Telegraph UK, May 15, 2008
The United States has declared the polar bear an endangered species. It remains to be seen whether this energises the Bush Administration's efforts to do anything about climate change.
It coincides with a reminder that it is not just species that are endangered. Many human languages, and the knowledge and strategies for survival contained in them, are too. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College in the United States, has mapped some of the world's "language hotspots" — like the biodiversity hotspots we are now familiar with.
Europe has none. Oklahoma has one with 37. Why Oklahoma? Because that is where a concentration of east coast Native American tribes were exiled.
Harrison's journey to record the last speakers of languages in Siberia, India and Bolivia is set out in a fascinating film, The Linguists, shown at the Sundance festival and at a private screening in London last week.
His view is that threatened languages contain knowledge unknown to science which is on the verge of being lost.
Solomon Islanders have many terms for schooling fish, the Musqueam people of British Columbia knew that cutthroat trout and steelhead (known as trout in English) should be grouped genetically with chum and pink salmon.
And the Inuit have 99 different words for sea ice formations (not snow, as we were brought up to believe), which indicate whether you can walk on them, whether they are any good for hunting seals and so on - words all in danger of disappearing with the ice.