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Building a new Tower of Babel - the view from the top

By David James - posted Monday, 24 October 2005

How many species of birds are there on the planet? When I was growing up, there were around 8,500 or so. That’s a big number, but it was not out of the realms of possibility for someone to see, if not every species, then at least most of them. However, at the time of writing, there are more. Many more. Depending on which authority you rely on, the list is currently around 16,000 and most of the people involved in the counting of bird species believe that this will grow up to 30,000 or so before we have finished.

What is going on here? It is not as if, in the last few decades, 10,000 or 20,000 species of birds never before seen by people have been discovered. What has changed has nothing to do with the birds themselves: the difference is that our knowledge of birds has improved.

A species is a group of organisms which, left to their own devices in the wild, only breed with each other. Once I went to a patch of forest in the South American jungle and saw a bird. We called it a Patchwing. There were lots of them, all with the same size and shape and nesting habit and eating preferences, all living happily together. All was well. Until one day someone noticed that, in fact, the only Patchwings which nested together were those with the same songs. Turned out that, in this group of Patchwings, there were five different song groups, so five different species, who could only be distinguished by voice.


To be a serious ornithologist these days, your ears are just as important as your eyes, because birds are “lingualists”: they discriminate on the basis of language.

So do people, of course. There are many countries which will not accept you as a citizen unless you can speak the local language. Though, like Patchwings, we all come from common stock, from an Adam and Eve, somewhere in the passage of time. And we, like Patchwings, can actually interbreed across linguistic barriers, and increasingly do so.

When it comes to defining bird species, there are fierce debates held between the so-called lumpers and splitters. As the names imply, lumpers argue for big groupings of birds while the splitters head in the other direction and subdivide groupings.

I have two sets of friends who are lumpers. In both cases, one partner is of Asian descent, and the other Caucasian, and they have “lumped” their stock together in their children. All of them, the parents and children, were born in Australia, and so all of them belong to the one lumped group, Australian.

It seems to me that when it comes to ornithology we are heading in the direction of splitting, but that when it comes to people we are going in the other direction, and increasingly becoming lumpers. Extrapolate current trends and one day those groupings of people we call “races”, like white, black, Hispanic, Indian, Arabic, and so on, will for all intents and purposes disappear. Race, as a principle of lumping, was always a poor one, and the sooner it becomes entirely redundant the better.

However, we still have language groups, and counting languages is a way of counting how many groups we fall into. Counting languages produces the same kinds of problems that ornithologists have when counting species. For example, when is something a language or merely a dialect? The linguist Max Weinreich suggested, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. I recently saw a TV documentary about Jamaica and, although the Jamaicans were speaking English, without the sub-titles SBS kindly provided it might as well have been Greek to me.


Nevertheless, we count languages as we do everything else, and by one estimate, there are almost 7,000 languages used today. Of these, 809 are spoken by the 3.9 million people living in Papua New Guinea, which is an average of 4,500 speakers per language. Within the lifetime of my children, for good and ill, the number of effective languages - those which are more than museum pieces - will be reduced by at least half.

All languages are falling to the power of English today, with the Internet perhaps having provided the coup de grace to the prospects of other languages becoming dominant. It is far too early to know this with any certainty, of course, with fully a quarter of the world’s population speaking Chinese, but the direction towards, if not a mono-lingual world, but at least one with a universal lingua franca does seem to be inevitable.

This was the dream L.L. Zamenhof, who designed Esperanto in 1887 as an easy-to-learn universal second language. His vision was that by lumping everyone into a common language group the world would be a better place. English, in all its dialectical forms around the world, seems now to be succeeding where the Esperanto project failed.

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About the Author

David E. James is based in Brisbane, Australia and is currently writing I Just Want My Children to be Happy as a father of three young people. It is due for publication in 2006.

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