Why are dying languages not being preserved

Languages also convey unique cultures. Cherokee, for example, has no word for goodbye, only “I will see you again”. Likewise, no phrase exists for “I’m sorry”. On the other hand, it has special expressions all its own. One word – oo-kah-huh-sdee –represents the mouth-watering, cheek-pinching delight experienced when seeing an adorable baby or a kitten. “All of these things convey a culture, a way of interpreting human behaviour and emotion that’s not conveyed the same way as in the English language,” Belt says. Without the language, the culture itself might teeter, or even disappear. “If we are to survive, to continue on and to exist as a people with a distinct and unique culture,” he continues, “then we have to have a language.”

“It’s very hard as an English speaker to understand that,” adds Lenore Grenoble, a linguist at the University of Chicago. “But you just hear that time and time again: that people feel the loss of their language in a very personal way.”

Wealth of wisdom

Another argument mirrors that of biodiversity conservation. Just as ecosystems provide a wealth of services for humanity – some known, others unacknowledged or yet to be discovered – languages, too, are ripe with possibility. They contain an accumulated body of knowledge, including about geography, zoology, mathematics, navigation, astronomy, pharmacology, botany, meteorology and more. In the case of Cherokee, that language was born of thousands of years spent inhabiting the southern Appalachia Mountains. Cherokee words exist for every last berry, stem, frond and toadstool in the region, and those names also convey what kind of properties that object might have – whether it’s edible, poisonous or has some medicinal value. “No culture has a monopoly on human genius, and we never know where the next brilliant idea may come from,” Harrison says. “We lose ancient knowledge if we lose languages.”