Language danger and geography

Two recent finds:

1. Weak signals of concern about the threat to Chinese from English are picked up on in the Telegraph. Anyone interested in the longer history of Chinese and its relationships with its neighbour languages should start with the chapter entitled ‘Triumphs of Fertility’ in Nicholas Ostler’s excellent Empires of the Word, but in brief China has always successfully held off major external influences on its language, through a combination of socio-political good luck and the difficulty of adapting its writing system. The widespread influence of a non-neighbour language with a dominant writing system (English, Roman script) may be felt to be changing the game a little.

2. UNESCO’s fascinating ‘heat map’ of endangered languages. Andrew has mentioned a link between language diversity and biodiversity on this blog before. Looking at the map for severely and critically endangered languages, there seems to be a fairly strong correlation between endangered languages and forestation. This correlation is less strong for extinct languages*, perhaps suggesting that the enclosure afforded by forestation is a mechanism for keeping languages alive. A cursory glance suggests topography might have a similar effect.

* It’s worth noting that counting extinct languages is harder than counting endangered ones, as it’s impossible to tell what proportion of extinctions has been noticed.


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