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  • The Tree of Meaning and the Work of Ecological Linguistics
  • Robert Bringhurst (bio)

This lecture was given at the Conference on Environmental Ethics, Yukon College, hitehorse, 19 July 2001.


When the European invasion of the Americas began, there were about sixty languages being spoken in the territory now known as Canada, another sixteen, more or less, in Alaska, and at least two hundred twenty in what are now the forty-eight contiguous states of the U.S.A. Some of these straddle the borders, of course. I count a total of about two hundred eighty in North America north of the Rio Grande. There were another two hundred or more from the Rio Grande to the Isthmus of Panama. About five hundred, you could say, in North America as a whole. More than that—perhaps in the vicinity of seven hundred—were spoken in South America. That’s a total of twelve hundred or so in the Americas, out of six thousand or more in the world as a whole.

Other things being equal—which of course they never are—it is probably true that language density increases as biomass increases. In practice, languages go where speakers go, and speakers go, when they can, where the living is good. They also go where migration routes allow them to go, and in difficult times, they go where refugees are suffered to exist. So there are some interesting pockets of aboriginal language density on the map of North America. California was a magnet for immigrants in precolonial times, the same as it is now, and in the year 1500 it had more human languages per unit of land than anywhere else north of Oaxaca. This pattern held right up the coast, to the southern tip of Alaska. The West Coast of North America, not the East Coast, was the most densely peopled region before the Europeans arrived. As an old migration corridor, the West Coast acquired more languages per unit of population as well as more humans per unit of land. And the languages that lived on the West Coast [End Page 49] were more varied—they represented a much wider taxonomic range— than on the East Coast or elsewhere on the continent.

It’s wrong, of course, to speak about these things in the past tense, but present tense is not entirely right either. Of about three hundred languages formerly spoken in all the native nations gobbled up by the U.S.A. and Canada, about one hundred seventy still survive. That is a little over half. But most of those surviving languages have fewer than five percent of the number of speakers they used to have. Most of those languages are eroding, simplifying, losing the rich vocabularies and grammars they had acquired over centuries of relatively peaceful maturation, and the odds are very good that most of these languages will vanish in your lifetime.

A lot of effort is going into language revival and language maintenance nowadays—very important effort, which needs all the support and all the encouragement it can get. But languages, like all living things, have to live within environments, to which they must adapt. A language that only survives in the classroom, like a plant that only survives in a flowerpot, or an animal that only survives in the laboratory or the zoo, is a different thing— and in some respects a lesser thing—than one that survives in the wild.

For a language, life “in the wild” means life as a functioning part of a cultural ecosystem, where chatter, laughter, conversations, stories, songs, and dreams are as continuous as breathing. It means the luxury of being taken for granted, in the same way that a tree is taken for granted by the birds that perch in its branches, by the earth, water, light, and air it grows in, and by the beetles, lichens, and mosses growing upon it.

Life in the wild, for a language as for any living entity—animal, plant, fungus, protozoan, or bacterium—means a dependable and nourishing interconnection with the rest of life on the planet. It means a place in the food chain. It means a sustaining, sustainable habitat...