Every 40 days a language dies. Words, expressions and meanings are lost forever. The cause? Linguists point to how the loss of languages is worsened by climate change. As temperatures rise, so does the rate at which crucial elements of indigenous culture become extinct across the world. It is calculated that, at the current rate, around 90% of all languages will disappear in the next 100 years. Below, we explain the phenomenon.
What will I learn from this article?
- Data on the disappearance of languages
- The role of climate change in the disappearance of languages
- The case of Vanuatu
- The loss of languages is a cultural loss
Half of all languages are already in danger due to climate change
In Roma, the award-winning film by Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón, the characters through whom the story is told speak Spanish but they also talk in Mixtec, their native language. In the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, there are still people who communicate in this minority language. As happens with languages across the world, however, the number is decreasing as the years and generations pass. Indeed, beyond the film, Yalitza Aparicio, its main actor , with indigenous roots, does not speak the language.
The Mexican Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas) studied the situation of 62 languages in Mexico and discovered 22 were in danger of extinction, among them large linguistic groups such as otomi and maya.
Half of the languages that exist today worldwide will disappear over the next century. In the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, one in every five indigenous peoples have already lost their native tongue: 44 of these peoples now speak Spanish and 55 Portuguese.
“Half of the languages that exist today worldwide will disappear over the next century”
According to the The Language Conservancy, since 1950 the number of unique languages spoken worldwide has constantly declined. Today, 61% of tongues spoken as a first language worldwide in 1795 are now condemned or extinct. Nine languages cease to be spoken every year, or one in every 40 days. If we do not tackle the problem of the loss of languages, more than half of them will become extinct over the next 100 years.
The languages we speak measure the depth of the human diversity mosaic across the world. Cultural treasures in danger, accentuated by global warming.
Climate migration leaves hundreds of languages by the wayside
The reasons why indigenous languages are disappearing do not strictly obey linguistic processes such as the (non) transmission between generations, political conflicts or lack of legal recognition.
The climate crisis is also a determining factor. Many small linguistic communities are located on islands or coasts which are vulnerable to hurricanes or rising sea levels. Other communities are settled in lands where rising temperatures and rainfall fluctuations can threaten traditional farming and fishing practices.
These changes oblige the communities to relocate, creating climate change refugees. The catastrophes caused 23.7 million internal displacements in 2021, most of which were due to meteorological phenomena.
The resulting migration of people causes linguistic communities to fragment and greater contact with other languages. These changes have repercussions on minority languages, which were already struggling to survive.
Rising sea levels and the risk languages will disappear under the water
In the past decade, Asia and the Pacific are the world regions most affected by displacements, with Pacific island countries among the most disadvantaged with respect to population size.
With 110 languages in just 12,189 square kilometers, the island of Vanuatu is the country with the highest density of languages: one for every 111 km2. Situated in the South Pacific, it is also one of the most endangered places for rising sea level.
“Many small linguistic communities are on islands or coasts vulnerable to hurricanes or rising sea level,” Anastasia Riehl, director of the Strathy linguistics unit at Queen's University in Kingston (Ontario), Canada, told eldiario.es.
Others inhabit lands where the temperatures threaten traditional farming and fishing, causing migrations. “When climate change enters the equation, the disturbance for communities is even greater,” she added. “It has a multiplying effect, the last nail in the coffin.”
When a language disappears, we say goodbye to an important piece of humanity
“With indigenous languages, inevitably a collection of environmental, technological, social, economic and cultural knowledge disappears that its speakers have accumulated and codified over millennia,” explains German Freire, specialist in social development at the World Bank and author of the report, Indigenous Latin America in the 21st Century.
Attempting to slow down the loss of these languages, last December the UN launched the Indigenous Languages Decade (2022-2032). The aim is to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples to preserve, revitalize and promote their languages and integrate aspects of linguistic diversity and multilingualism in sustainable development efforts.
With each indigenous languages that disappears, thinking, culture, tradition and the knowledge it encompasses is lost. Allowing a language to disappear is like burning books or bombing museums in wartime. An important part of humanity, its history and way of understanding the world disappears forever when this happens.