The Dying and Disappearing Languages of Medicine

I have always been an enthusiast for language and the written word. In particular, a great admirer of the ways in which they paint and convey, with great resolution and intensity, the esoteric emotions and experiences of a people. It is through these driving interests, that I remain reminiscent of a singular noun: Eiliad, existing at a crux between Persian and Turkish, meaning ‘one who holds the memory of his people’. While traditionally used as a name, Eiliad, I feel, is deeply analogous to and representative of the intricacies of language at large. Much like this string of letters, language is a gift given by forbearers of a time to its predecessors. Carrying within its phonology and semantics, the weight and legacy of a people’s cultural history. Both, as equally vital and crucial, in the preservation and continuation of age-old wisdom and knowledge.

Just as I am an avid devotee to the realm of linguistics, I am equally a griever in the death of languages. Within the 21st century, the loss of language is a sorrow shared by many in the world. According to the New York Times, there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken across the world – many of which do not have a written form (Wilford, 2007). While abundant in their diversity and number, roughly half are in danger of extinction and on route to disappear within the next hundred years (Wilford, 2007). With the rise of globalization, mass media and the entrenchment of dominant languages (such as English) in society, distinct languages and dialects reach extinction at a rate of one every two weeks (Wilford, 2007). This trend is most notable for Indigenous languages spoken in regions such as the North American Pacific coast, Central South America, North Australia and etcetera (Wilford, 2007).

Though it may not be entirely clear at first, the loss of language holds immense implications in the field of medicine. As a bearer of cultural understanding, language is a vital tool in advancing the field of drug discovery (Gupta, Gabrielsen, & Ferguson, 2005). Language is crucial in that it serves as a means of transfer for traditional knowledge regarding the medicinal value of certain natural resources (Gupta, Gabrielsen, & Ferguson, 2005). With the rise of modern-day diseases and the emergence of drug resistant microbes, there is a need, now more than ever, to discover new cures and treatments (Gupta, Gabrielsen, & Ferguson, 2005). One review, exploring the origins of modern drug discovery available on the market from 1981 to 2002, states that roughly 60% of anticancer drugs and 75% of anti-infection drugs are rooted in or inspired by natural products (Gupta, Gabrielsen, & Ferguson, 2005). This knowledge of herbal remedies and medicine is not exclusive to individuals in the 21st century today. In fact, it is traceable to civilizations of Mesopotamia (2900 B.C.), Egypt (1500 B.C.), China (1100 B.C.), India (1000 B.C.), Greece (300 B.C.) and Rome (100 A.D.). Aside from drug discovery, said languages also provide an abundance of information in the fields of chemistry, anthropology, botany, environmental science, biology, and  many more (Gupta, Gabrielsen, & Ferguson, 2005). While there are certain ethical issues surrounding the use of traditional knowledge and natural resources for the aims of drug discovery, such as informed consent and intellectual property rights, it is now more than ever that we must preserve the world’s dying and disappearing languages – not only for the purpose of medicine, but for the wisdom and diversity that they have to offer to the world and its people.

References:

  1. Gupta, R., Gabrielsen, B., & Ferguson, S. M. (2005). Nature’s medicines: traditional knowledge and intellectual property management. Case studies from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), USA. Current drug discovery technologies, 2(4), 203-219.

  2. Wilford, J. N. (2007, September 18). World’s Languages Dying Off Rapidly. Retrieved January 21, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/world/18cnd-language.html. 

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