Each time the world loses one of its tongues it may also be losing a unique insight into the structure of the human brain. David Charter reports
Waimiri-Atroari is a language used exclusively by 500 Amazonian Indians of the same family. It could be said to be fairly healthy compared with the 200 languages, mainly in Australasia and America, spoken by ten or fewer people. But Waimiri-Atroari is heading towards extinction, along with up to 95 per cent of the world's 6,000 languages.
The cultural attractions and economic advantages of learning Portuguese, the dominant language in Brazil, are drawing the younger generation away from their mother tongue, a pattern repeated among indigenous communities across the colonised world. Many of the native languages exist only in oral form, which gives added poignancy to the African saying: "When an old man dies, a library of books is burned down."
The tragedy of a lost language is immense, in personal as well as in academic terms. For anthropologists and historians it severs a link with a particular human heritage - much can be learned about the migration and culture of people by studying their language. For linguists it is another missed opportunity in their quest for a "universal grammar" - the abstract parameters thought to underlie all human languages.
And, as will be controversially suggested today at a Bristol University conference on linguistic diversity, what may also be lost is the chance for a unique insight into the structure of the human brain itself.
This view is not fashionable among linguists, but then Mark Pagel is not a linguist. He is an evolutionary theorist in Oxford's department of zoology. "There is evidence that suggests that the sounds you learn to recognise early as a baby actually alter your brain," says Pagel.
"For example, Japanese people do not recognise Rs or Ls - their brain just does not respond to that stimulus. Their brains are working differently from yours and mine." His experiments show that different nationalities register a different neurological response when articulating similar sounds.
Pagel admits he is to some extent resurrecting the theories of an earlier age. In the 1930s Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf advanced the theory that language determines an individual's "world view". The pair of linguists attempted to demonstrate this by examining the cultural behaviour of different language groups.
But the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is seen as a diversion by linguists such as Michael Krauss of Alaska University, who warned the recent American Association for Science conference in Atlanta of the undreamt of consequences of language loss. Krauss predicted just 300 languages would survive beyond the next 100 years. As well as knowledge being lost - the medicinal properties of native plant species, for example - this would mean the destruction of the diverse "eco-system" of human culture.
"Do we know what we are doing when we eliminate that diversity? We do not have the right to make that decision for posterity," says Krauss.
Groups working with indigenous peoples promote bilingualism as a key to preserving the mother tongue. This attitude is finally changing the deliberate policy of governments, the United States foremost among them, to educate children of all origins in the dominant language.
But while the bilingual strategy works with communities (such as in Wales) where there is a significant number operating discretely in their own language, it may only prolong the inevitable for more vulnerable groups.
Linguists are often frustrated to find that there is simply not the willingness to fight the ascendancy of invading cultures.
Andrew Woodfield, a reader in philosophy, is organising today's conference at Bristol on "Why we should care about languishing languages". He admits: "The 208 languages that have only ten speakers are definitely doomed because the speakers are aged and they have no-one to talk to. There is no possibility of the language continuing after another generation."
He adds: "What would it take to guarantee that a language with ten speakers continued to be spoken? It would take social engineering of the most ruthless kind.
"The children don't want to learn the language. They despise it in some cases. It is quite common for children to see old people's languages as square."
With little chance for education or employment in their native language, and the opportunity to function in a far wider world through acquiring English, French, Spanish or Portuguese, it is little wonder that younger generations shun their minority mother tongue.
Woodfield says: "You can see it would be better from a certain point of view if youngsters who are isolated from the dominant culture should be given the opportunity to access it if they want."
This tendency is all too clearly understood by the gurus of globalisation. Woodfield refers to a lecture given last year by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, in which Murdoch said: "Indian leaders have long been desperately worried about disunity in their vast, teeming, multilingual country. There has been an effort ever since independence to promote Hindi as a lingua franca, what in India is called the link language.
"But the effort has failed for a number of reasons. Until now. With the coming of the electronic mass media, Hindi is finally spreading because everyone wants to watch the best television programming. And I suspect we will see this story repeated throughout the developing world, not least in China with Mandarin. In which case, it will be not only prosperity that we will catch in our networks, but also order - and, ultimately, peace."
This is not reasoning which many linguists are prepared to accept.
"To heck with that argument," was the response of Kenneth Hale, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who also spoke on language diversity at the Atlanta conference. "The counter examples are numerous. In the civil war in this country there were English speakers on both sides and we see this all over the world." His view is that language loss seriously diminishes the avenues for human intellectual and artistic endeavour - reducing the range of material for the very global broadcast networks that promote the new monoculture. "The enormous wealth of intellectual products we have in the world, in science, in art, poetry, song and philosophy are because we have linguistic and cultural diversity," he says.
Linguists are constantly revising theories on the boundaries of discourse through examining different languages. Hale cites the case of the relative clause, where there are many languages that commonly place the object at the end ("I saw the man") or the beginning ("The man I saw"). But Navajo has the object inside the clause (I the man saw"). "That internally headed relative clause made us revise our notions about how relative clauses work," says Hale.
"When data come along that make you revise your theories, that is an advance. It is just one example of why linguistic diversity is so important."
But he does not think this means the brains of different people work differently. "People have a different way of classifying things but it does not mean they look at the phenomenon differently. The way they talk about it does not affect their way of thinking," says Hale. "You have to classify things, it is a practical matter. Australian kinship systems are very sophisticated analyses. They name different parts of the world in different ways, but it does not mean they think about the world differently. "If it were true, you would be trapped in one way of thinking. That's what education is all about - learning about other ways of thinking."
Pagel disagrees: "I do believe the culture and language in which we are brought up structures our mind. It is an unpopular view. But I regard the brain as like a muscle in the sense that the parts you use the most develop the most.
"If you bring up a Japanese baby in England, its brain will be structured just like any other English-speaking baby. My view is that the differences you learn to make among colours or smells or sounds influence the other kinds of perceptions you have."
Of course the great irony is that while the debate about the significance of language diversity has never been more intense, languages are disappearing at an alarming rate.
As Woodfield says: "What must a brain that can handle Waimiri-Atroari be like? What must all infant brains have in common, such that any child can acquire any language? It seems paradoxical, but it's true. By allowing languages to die out, the human race is destroying things it does not understand."
The seminar on the conservation of endangered languages takes place today at 9 Woodland Road, Bristol.