinction and interventions that can delay or end the extinction process.
Krauss has been affiliated with UAF for more than four decades. He is founder of UAF's Alaska Native Language Center and recently received the Ken Hale prize for lifetime achievement from the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas.
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