Adpated from The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
On a Southwest Pacific Island called Rennell middle-aged islanders can name 126 different Rennell plant species in the Rennell language. For each species they can explain whether the seeds and fruits are inedible to animals as well as to humans, or else eaten by birds and bats but not by humans, or else edible to humans. Among those species eaten by humans, some are further distinguished as being ‘eaten only after the hungi kengi.’
How did the hungi kengi turn normally inedible fruits into edible ones?
A very old woman on the island is able to explain. The hungi kengi was the Rennell name for the biggest cyclone to have hit the island in living memory, around about 1910. The old woman had been a child at the time (and is now in her late 70s or 80s). The cyclone had flattened Rennell’s forests, destroyed the gardens, and threatened the islanders with starvation. Until new gardens could be planted and began producing, the people at the time had to resort to anything at all digestible, including not just the usual preferred wild fruit species but also that would be normally ignored – i.e., the fruits as being ‘eaten only after the hungi kengi’. That required knowledge about which of those second-choice fruits were non-poisonous and safe to eat. Fortunately, at the time of the hungi kengi, there were islanders alive who remembered an earlier cyclone and how they had coped then. Now, this old woman is the last person alive in her village with that inherited experience and knowledge.
See also: ‘Laboon’ – the wave that eats people
Today there are about 7,000 languages still spoken throughout the world. On average 10 languages become extinct every year and extinctions over the next century will leave the world with only a few hundred.
Why do languages become extinct?
What are the implications of a language becoming extinct?