Wade Davis on Language Extinction

I admit to not being the strongest advocate of linguistic rights in education. In Hong Kong, for instance, I’m a strong advocate of removing Cantonese as the medium of instruction in schools in favor of Putonghua and English. It’s not lost on me that those happen to be two languages I speak. I think Putonghua as a language of instruction in urban and ethnic Han China is an absolute necessity. But in these places, local dialects are still going strong. Children in Guangzhou learn and use Putonghua in the classroom but I can’t imagine the Cantonese language in crises in even my grandchildren’s lifetime.

But it’s not always like that, as most languages are in a grave crises. We’re in an age of biocultural diversity loss through extinction. In the mountains of Tibetan Sichuan I was horrified to see a language die in front of me. In the villages surrounding Danba (map, my photos) I learned only monks could read Tibetan writing, only adults could speak the local Tibetan dialects, no one could understand the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan, and children would listen to their parents speak their local dialects but responded in Putonghua. The NGO I was working with wouldn’t, and couldn’t, touch that issue with a mile-long pole. The village we were in was “safe”, with  the houses we visited with the most extreme propagandistic posters I’ve ever seen in China. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing a painting of Hu Jintao riding on a white horse. Less than 150 miles away monks are setting themselves on fire in protest of the culturecide happening around them.

I recently finished Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. He makes an extremely strong case for linguistic diversity:

No biologist, for example, would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity.

The key indicator, the canary in the coal mine if you will, is language loss. A language, of course, is not merely a set of grammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a water- shed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.

Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Effectively, unless something changes, they will disappear within our lifetimes. Half of the languages of the world are teetering on the brink of extinction. Just think about it. What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of your ancestors or antici- pate the promise of your descendants. This tragic fate is indeed the plight of someone somewhere on earth roughly every two weeks. On average, every fortnight an elder dies and carries with him or her into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. What this really means is that within a generation or two, we will be witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy. This is the hidden back- drop of our age. 

I’m reminded of Stephen Meyer’s thesis in The End of the Wild. Like the biodiversity loss around us, most of these languages and cultures around us are going to die. And quite similarly, it’s not the case that there’s nothing we can do about it, but rather there’s nothing we will do about it. The task of ahead, I think, is a managed fall – choosing to keep as many languages as possible as “ghost” or “relic” species. On the margins and far from vibrant, for sure, but still around. We need to be able to identify the “weedy” language species that are filling in the cultural gaps left in the wake of diversity collapse. These are the Englishes, the Tagalog’s, the Putonghua’s, Spanish, and even the Cantonese’s of the world. It’s easy to forget how many Chaozhou migrants left their language and customs at the border when they came to Hong Kong in masse two generations ago. Or today when move come to Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

Watch an interview with Wade Davis here:


  1. Pat said:

    Dear Comparativist,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading through your posts so far but I am interested to know why you are so fervently advocating for putonghua as the language of instruction in Hong Kong. I am a long-term resident of HK/Guangzhou myself (originally from Germany) and apart from me enjoying listening to cantonese more than to putonghua (it’s more melodic) one of the reasons why the press in Guangdong is a tiny bit more free in voicing their opinions than elsewhere in China (other than Beijing being far away) is that censors in Beijing themselves cannot understand everything that people here say; not just because cantonese is a different language rather than just a dialect, but also because as a different language different words/characters can carry different meanings. I can see why the British have never really introduced putonghua in Hong Kong (divide at impera) but I think the logic itself still holds today. As mainlanders are called “locust” by HKers recently I think it is important for them to at least have the feeling that Beijing is not overtaking completely (yet). And this is not far from reality, as rather than opening up the mainland (metaphorically speaking), Beijing is softly and slowly trying to change HK – quite successfully so given the fact that HK residents speaking out against Beijing are refused to enter into China (one of the reasons why Albert Ho, one of the contenders for chief executive, stood no chance of winning – he was not allowed to enter the people’s republic) or at the very least appear in some black list that makes it hard for them to pursue any business in the mainland.

    May 10, 2012
    • Trey said:

      A lot of it comes down to me having learned Putonghua and really hate that I’m expected to learn a dialect in HK. It wouldn’t and shouldn’t happen in any other Chinese city. I don’t look at Putonghua as an imperial edict so much as a commercial and cultural necessity – Cantonese is just one of ten major Chinese language families, each with a dozen variants. All the points you raise about Cantonese keeping Putonghua speakers out goes both ways. How much are Hong Kong citizens able to impact conversations with the other 99.9% of the country if they can’t understand the language?

      My argument was that I think we can afford to prioritize Putonghua because it’s not going anywhere. It’s not a threatened language. I’m absolutely confident that 150 years from now Cantonese will be as vibrant in Hong Kong as it is in Guangzhou today.

      May 10, 2012

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