What Languages Are Spoken In Antarctica?

Yes, there are languages spoken in Antarctica. While there’s no official census, we can make an educated guess as to which ones.
two penguins in front of a research vessel

Antarctica is not known for its linguistic diversity. In fact, it’s not well-known for any diversity at all. It’s the fifth-largest continent, and yet barren of nearly all life. (Except penguins, of course.) What, then, could we possibly identify as the languages of Antarctica?

The fact is there are people on Antarctica — pretty much entirely researchers — and they have to be speaking something. We looked at the great white expanse to see what languages are used to facilitate communication amongst its inhabitants.

Indigenous Languages Of Antarctica

There are no indigenous languages of Antarctica, and we thought it was worth it to point that out. There was a time about 52 million years ago when Antarctica became a tropical paradise — palm trees! in Antarctica! — but that was well before the development of human speech. The existence of humans on the continent is a relatively new phenomenon.

A Brief History Of Humans On Antarctica

The idea that there was a landmass at the bottom of the planet has been around for hundreds of years, but the first confirmed sighting of Antarctica was on January 27, 1820. The sighting occurred on an expedition led by Russians, though they did not actually set foot on the landmass. The first landing in Antarctica happened the following year by the American sealer John Davis, though his claim is not entirely verified. It wasn’t until 1895 that there was a fully confirmed landing, when Norwegian-Swedish whalers set foot on the continent.

The discovery marked the first phase of Antarctic exploration, which was mainly done for the purposes of hunting and trade. Whalers and sealers often sailed through the area to hunt. There were also various naval and exploratory expeditions in the mid-19th century, but those wouldn’t truly ramp up until closer to the end of the century.

The late 1800s and early 1900s marked the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, when explorers from all over the world set off to discover what the continent had to offer. Two of the most coveted firsts was to reach the magnetic and geographic South Poles. The former was done by British explorers in 1907, and the latter by Norwegian explorers in 1911. This was an era marked by incredible fortitude and tragic death on the continent.

This period and the years following also led to the beginning of political claims in Antarctica. The British were the first to lay claim to massive swaths of the continent, expanding their territory there in 1917 and gradually claiming more land over the following decades. Worried about the British gaining complete control over the continent, Argentina, Chile, Norway and France also started to make their own land claims.

Laying claim to a piece of land that is completely uninhabited and can hardly be defended leads to a lot of dispute. Take, for example, Norway’s claim — specifically to a region named Queen Maud Land — which after a few years of argument was accepted by the British, but then rebuked by Nazi Germany, which wanted its own piece of the continent. In order to claim it, German pilots flew over the land, photographing it and dropping darts with images of swastikas on them. It was a tense time in Antarctic diplomacy.

To address conflicting claims — which were primarily between Great Britain, Argentina and Chile — an international agreement had to be reached. After a few failed attempts, the 12 involved countries eventually landed on the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959. In it, the countries agreed that the whole continent could be used solely for scientific reasons. Still, seven countries have territorial claims — Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom — but those claims are largely ignored. Since it was instituted, the treaty has grown to include 54 parties, most of which have established research bases on the continent.

The Languages Of Antarctica

The population of Antarctica fluctuates throughout the year, with about 1,000 people there during the winter and 5,000 during the summer. There are 66 research bases, but only about half of them operate year-round. While this is a pretty small population, that number includes people from all over the world, which means there is probably a pretty large number of languages.

In the summer of 2017, the population of Antarctica included people from Argentina (601), Australia (243), Belarus (12), Belgium (40), Brazil (66), Bulgaria (22), Chile (433), China (166), Czechia (20), Ecuador (34), Finland (17), France (90), Germany (104), India (113), Italy (120), Japan (130), South Korea (130), the Netherlands (10), New Zealand (86), Norway (70), Peru (30), Poland (40), Russia (335), South Africa (80), Spain (98), Sweden (20), Ukraine (34), the United Kingdom (196), the United States (1,399) and Uruguay (68). The area also attracts about 50,000 tourists a year, but those don’t count as part of the population.

There has unfortunately not been a language census of Antarctica, but you can probably get a good guess at how many people speak each language based on the countries of origin. The language with the most presence is English. This is both because English-speaking countries have the greatest representation on the continent, and also because English has become the de facto lingua franca of scientific research (and also of the rest of the world). And in addition to English, there are small but sizable populations of German, Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese and Italian speakers, among others.

Even though English is the most represented, Antarctica provides a promising microcosm of the world. Science is not a perfect utopia, but it does allow for international cooperation and community for the purpose of learning more about the world we live in.

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