I have always been fascinated by languages. One of my great regrets is that I have precious little facility with languages other than my native tongue. Wherever I go on holiday I try to learn a small number of words in the local lingo to enable me to get by and also demonstrate some courtesy to the local people. I am saddened whenever I learn of the loss of a language, because I think humanity loses something thereby.

I have been aware for some time that languages are disappearing at quite a pace. I supposed that globalisation and urbanisation probably have quite a lot to do with it. But today the Guardian tells me that in the future languages will be threatened by climate change. The headline is shocking (“Lost for words: fears of ‘catastrophic’ language loss due to rising seas) and the sub-heading is terrifying (“Climate crisis could be the ‘nail in the coffin’ for half of languages spoken by the end of the century, say linguists, as coastal communities are forced to migrate”).

I am being a little unfair, but only a little. As usual, the headlines are deliberately sensationalist, and as usual with Guardian headlines, climate change is the culprit. Read on, however, and you find that the problems to date have been things such as a long history of persecution and (as I suspected) “globalisation and migration, as communities move to regions where their language is not spoken or valued” (described in the article as “huge factors”).

The Guardian also links to a couple of web pages justifying its claim that “half of all the 7,000 languages currently spoken will be extinct by the end of the century.” The first link is to the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022 – 2032. It certainly backs up the claim that 50% of languages currently spoken might be lost by the end of the century, but nowhere does it mention climate change. The second link is to The Language Conservancy website, which actually makes a bolder (or more worrying) claim than the UN and the Guardian, namely that at “current rates, about 90% of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.” It confirmed my suspicions regarding the cause of language loss to date:

By the middle of the twentieth century, forces including nationalism, urbanization, and globalization began to take their own tolls. Urbanization, like settlement colonization, moves peoples away from ancestral lands. People leave not through forced resettlement but voluntarily depart from the countryside and migrate to cities where they speak the dominant language to take part in the economy.

It doesn’t mention climate change as a culprit. In fact, given that this is yet another organisation that claims that climate change is the greatest threat facing humankind, the lack of any such link is quite striking. Instead we are told:

After global warming, language loss is the Earth’s most acute crisis.

It turns out that when the Guardian refers to “linguists”, it is in fact referring to just three. First, Anastasia Riehl, the director of the Strathy language unit at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Second, Anouschka Foltz, an associate professor in English Linguistics at the University of Graz, in Austria. Third, Dr Gregory Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, an organisation at the University of South Africa that documents and records endangered languages. Dr Anderson is first quoted as noting:

that the death of a language, when the last fluent speaker dies, is often the result of “some sort of assault” on Indigenous communities. It can be overt, such as when Indigenous children were forced into boarding schools and banned from speaking their native language in countries including the US, Canada, Australia and Scandinavian nations in the 1900s, or covert, where people with a strong accent are excluded from jobs.

He doesn’t (at least not within the Guardian article) link language loss to climate change at all. So that leaves us with Ms Riehl and Ms Foltz. One of the problems is that one in five of all the world’s languages are apparently from the Pacific, and Ms Foltz tells us that If sea level rise or another climate impact hits, they have to leave. Communities scatter to places where their language is not valued.”

Ms Riehl refers specifically to Vanuatu. And Vanuatu really is a special case. According to the Guardian it has “110 languages, one for each 111 sq km, the highest density of languages on the planet” (according to Wikipedia it is home to 138 indigenous Pacific languages). Ms Riehl says it is threatened by sea level and temperature rise, and thus its languages are endangered, since its inhabitants might have to move because of climate change. I’m certainly not going to rely on Wikipedia ahead of a linguist, but I note in passing that Wikipedia suggests that things are getting better for Vanuatu’s languages, since “it currently shows an average of about 1,760 speakers for each indigenous language, and went through a historical low of 565”. It also claims (for what it’s worth) that “despite the low numbers for most of the indigenous languages, they are not considered especially vulnerable to extinction” (citing in a footnote by way of support, Nettle, Daniel and Suzanne Romaine (2016). Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.9).

Digging a little further, I suspect (and I can only suspect – I’m obviously not an expert in such matters) that if there is (contra Wikipedia) a threat to Vanuatu’s languages, then it is most obviously a threat that arises from urbanisation and globalisation, and other natural and man-made problems. For instance, according to Wikipedia again:

Natural disasters include tropical cyclones or typhoons from January to April and volcanic activity which sometimes causes minor earthquakes. Tsunamis are also a hazard.

A majority of the population does not have access to a potable and reliable supply of water. Deforestation is another major concern on the islands.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has a “Risk Profile – Sudden-Onset Hazards and the Risk of Future Displacement in Vanuatu” which notes:

Rapid urbanisation in Port Vila has resulted in high population density in exposed and vulnerable areas of the city. The peri-urban areas of the city are growing at twice the rate of Port Vila. So are nearby villages outside the city limits, such as Erakor, Eratap, Ifira, Mele and Pango. Combined with poor housing quality and deficits in critical services and infrastructure, this population density makes the people in these places highly vulnerable to displacement. The situation is exacerbated by the failure of the urban housing and land markets and the related shortage of affordable housing in urban areas. A recent assessment of the rapidly growing informal settlements of the city have identified up to 21 unauthorized settlements with a combined population of as many as 43,000 people, or about 40 per cent of the urban population. These settlements are located on lands that have been deemed unsuitable for urban development, as they are subject to one or more climate hazard risks.

It lumps together “Sudden-onset hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and storm surges”. It does make quite a few references to climate change as an issue, but that’s not surprising in an organisation that heads its website with a banner headline: “DISPLACEMENT, DISASTERS AND CLIMATE CHANGE”.

Meanwhile, it is perhaps worth noting (source) that in 1955 the population of Vanuatu was around 55,000, with only 10% of its population urban-based. By 2020 the population had increased to over 300,000, and 24% of its population was then urban-based. As can be seen above, this represents a real problem, but a six-fold increase in population in less than 70 years ought (ceteris paribus) to help keep local languages alive. Clearly, however, all things are not equal, and urbanisation (and, no doubt, globalisation) will continue to have a negative influence on the survival of local languages.

As for climate change – well, it might be worth concluding by noting that in 2018 Ms Riehl published an article at the Conversation with the heading “The impact of climate change on language loss”. I admit straight away that I am predisposed to be suspicious of anything I see published there, due to its monomania on the subject of climate change, blaming pretty much everything under the sun on it. I note that the article commenced by referencing dire headlines about climate change and the latest IPCC report, before moving on to refer to the then recent tsunami that hit Sulawesi. The article continued:

As residents of Sulawesi villages mourn their losses and rebuild their neighbourhoods, scientists and policy makers seek to better understand and prepare for the effects of climate change. Often overlooked are the effects on the world’s languages.

Perhaps it’s cheap of me to point out that tsunamis are not the result of climate change, and the two are not linked. Perhaps it’s also cheap of me to note that much of the Guardian article seems to be in part a re-hash of the 2018 article in the Conversation. Perhaps I am being unfair in noting that while it tells us that “Sulawesi’s languages, increasingly relegated to the oldest generations and most isolated communities, are disappearing”, no link between past and current language losses and climate change is offered. Everything is stated in the future tense:

These changes will force communities to relocate, creating climate change refugees. The resultant dispersal of people will lead to the splintering of linguistic communities and increased contact with other languages. These changes will place additional pressures on languages that are already struggling to survive.

If either the article in the Conversation in 2018, or that in the Guardian today, demonstrated conclusive evidence that climate change had led to the loss of any of the many languages lost to date, I might take these claims more seriously. As it is, however, no such evidence is offered, and all is, so far as I can see, speculation. I suspect and fear that language loss is destined to continue, but that it will be for some or all of the reasons that have caused such losses to date, and that climate change isn’t the elephant in the room.

20 Comments

  1. Post Pic looks like the Maldives (1 off many islands), have been thinking about a hol this year & if it’s still above water it’s still to expensive for me.

    ps – born in Scotland, West Lothian 1957 – nobody I knew spoke “Scottish Gaelic”
    moved to Isle of Man 1986 – nobody I know speaks “Manx Gaelic” (tho it is trying to make a comeback).

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  2. dfhunter, I can’t vouch for the picture. I searched for Vanuatu when putting the post together, and I accepted what I was given by WordPress! I decided to use it, since it illustrates the basis of the Guardian’s claim, namely that some languages are spoken by small numbers of people on low-lying islands, which it is claimed are in danger from sea-level rise and/or extreme weather events, such as cyclones.

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  3. I have been working on documentation of one particular island Melanesian language since 1996, on and off. I’ll be heading back there this year, after a three-year covid restrictions break, to continue that work. My PhD was on resource conflict on this same island, and I have other connections there too, so I’m in pretty deep with this particular place, a 30km diameter volcanic cone in the archipelagic seas of the Southwest Pacific. I have a photo taken on the beach in 1910 about 100m from my wife’s house there. I know the spot well, and see no evident sea level rise between then and now. There were two tsunami events there in my time (dramatic, but not catastrophic), but they were tectonic, not climate related events. There is no discernible climate-related sea level rise or storm surges, or even rising frequency or severity of cyclonic events. However, the coastline exhibits many geological signs of a rather bouncy Quarternary tectonic history, as the island’s margin sinks and rises. Uplifted beaches, fossil coral reefs, and seriated linear lakes like crinkles behind the current coastline. I suspect many of the “rising sea level” histrionics about islands such as the Cartarets are more due to the flexible nature of the underlying sea bed here on the plate edge, than some oddly massive climate-induced upwelling of sea level there and none 300km away where I am.

    Anyhow, about the local languages and the causes of their malaise. The Oceanic language I’ve been documenting for so many years isn’t in decline from climate change. The problem — or more neutrally put, the social process in play — is that since about 1960, incoming marriage partners from the eastern islands brought people who did not adapt to the languages of the western islands, where I am. They spoke pidgin instead. The trend accelerated after Independence in 1978, and is now rather routine. The village, once remote and only in contact with its surrounding island neighbours and their related languages (mostly of common ancestry), is now quite cosmopolitan. Hence, many children in the village now speak the national pidgin as their first language. Technically then, in linguistic parlance, they are creole speakers, and that’s a relatively recent and consequential social change. That’s the process that is displacing the indigenous language of the island. There are other factors too, but I’ve outlined the main factor. I wouldn’t dispute the ideas about urbanisation and language change mentioned in the article. These processes count for something too, but I think it’s wholly hypothetical and unsubstantiated to attribute any change in viability of indigenous languages in my area to global warming or any associated sea level rise. If I thought there was something in it, I’d say so. I’ve done work all across the archipelago over the last three decades; not sipping soy lattes at a cafe near the Guardian editorial offices in London while indulging in the latest moral panics of the hip, right-on and with-it.

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  4. Ianalexs,

    Many thanks indeed for taking the time and trouble to write at length and with detailed personal knowledge.

    I wrote what I did based on limited knowledge and gut feeling. It is gratifying to find my basic premise supported by someone with directly relevant first -hand knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Df. Do not fret, most of the smaller tourist islands of the Maldives are quite safe. So long as the encircling reefs are left pristine they will supply more than enough sediment to keep the central islands above sealevel. However, over time the islands are not stationary. One side is higher and has a small cliff shoreline, the opposite side of the island the shoreline is gradational. This means the cliffed shore is erosional and retreating, whereas the opposite shore was depositional and advancing. The islands were moving. Not just our island but all of them we visited, except those whose reefs had been plundered for building materials.

    We proposed to the Maldives government a moratorium on mining reefs from around inhabited islands, but they just didn’t want to know.

    Another factoid that might influence your holiday choices is that the Maldives lie in part of the Indian Ocean that I was told does not suffer from cyclones and the like.

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  6. Ianalexis. If I had the ability to ‘like’ I would have done. You have added to the diversity of Cliscep’s readership and provided yet another example of how widespread and how diverse is our ‘reach’ .

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Alan,

    thanks for the Maldives holiday info 🙂

    ps – @ Ianalexs – agree with Mark & Alan. thanks for your 1st hand based comment/input.

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  8. One presumes – without any knowledge of the subject – that languages develop through the separation of parent languages by isolation. To this ecologist, it has the feel of what is called allopatric speciation, where separated populations evolve over vast reaches of time into separate species.

    Following on from that it seems likely that in an era of planet-wide communication, all languages will eventually coalesce into a crude blob that incorporates elements of all its components. Some words already have a universal meaning. Pizza springs to mind. Or maybe taxi. Watching anime, I discovered that the Japanese for rucksack was what sounded to my ears “ruckasacko”. It also seems likely that new words, invented or adopted by the young, will have a global reach and be incorporated globally.

    Ironic perhaps that just as we are developing pocket tools to enable us to converse in languages we have no knowledge of, the need for such tools seems to be shrinking.

    But I’m with you Mark: I have always hated it when my opening gambit has to be “Do you speak English?” I’m not sure conversing by iPhone is much better, but it at least ensures mutual understanding. I’ve also been impressed at how two people with no common language can communicate pretty well.

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  9. As an absolute failure at languages I could only be eternally grateful that most science was and is conducted in English and that many non-English scientists were fluent in English and wished to practice same.

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  10. Alan,

    Whilst undertaking a postgraduate degree at Sussex University I fell into conversation with an African student working in the same faculty (physics). I explained to him how impressed I was that he could understand what I was finding to be very challenging lectures when they were being delivered in a foreign language to him. He replied, “Not at all. Physics uses a subset of English with which I have become very well acquainted. But what I struggle to do is order a pint in a pub.” Fearing that, if I stayed much longer in the faculty, I would lose the ability to order a pint, I went straight round to the dean’s office and handed back my grant.

    That anecdote is number 37 on my list of 50 excuses why I dropped out of university.

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  11. How many languages can you speak ? On our travels round Italy , France and Spain we have come across some marvellous multi – lingual young people working in shops, restaurants, hotels etc. North of France quite often French, English and Dutch , South West France same F and E and German (even Basque appears) as you go into Spain F , G and E follow. Italy is much the same depending on holiday routes but always English + . Spain has areas (Malaga region being one) with people able to converse in 4 languages S, E, G and D. Wonder if a waiter or a Leclerc shop assistant gets paid more per language. We “get by” in all 3 countries but never as good as them with ours!

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  12. Forgot to add this bit. As I’ve stated before my family was brought up in Nigeria, the first 3 children spoke English and Yoruba. We moved further North and the next 3 children spoke English , Hausa and Igala (a local tribe), the elder 3 didn’t master the new languages. It would seem all the local tribes were required to speak the master language for the political area i.e. Hausa for the North. They picked it up at an early age at school ,markets etc etc. How do the Euro kids learn so many ?

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  13. dfhunter,

    I have spent a lot of time climbing hills in the Scottish Highlands, and Gaelic fascinates me. I have picked up a bit along the way, but nothing more useful than “grey hill”, “notched ridge”, “rounded lump” etc. Last spring we went hill-walking in Snowdonia for the first time, and I was intrigued by the similarities and differences between Welsh and Scots Gaelic. E.g, the Gaelic word for “pass” is bealach, but in Welsh it’s bwlch. And so on. We stayed in a house in Caernarfon in a road called Ffordde Eryri, which I discovered translates roughly as Snowdonia Road. The etymology fascinates me – presumably ffordde and the English word ford (as in a river crossing) share the same origins.

    JamesS, thank you for those insights. I once holidayed in Kenya and Tanzania and was awestruck by the way most people there spoke three languages reasonably fluently – English, Swahili, and their local tribal language. I manage English and can just about read French to a vaguely adequate standard, but I struggle with the spoken word. I have a lot of respect for people who are linguistically so much more capable than me, but I console myself with the hopeful belief that in many cases such fluency is due to daily exposure to more than one language from an early age – as your example seems to bear out.

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  14. Hi Mark,

    as a born Scot, I looked into Scotland’s history many years ago (so my memory may be foggy).

    A surprise to me was the Scots came from Ireland, and gradually displaced/subsumed the native Picts (not much is know about them or language)

    anyway, language wise, parts of Ireland & west & north of Briton still hold onto the old Celtic language, but spell & pronounce differently (Goidels & Brythons I think is the term for this differance).

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  15. dfhunter,

    Thanks – I find this stuff endlessly fascinating. P-Celtic and Q-Celtic represent the different strands, I believe.

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  16. dfhunter, yes both my parents came from the West of Scotland, Kilmacolm and Glasgow. Both their surnames were Irish based with meanings like tinker , traveller and horseman. This would be a more modern movement probably during the potato famine.

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  17. The east end of London is interesting in that people from all over the world can converse in English that’s broken in so many different ways.

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  18. In the 1970s and 1980s all of us who specialised in the interpretation of carbonate rocks and sediments around the word tried to attend (if we could)an international meeting held in Liverpool every four years just before Christmas. People came from across the globe (I came from Western Canada) and all attendees had to present some new research. Help was given to researchers whose English was poor and they were the most pleasant and cooperative meetings I ever attended.

    One year we chose to honour our host by greeting him in our own languages. The range was enormous. The session ended when a big Aussie addressed us in the broadest Strine and everyone collapsed in laughter. I think we estimated that at least sixty languages were spoken from an audience of about 110.

    Liked by 1 person

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