According to a recent study, there is a close correlation between biological diversity and linguistic diversity. A biological hotspot is likely to be alinguistic hotspot. Put simply, there are more human languages where there are more species. “Of the 6,900 languages currently spoken on Earth,” the authors write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “more than 4,800 occur in regions containing high biodiversity.” The corollary? Most of those languages are threatened. Nearly 60 percent of the languages in high biodiversity regions, like Amazonia and the lowland forests of West Africa, are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people; more than 1,200 of those languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. Every language is a species, but most languages are also habitats, linked closely to the physical habitats in which they occur.
There’s something curious and unsettling in all of this. It seems odd to think that such a pure and somehow abstract extension of humanness as language itself (apart from mere vocabulary) is so niched, so profusely and divergently rooted in the natural world. A universally shared language seems like a universal good. But most languages spoken by small numbers of humans in regions of high biodiversity do not and will not survive extended contact with widely-spoken languages like English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. No matter how desirable it may seem, a universal language is a bulldozer with measles.
I think we inevitably underestimate the bond between biological complexity and cultural complexity.