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New Sadler Seminar: Biolinguistic Diversity across the Continents

Language and Nature

We are delighted to announce that our proposal to host a Sadler Seminar Series on Biolinguistic Diversity across the Continents has been approved. The seminar series will run through the academic year 2017 – 2018, with a launch event for all the Sadler Seminar Series scheduled for late September or early October.

The seminar series takes a multidisciplinary view of the relationship between Language and Nature. The series will examine expressions of, and threats and challenges to, the Language–Nature relationship in areas of the world exhibiting very different historical and socio-economic backgrounds. Regions of the world with greatest biodiversity are shown to exhibit greatest linguistic diversity, strongly suggesting that the relationship between Language and Nature is both symbiotic and spatially and temporally determined. Indigenous languages reflect the close relationship between people and their natural environment, embodying the complex relationship humans enjoy with landscape and seasons. These connections can be broken when indigenous languages are severed from the ecosystems in which they arose, a situation that can arise through replacement of indigenous languages by alien lingua franca, through degradation of the ecosystem, through depopulation, or through forced or voluntary removal of the indigenous language community from the local ecosystem. Language and Nature essentially involves both the natural sciences and the humanities, and here will involve academics from the fields of geography, sociology and languages. This multidisciplinary approach has been successfully applied in production of a MOOC on Language and Nature at Leeds led by Jon Lovett (2015, currently re-running). The programme also builds on three years of international multidisciplinary network building around Language and Nature within the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa, and links to an AHRC Network led by Janet Watson on The Symbiotic Relationship between Language and Nature in Southern and Eastern Arabia.

The seminar series examines issues such as expressions of temporality, space, directions and quantification in indigenous languages. It covers a range of areas of the world which exhibit widely differing types of biodiversity, different linguistic means of expressing this biodiversity, and different challenges and threats to biocultural diversity. Japan, for example, is a biodiversity hotspot with species endemic to island habitats whose continued survival is dependent on local knowledge, as expressed through language. In Japan, this local knowledge itself is threatened by depopulation; Africa and the Arabic-speaking world have rapidly increasing populations, which, coupled with sedentarisation of nomadic peoples and/or urbanisation, is leading to a break in the intergenerational transfer of rural and nomadic knowledge; in Britain and Eastern Europe, urbanisation, rural depopulation and automation of agricultural equipment has led to a decrease both of species and of the lexis relating to these species. The seminar series deals with language groups ranging from unscripted endangered languages spoken in parts of the Middle East and Africa to languages with varying histories of script; these latter use diverse writing systems: Latin alphabetic (English, Czech, Slovak, Kwa), Cyrillic alphabetic (Russian), abjad (Arabic), and logographic and syllabary (Japanese). The script itself may affect expression of the language–nature relationship: in Japanese, for example, the relationship between language and environment is complicated by the use of unique ideographs for each species, and the usage of these ideographs is likely to disappear with extinction of species.