February 19, 2007

Natives know their reindeer

Human knowledge eroded as endangered languages dieA tiny community of reindeer herders in Siberia holds intimate knowledge of the lives, the foraging and the rutting season of their priceless animals, and it's the kind of information that is vital to anyone concerned by the loss of human cultures--and to biologists worried about the loss of species diversity anywhere in the world.

Of the 426 members of Siberia's isolated Chulym people, only 35 still speak Tuvan, their ancient language, fluently, and they're all older than 50. Everyone else speaks only Russian, according to K. David Harrison, an adventuresome linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Harrison has lived with the Chulym and hopes to preserve their vanishing language.

The Chulym can fully describe a "2-year-old male castrated rideable reindeer" with only the single word chary, and to Harrison, that not only shows how ancient languages differ from their modern counterparts, but is symbolic of a worldwide loss in important cultural diversity.

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