Can’t Say The Words For The Seas

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From Climate Scepticism


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