Jamie's Blog

Friday, May 04, 2007

Knowledge lost in dead languages

NewScientist has an interesting article about the loss of information in dead and dying languages. Specifically it references the loss of plant and animal knowledge that is present in the names and terminology used in the language. The article mentions that many times meaning does not perfectly translate from the dying language to a more common language. In other cases, the meaning of words which seem similar is not understood by non-native speakers. Often multiple distinct names for a single thing will be discarded when translated because the new language does not contain the same concepts.

It cites as an example, a particular species of butterfly found in Costa Rica. The butterfly appeared to by a single species when it was originally classified. Recently DNA analysis revealed that what had been classified as a single species was actually ten different species of butterfly. The amazing thing, is that a local Indian tribe where the butterfly is found, actually had distinct names for the larval form of each of the different butterfly species. Encoded directly into the native language was enough information that could have allowed the original scientists to discover that the butterflies were different species without needing DNA analysis.

There are roughly 7000 known languages in the world today. Of those languages, about half are considered to be in danger of dying out within the next generation.

Reading this made me wonder what other knowledge is lost in ancient languages. Many concepts and technical knowledge about how the world works have been discovered in modern times. Often we thought our civilization was the first to discover the knowledge, only to have archaeologists find out that the ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, or Babylonians had discovered it in the far past. The knowledge being lost when their civilization was taken over or destroyed by another nation.

NewScientist article: Endangered languages encode plant and animal knowledge
Wikipedia Article on Endangered Languages: Endangered language

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