Losing tongues means losing medicine
The media frequently discuss the decline of languages purely in terms of numbers – many of us have probably heard the oft-quoted statistic that a language disappears every three months or the projection that 30% of the world’s languages will be extinct by now. the end of the 21st century.
Language extinction leads to loss of unique medical knowledge, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, asks to what extent indigenous knowledge about medicinal plants is associated with individual languages and quantifies to what extent indigenous knowledge may disappear as languages and plants disappear, and attempts to further contextualize this data, exploring the unique knowledge held in many indigenous languages of the world.
Specifically, the team of researchers at the Swiss University of Zurich observed the ways in which language decline can trigger the loss of medicinal and botanical knowledge specific to a given population of speakers.
“Unraveling the structure of indigenous knowledge about medical services has important implications for its resilience,” the paper reads. “Most indigenous cultures transmit knowledge orally. Therefore, if knowledge about medicines is widely shared among indigenous groups who speak different languages, the resilience of knowledge would be high.
By researching linguistic and botanical trends in three different regions with many endangered indigenous languages and significant biodiversity (North America, Amazonia, and Papua New Guinea), the researchers concluded that a significant degree of knowledge about medicinal plants is coded in only one language. alone. According to the researchers, most of the world’s knowledge on medicinal plants is unique to one language– between 73 and 91% for each of the three regions observed in the study.
While the plants themselves are generally not threatened, the languages that encode information and knowledge about their uses are under threat, meaning that these plants and their medicinal properties will be rendered useless. Researchers estimate that knowledge of nearly 12,500 medicinal plants will be lost as the world’s indigenous languages continue to decline.
“Our study suggests that each indigenous language provides unique information that may be complementary to other companies looking for potentially useful medicinal remedies,” the researchers conclude. “Therefore, the predicted extinction of up to 30% of indigenous languages by the end of the 21st century would seriously compromise humanity’s ability to make medicinal discoveries. “
Language extinction leads to loss of unique medical knowledge
Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, Jordi Bascompte
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences June 2021, 118 (24) e2103683118; DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.2103683118