Rethinking Ecolinguistic Diversity

In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brian F. Codding and Terry L. Jones (2013) suggest that ecological productivity (how ecologically rich an environment is in terms of water, plant, and animal resources) predicts and partially explains the linguistic diversity of a given region. Many linguists have commented on the correlation between ecological and linguistic diversity, typically echoing works by Nettle & Romaine (2000), Romaine (2012, 2013), and Maffi (2001, 2003) on this topic. Indeed, looking at, it’s easy to see that linguistic diversity is most densely concentrated in the most ecologically rich areas of the world, such as Papua New Guinea or central Africa.

However, previous attempts at explaining this correlation were speculative and often spurious. Nettle & Romaine’s book Vanishing Voices (2000: 77), for example, states that “language is part of a complex ecology that must be supported if biodiversity is to be maintained.” This suggests that loss of linguistic knowledge is at least a partial cause of loss of biological diversity. Romaine sees indigenous peoples as ‘ecological caretakers’ of their local environment. Should they lose their linguistic knowledge of the local environment, or should they be replaced as caretakers by non-indigenous peoples, this will inevitably lead to a loss of biological diversity. Romaine’s reasoning is that European languages, and in particular English, are not well-adapted to these local ecologies (e.g. they don’t linguistically encode the indigenous taxonomic systems), and so are inadequate for use by the new caretakers in managing the environment. Romaine is implicitly denying one of the most central tenets of linguistics, that ‘all languages are created equal’, by saying that English is incapable of accomplishing the same tasks as many minority languages. In addition, the linguistic connection in Romaine’s theory is irrelevant. The important feature of her argument ought to be local knowledge, not local language. The linguistic coding of that knowledge is merely a byproduct and means of transmission. Even with this adjustment, Romaine’s causal explanation is purely speculative, and seems to reverse the direction of causation. It is much more plausible to think that a loss of local habitat would lead to loss of local ecological knowledge than the reverse. It also overlooks a third factor, the presence of an active governing state, whose presence seems a likely explanation for the decline in both linguistic and biological diversity, thus explaining the correlation (the more powerful and oppressive the state, the less the ecolinguistic diversity).

Codding & Jones’ study is a refreshing approach to the ecology-language correlation. They show how ecologically productive areas, being rich in resources, attract several subsequent migrations of people, and are typically the first areas to be settled before migrants move into less productive areas. In short, migrating populations seek out and prefer resource-dense areas to resource-scarce ones. While this hypothesis makes intuitive sense, Codding & Jones have done the legwork of combing decades of linguistic and archaeological studies to confirm this pattern for the California region, giving strong credence to the theory. The result of these several waves of migrations is precisely what we find today: numerous linguistic groups concentrated in ecologically rich areas, and few linguistic groups populating the ecologically sparse areas. Whereas I think most linguists, including myself, have assumed that the concentration of languages in ecologically rich areas is a recent historical phenomenon related to a decline in linguistic diversity for more developed areas, Codding & Jones’ study suggests that this line of thinking may be nothing more than naive presentism.


  • Codding, Brian F. & Terry L. Jones. 2013. Environmental productivity predicts migration, demographic, and linguistic patterns in prehistoric California. PNAS. Published ahead of print August 19, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1302008110.
  • Gorenflo, L. J., Suzanne Romaine, Russell A. Mittermeier & Kristen Walker-Painemilla. 2012. Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas. PNAS 109(21):8032-8037. Plus supporting information pp. 1-6.
  • Maffi, Luisa (ed.). 2001. On biocultural diversity: Linking language, knowledge, and the environment. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian.
  • Maffi, Luisa. 2003. Sharing a world of difference: The earth’s linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity. UNESCO, WWF & Terralingua.
  • Nettle, Daniel & Suzanne Romaine. 2000. Vanishing voices: The extinction of the world’s languages. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Romaine, Suzanne. 2013. Linguistic and ecological diversity. In Robert Bayley, Richard Cameron, and Ceil Lucas (eds.), The Oxford handbook of sociolinguistics. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 1115-1141.

Daniel W. Hieber

I'm a postdoctoral fellow at the Alberta Language Technology Lab in Edmonton, Alberta. I received my Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California, Santa Barbara. I document indigenous Native American languages and build web-based tools for managing linguistic data.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.