"when we lose a language, we lose centuries of thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday," he said.
half of the world's languages have disappeared in the last 500 years, and half of the remainder are likely to vanish during this century, harrison said.
many of the languages are not easily translated into english. in the endangered south siberian language todzhu, for example, the word "chary" means "2-year-old male castrated reindeer that can be used for riding."
harrison and living tongues director gregory d.s. anderson have identified five language "hot spots"
where the extinction rate is particularly high, they said at a news conference sponsored by the national geographic society
, which supports their research.
one such area encompasses oklahoma, texas and new mexico, where 40 languages spoken by native americans are at risk. only five elderly members of the yuchi tribe, for example, are fluent in the yuchi language, which may be unrelated to any other language in the world.