Climate change could lead to language loss worldwide

Climate change could wipe out small linguistic communities located on islands and coastlines vulnerable to hurricanes and sea level rise, warns Anastasia Riehl of Queen’s University.

Many of us are by now familiar with the dire predictions about climate change released by the UN’s climate change agency or IPCC. But often overlooked are the effects of climate change on the world’s languages.

According to Anastasia Riehl, director of the Strathy Language Unit of Queen’s University in Canada, only half of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages spoken today are expected to survive this century – and climate change is one of the factors contributing to this loss.

“Many small linguistic communities are located on islands and coastlines vulnerable to hurricanes and a rise in sea levels,” Riehl wrote in an article published on The Conversation. “Other communities are settled on lands where increases in temperature and fluctuations in precipitation can threaten traditional farming and fishing practices.”

Climate change will force many of these communities to relocate. These climate refugees will experience a splintering of their linguistic communities, and they will come in increased contact with other languages. “These changes will place additional pressures on languages that are already struggling to survive,” Riehl explained.

Not only does a loss of language result in a loss of identity, culture and diversity, it also leads to a loss of data and knowledge, such as when “descriptive names for plants or practices – still unknown outside a local area – are forgotten”.

Unlike homes destroyed by a wildfire or flood or crops withering in a drought, language less is less tangible and more complicated but equally devastating, Riehl warns.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

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