One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live amongst peoples who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that, in the Amazon, Jaguar shaman still journey beyond the Milky Way, that the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning, that the Buddhists in Tibet still pursue the breath of the Dharma is to remember
the central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage made, however successfully,
many generations ago.
Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spiritual web of life that envelops the planet and is every bit as important to the well- being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere. You might think of this social web of life as an "ethnosphere", a term
perhaps best defined as the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity?s greatest legacy. It is the product of our dreams, the embodiment of our hopes, the symbol of all we are and all that we, as a wildly inquisitive and astonishingly adaptive species, have created. And just as the biosphere, the biological matrix of life, is being severely eroded by the destruction of habitat and the resultant loss of plant and animal species, so too is the ethnosphere, only at a far greater rate. No biologist, for example, would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity. The key indicator, the canary in the coal mine if you will, is language loss. A language, of course, is not merely a set of grammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an
old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.
Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Effectively, unless something changes, they will disappear within our lifetimes. Half of the languages of the world are teetering on the brink of extinction. Just think about it. What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of your ancestors or anticipate the promise of your descendents...There are those who quite innocently ask, "Wouldn?t the world be a better place if we all spoke the same language?" My answer is always to say, "A wonderful idea, but let?s make that universal language Haida or Yoruba, Lakota, Inuktitut or San." Suddenly people get a sense of what it would mean to be unable to speak their mother tongue. I cannot imagine a world in which I could not speak English, for not only is it a beautiful language, it?s my language, the full expression of who I am. But at the same time I don?t want it to sweep away the other voices of humanity, the other languages of the world, like some kind of cultural nerve gas.
Languages, of course, have come and gone through history... Today, just as plants and animals are disappearing in what biologists recognize as an unprecedented wave of extinction, so too languages are dying at such a rate that they leave in their wake no descendants. While biologists suggest that perhaps 20 percent of mammals, 11 percent of birds, and five percent of fish are threatened, and botanists anticipate the loss of 10 percent of floristic diversity, linguists and anthropologists today bear witness to the imminent disappearance of half the extant languages of the world. Over 600 have fewer than 100 speakers. Some 3,500 are kept alive by a fifth of one percent of the global population. The ten most prevalent languages, by contrast, are thriving; they are the mother tongues of half of humanity. Fully 80 percent of the world?s population communicates with one of just eighty-three languages. But what of the poetry, songs, and knowledge encoded in the other voices, those cultures that are the guardians and custodians
of 98.8 percent of the world?s linguistic diversity? Is the wisdom of an elder any less important simply because he or she communicates to an audience of one? Is the value of a people a simple correlate of their numbers? To the contrary, every culture is by definition a vital branch of our family tree, a repository of knowledge and experience, and, if given the opportunity, a source of inspiration and promise for the future. "When you lose a language", the MIT linguist Ken Hale remarked not long before he passed away, "you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It?s like dropping a bomb on the Louvre."
But what exactly is at stake? What, if anything, should be done about it? A number of books over recent years have paid homage to the global sweep of technology and modernity, suggesting that the world is flat, that one does not have to emigrate to innovate, that we are fusing into a single reality, dominated by a specific model of economics, that the future is to be found everywhere and all at once. When I read these books I can only think that I must have been travelling in very different circles than these writers. The world that I have been fortunate to know, as I hope these lectures will demonstrate, is most assuredly not flat. It is full of peaks and valleys, curious anomalies and divine distractions. History has not stopped, and the processes of cultural change and transformation remain as dynamic today as ever. The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.