Saturday, April 12, 2014

How many species of hummingbird do we really need?

A hummingbird we saw in Costa Rica in 2005.

Today I was reading a review of the book "Hummingbirds," which has photos of most of the 338 known species, and it got me thinking: 338 species of hummingbirds? Nature's abundance and variety amazes me.

And then I thought about how a friend of mine who is against all tree huggers and in favor of all real estate development might respond to this information. He might say, "Well, how many species of hummingbird do we really need? Do they all need to be protected? Don't construction people need jobs? Don't people need places to live? Should we stop building highways so we can all spend the rest of our lives stuck in traffic?"

Hummingbirds have probably been around me my whole life without my noticing them. We did see many 15 years ago among the wildflowers in the mountains of Colorado. But I believe the first time I saw one in an urban environment was about six years ago when I was temporarily unemployed (between consulting assignments).

I spent a lot of time sitting on our sun porch in suburban Baltimore, reading, napping and figuring out what was next. And sometimes, I just sat and listened and watched.

In one of those still moments, a straight line of color flashed across my field of vision and halted above the flowerbed, turning this way and that before zipping down with a nervous urgency to sip some nectar and then disappear. I had never seen such a thing in our neighborhood. A hummingbird.

Yet they were there all along. Years before, on the day we signed the papers for that brick colonial, Cindy went back to sit in the sun on the lawn and admire our new purchase. Suddenly, a hummingbird flitted up to the lilac bush and buzzed around. She decided it was a good omen. She wouldn't change anything about our new home.

The hummingbird reminded me of how little of my surroundings I notice, despite 30 years as a paid, trained observer in journalism. Sitting still on that porch, I heard bird calls I had never noticed before. I caught the scent of flowers I could not name. What else had been going on when I wasn't paying attention?

A few days ago, as Cindy and I were walking back home from the campus, we were noticing all the flowering trees and bushes that thrive here in one of the world's largest and most densely packed agglomerations of humanity, Mexico City. And there, in the branches above, I could see a hummingbird darting about. It lifted my spirits.

So how many species of hummingbird do we really need? I think we need all 338. Each of them has the power to thrill us and make us feel awe.

How many languages do we need?

Also today, I came across an article about fracking for shale oil in China. Deep within the story was this observation about the site of the work: "The valley has been so isolated for centuries that residents of its 16 hamlets still speak a dialect that is distinct even from Fuling, 13 miles away."

That linguistic fact caught my attention for a couple of reasons. One is that Fuling was the city described by Peter Hessler in his book "River Town," which told of his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in the mid-1990s. 

The other is because of the enormous variety of languages that still exist in the world. I have seen estimates of 6,000 to 7,000, and this BBC article says that there are 2,200 spoken in Asia alone, with 226 spoken in Europe.

The big lie that Americans and Brits tell themselves is that everybody speaks English. Well, they could certainly conclude that, because foreigners who come to the U.S. are generally going to speak the language. And when Americans and Brits travel abroad, they usually go to places where the tourist industry caters to English speakers. So hotel clerks, tour guides, many shopkeepers and other people working in that industry have studied English. It's their job. It's required. Their survival depends on it.

But if you venture outside of tourist centers, even when you are traveling in Europe, you are likely to find that you will need a phrase book. No one speaks English.

Spain has four official languages. And although three of them have Latin roots, there are two, Galician and Catalan, that I can't understand when natives are speaking. (The fourth, Basque, has no relation to any other European language.)

When my brother Tim and I traveled to our ancestral town near the French-German border a few years ago, we heard a dialect that was not quite German and not quite French. French and German still have wide dialectical variations. Spoken Italian is quite different grammatically in the south from the north. And Sicily alone still has dozens of different dialects.

Now I understand why Spain, France and Italy formed academies of learned scholars centuries ago (Real Academia Española, Académie Française and Accademia della Crusca, respectively) to issue edicts on meaning, grammar, and usage of their languages. If they hadn't standardized things, there would would have been linguistic chaos. Of course today these academies are accused of being stodgy and resistant to change. 

When I lived in England for six months, my electric power company was based in Glasgow, Scotland, and I several times had to call them with questions about my bill. I thought the customer service people were kidding. The accents were almost impenetrable. English? Yes, a variation. There is quite a variety still, even on that small island. And let's not even talk about how they speak in New Zealand.

China's languages

Seven thousand languages... Many of my students in China told me that their parents and grandparents spoke a local dialect that could not be understood in the province next door. These dialects are mutually incomprehensible. Although the written language is standardized, the way people speak varies widely.

The Chinese government says Mandarin is spoken everywhere, but the truth is that it is the second language in many parts of the country. After all, half the population still lives in isolated areas like the one described in the fracking article.

In Mexico, there are more than 60 languages spoken. In its poorest state, Oaxaca, where most people live by subsistence farming in isolated villages, 15 languages are spoken. Some are as different from each other as French and German. In Bolivia, another place I have lived, there are more than 30.

If you are traveling outside tourist centers in Latin America and China, you need to know the native language. Nobody will speak English.  

Endangered languages

Many of the world's languages are dying out, in part because of the rapid growth of mass media, in particular television, which reaches all but the most isolated areas of the planet. Now they are endangered even more because of the explosion of information on the Internet, where a few major languages are starting to dominate the conversation, especially English.

In China and here in Mexico, English is the most important second language that is taught in the schools. English has supplanted French as the language of diplomacy and German as the language of science (in the first half of the 20th century, German language papers on mathematics, physics and science dominated: think Einstein).

However, the Internet is also helping preserve some of these languages, especially those that have no written form. The languages are being recorded and preserved online digitally, where even illiterate people can hear their own languages spoken.

A colleague of mine has developed a cellphone-based news service in India to serve illiterate people in its most isolated areas. Many of India's 1,500 languages -- 1,500! -- have no written version, so this cellphone service might help preserve them.

A member of the Yurok tribe in northern California, with 6,000 members, has developed an online grammar and dictionary as part of an effort to preserve the Yurok language.

So how many languages do we need? Do we need all 7,000? Should we preserve them all? Another way to think of these languages is that they are mother tongues. The people who speak them learned them from their mothers, their fathers, their families, their friends, their communities.

Words and expressions contain a whole history -- think of the changing resonance and meaning of  words like "slave" or "gentleman". When the language and words disappear, they take with them the history of a people, their sacred truths and myths. For those of us who do not know the mother tongue of our ancestors who immigrated to the U.S., we know nothing of those lives that gave rise to ours.

So should we preserve 7,000 languages? A different way to ask the question is, What will we lose if we don't?


Why the Chinese will never drop their written language
Deciphering China, from ideograms to menus
My Japanese office mate: he speaks Russian, English and Chinese
How to speak Kiwi in New Zealand
Spanish comes in many flavors
Christmas under the volcano in Michoacan 
Basque language has mysterious origins


  1. Jim,

    This is one of the most beautiful, interesting, insightful, wisest articles I've ever read.


    See the following....

  2. You and the New York Times....

  3. Hi Jim
    Your brother, my friend Tim directed me to you blog.

    Your blog reminded of a quote from, ahem, "the Great Communicator": "A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?" -- Ronald Reagan, 1966, opposing expansion of Redwood National Park as governor of California

    I am an eternal optimist. Perhaps people of the world can unite to save species.
    Perhaps English is doing what Esperanto and other attempts have sought, unify people of the world with a common language?
    Of course English is far from being a neutral language, but …..