Biological and linguistic diversity. Transdisciplinary explorations for a socioecology of languages

Diverscité Langues 7 (2002)
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Abstract

As a sort of intellectual provocation and as a lateral thinking strategy for creativity, this chapter seeks to determine what the study of the dynamics of biodiversity can offer linguists. In recent years, the analogical equation "language = biological species" has become more widespread as a metaphorical source for conceptual renovation, and, at the same time, as a justification for the defense of language diversity. Language diversity would be protected in a way similar to the mobilization that has taken place to protect endangered species. Nevertheless, one must be careful when uncritically transferring conceptualizations and theoretical frameworks from one field to another, since obviously, these two phenomena are quite different in the real world. The dialogue with bioecologists starts by asking about the formation of diversity, i.e., about specialization. Here, one can observe the similarity between the processes of linguistic and genetic fragmentation, in the sense that both phenomena have a (socio)geographical basis for dispersion and consequently, for the loss of their original compact nature and their intercommunication. The self-organizing and creative properties of human beings favor the development of specific varieties for each subset, varieties that continue to evolve constantly, through the unceasing "languaging" of humanity. Regarding the continuity of species or languages, one can also observe the decisive role of intragroup relations. The staying power of linguistic varieties will increase in direct proportion to the intensity of the relationship among the components of the subset. On the other hand, if exotic elements are introduced, especially if these elements are aggressive in nature, the alteration of the ecological niche may turn out to be fatal for the continuity of the previously existing forms. This suggests to us the need to make an in-depth study of what the minimal contextual conditions would be so that a set linguistic group could be assured a sustainable continuity within a framework of linguistic contact. What type of minimum (socio-)ecological niche would a language have to have if we wished to ensure its habitual reproduction? A proposal is made here to explore the ideas of "exclusive functions" and "non-hierarchical functional distribution" for codes in situations where there is high contact and a danger of disuse. As regards change, this phenomenon is seen as an inherent element in the tendency of life to create new developments, which may or not be accompanied by an adaptation to changing environmental conditions. It is pointed out that, similar to what happens in biology, much of linguistic innovation stems from a systemically reorganized mixture of solutions from different codes. An important research question would be, however, to determine why some of these innovations disappear and others survive and extend throughout the community. The big question mark, as Mufwene points out, is, then how to manage to understand how "the evolution of language proceeds by naturally selecting from among the competing alternatives available through the idiolects of individual speakers". Extinction, whether it be of languages or of species, is caused in most cases "by a combination of demographic processes and environmental changes", as Brown points out. Thus, the environment plays a fundamental role in the direction of evolution, since the "the survival of the fittest is, in actuality, the survival of those who fit into the context (Allen and Hoekstra)". This allows us to see the great degree of importance of political-economic contexts in the case of languages. In the same way, migratory movements are also one of the major variables determining the extinction of biodiversity and language diversity. Species and habitat form the basic unit of existence, and this is the major point of departure for understanding the problem of the preservation and recovery of species or languages. Given the increase in the degree of linguistic contact, the continuity of language diversity depends on determining, as exactly as possible, as Prigogine, the physicist, would say, what precise conditions of imbalance may prove to be stable. The great challenge is not so much avoiding contact but managing it. And "restorative ecology" can also be of help to us here. Being able to reach sustainable solutions for language diversity implies a profound knowledge of the dynamics for determining the ways in which language is used in contact situations. The general conclusion is that linguistics is still terminologically and conceptually ill prepared to deal with the dynamic character of human languages. The world and our objects must be conceived of as elements in a state of flux, as changing systems in an unstable equilibrium. With respect to language policy, it would be necessary to make an effort to manage to establish some general principles regarding the linguistic organization of the human species that would make it possible for local linguistic diversity and communication on a planetary scale, which must necessarily take place, to be compatible with each other. To succeed, it will be necessary to continue promoting an autonomous socio-ecological perspective devoted to the comprehension of language phenomena. Such a perspective would be based on a paradigm of complexity, and would, at the same time, place human beings at the center of its theoretical underpinnings.

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Albert Bastardas-Boada
Universitat de Barcelona

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Wholeness and the implicate order.David Bohm - 1980 - New York: Routledge.
Wholeness and the Implicate Order.David Bohm - 1980 - New York: Routledge.

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