Climate change is causing extreme temperatures, extreme weather, melting the polar ice caps and raising the sea levels. We know these changes are wiping out animals like polar bears, penguins and toads, but we hear less about the way global warming is leading certain human cultures and languages to extinction.
Small tribes and communities, with rich languages and history, are being forced to assimilate for survival as their traditional way of life is rendered too dangerous by climate change. This is happening in many places around the world at a shocking pace. Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists 574 languages as ‘critically endangered’ and for many, climate change is the biggest threat.
Which languages are being destroyed by climate change?
Wherever climate change has caused extreme weather, local native communities are suffering. Research carried out by Zafar Shakir in Pakistan found that the Shina language, spoken by members of the Pakistani Dardic tribe, is being slowly erased by climate change. Shakir found that Shina speakers who were displaced by recent flooding are already losing touch with their native language. Just one year after the move, 33% of their lexicon is non-Shina, and many of them blend and borrow words from Urdu and English.
Loss of language through displacement and assimilation is most likely to happen in the most extreme climates. In the frozen north of America, indigenous Alaskans (known as Native Peoples) are struggling to maintain their traditional way of life. Climate change has led to a lack of both food and water for many tribes. Some are resorting to relocation, which on a mass scale could lead to the loss of Alaskan Native languages. There are currently at least nineteen distinct languages spoken in Alaska, many of which are at risk of extinction.
In 2008 Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of Alaska’s Eyak language, died at the age of 89. Linguist Michael Krauss told the BBC Eyak was “the first, but probably not the last, at the rate things are going, of the Alaska Native languages to go extinct.” Eyak went extinct when Mary Smith Jones moved south. Her children were discouraged from learning their mother’s native tongue by the culture they grew up in. Jones moved south by choice, but with climate change forcing other Natives to move, languages may begin to die out faster.
A similar situation can be found in the coldest peaks of Greenland, where the Inughuit community is struggling for survival. Though often categorised as part of the broader group of Inuit peoples, the Inughuits are in fact a unique tribe with their own history, and their own language: Inuktun. The Inughuit population numbers just 800. Their way of life is based on hunting the sea creatures of the north Greenland shore. Sea creatures which, thanks to global warming, are quickly dying out. If their food source continues to deplete, the Inughuits will be forced to move south and assimilate into Inuit culture to survive, likely leaving their rich Inuktun language behind them.
Why it is important to save languages?
Anthropologist Stephen Pax Leonard spent a year living with the Inughuit community, studying their culture. While he was there, an elderly Inuktun speaker told him, “We inherited our language from our ancestors. If we lose it without record, future generations will know nothing about their rich past.”
The BBC’s Rachel Nuwer agree with this statement. She says “languages are conduits of human heritage.” She argues that since most languages are purely oral (just one third of the world’s languages have written versions), a spoken language is often the only way to convey a culture’s history, stories, traditions and songs. Without unwritten minority languages, the histories of entire sections of humanity could be lost forever.
What can we do to save a language?
Researchers from many disciplines are doing what they can to preserve endangered languages. Marie Smith Jones, wary that she was the last living Eyak speaker, worked with linguists at the University of Alaska on an Eyak dictionary with hope of preserving her culture’s history. Similarly, Marie Wilcox, the last surviving speaker of the California-based Wukchumni tribe’s language, worked day and night for seven years to create a dictionary of her mother tongue.
Stephen Pax Leonard took a different approach with the Inughuits. Instead of creating a traditional dictionary, Leonard worked with Inughuit storytellers to document Inuktun narratives. He hopes his “Ethnography of Language” will show how Inughuit language and culture are intertwined, and prove to be a more accurate record of the community.
Whether dictionary of ethnography is best, it is vitally important to document endangered languages if we want to remember all of humanity. For although many of these languages may be dying, these cultures are still very much alive.