Is Climate Change Accelerating Language Loss?

Biological diversity and linguistic diversity are linked in ways that might surprise you.
polar bears on melting ice language death

It’s no secret that the environment — as well as thousands of the world’s languages — are currently endangered. But is it possible that the extinction of natural ecologies goes hand in hand with language death? And are these two things connected in a way that goes beyond a coincidence or mere correlation?

The more frequently discussed effects of climate change are bad enough on their own without having to consider the cultural toll, but there is good reason to believe that biological diversity and linguistic diversity flourish together, and conversely, die together as well.

Dialects And Species

It’s true — the connection between biological and linguistic diversity holds up in linguistic and ecological studies. Using mapping and statistical methods, it’s possible to see how human migration and competition over natural resources have quite possibly led to the co-evolution of human culture and local ecosystems, especially as humans have played a direct role in the continued survival of some plants and species over others.

In order to draw this connection out further, it’s useful to think of the similarities between languages and biological species.

A World Wildlife Fund study on the relationship between climate change and language death used the premise that species and languages are somewhat interchangeable as basic units of diversity (whether biological or cultural). If you think about it, a species refers to a group of living creatures that are capable of interbreeding, and we divide languages according to their mutual intelligibility (so, whether two speakers can interbreed, or interact, linguistically). We can compare dialects to subspecies (in other words, organisms and speakers can successfully “interact,” but they don’t overlap very much in the wild). With enough isolation, a subspecies or dialect can very well evolve into its own separate species or language.

In this sense, it’s useful to think about cultural memes and how they often behave like biological genes — they spread through replication and transmission. And language is often a tool for this.

Additionally, the geographic distribution of high-diversity pockets of natural life tends to overlap with areas that are rich in linguistic diversity, particularly in areas with tropical forests. Meanwhile, tundras and deserts, which are low in species diversity, tend to also be low in linguistic diversity. In a very generalized nutshell, the climate near the equator is more hospitable to supporting biological and linguistic diversity because it is more hospitable to animal and human life in general.

The study authors actually took methods developed for assessing biodiversity and applied them to the measurement of linguistic diversity: the IUCN Red List system and the WWF/ZSL Living Planet Index. They found that worldwide, the measurements of species populations and speakers of languages are both declining at similar rates (about 30 percent in 40 years), though not always concurrently in the same global regions.

The Impact Of Climate Change On Language Death

There are approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world today, but as many as half of them are expected to go extinct by the end of this century. Currently, half of the world’s languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers each. When you crunch all the numbers, only about 0.1 percent of the world’s population is currently what’s keeping half of the world’s languages alive.

Of course, it’s impossible to attribute this to any one single cause. Genocide, policy, persecution and economic pressures all play a role in our increasingly globalized world. If speaking your mother tongue doesn’t make financial sense for the community because every viable job opportunity requires you to speak the more populous national language, it’s going to be that much harder to secure institutional support at school and in the media to ensure regional languages are passed down to younger generations.

However, climate change is also endangering the survival of many of the world’s most at-risk linguistic populations. As these communities get displaced due to rising sea levels and climatic changes that disrupt their agricultural and fishing industries, it becomes inevitably more difficult for small languages to remain viable as its speakers scatter around the globe and are forced to assimilate to local cultures.

And even if certain communities manage to stay in place, there’s still a sense of “you can’t go home again” when your local environment is becoming unrecognizable to you. Many indigenous communities look for cues in their environment to know when to plant, hunt and harvest. When natural cycles are disrupted, so is the linguistic meaning and context built around them. One example: the shadbush, a small North American tree, is named such because shad, a type of fish, are often spawning in the rivers when the shadbush flowers. That is no longer the case because along with many other plants, it is flowering earlier in the year.

Does It Work In Reverse Too?

It’s not hard to see how climate change is directly accelerating the process of language death around the world. But is it possible that it works both ways? Does the extinction of languages also, in turn, speed up environmental decay?

This is a claim that might be a bit more difficult to prove, but it’s worth considering. Many indigenous languages are imbued with an intimate (and often unwritten) knowledge of the natural ecosystem they’re a part of — the plants, animals, and all the ways humans have learned to coexist within that matrix over many years.

K. David Harrison, writing for Language Magazine, calls this “linguistically encoded environmental knowledge.”

“I came to appreciate how her language did not exist apart from her people’s forest habitat,” he wrote of his time doing field linguistics in Siberia amongst speakers of the Tofa language. “The intimate environmental knowledge Tofa encodes is nonportable, largely untranslatable, and exists nowhere else on the planet, nor in the minds of any other people.”

Harrison described how Marta, one of the last living speakers of Tofa, had words to describe various insect chirps and specific patterns in the lake ice, signs that helped her navigate her way around and understand when it was time to gather certain foods or hunt certain animals.

On Aneityum island in Vanuatu, each month is named for a different variety of sugar cane, and locals have knowledge of (and names for) thousands of local plants and their medicinal properties.

Put simply, there isn’t much nature in the world that hasn’t been directly or indirectly impacted by the machinations of human culture over the years. As the World Wildlife Fund points out, many domesticated plants and animals are the result of years of selective breeding, and most landscapes in the world have been altered by humans too. The current state of the world’s biodiversity is arguably a product of human culture too, and not just nature.

And as languages disappear, so, too, does the traditional knowledge of land management and farming, fishing and hunting methods that had played such a big role in making the environment what it is today (or what it was not too long ago).

Keep the conversation going.
Learn A New Language Here