In the past year we have seen the impacts that civil war, international armed conflict, and natural disasters have had in causing the mass displacement of refugees and environmental refugees. While survivors of the South Sudanese conflict are being internally displaced, refugees from Syria are being relocated around the globe. In both of these situations the displaced persons can migrate or be in refugee camps where their native language is not spoken. Caleb Everett, anthropological linguistics professor at the University of Miami, explains, “Language evolves in relation to where it’s spoken. Language does not evolve in a vacuum, it is not impervious to the effects of environment. Just as ecologies impact human behavior and the adaptive processes of human cultures in myriad ways, they seem to also influence the ways in which languages develop.” Therefore, if through processes of forced migration individuals are relocated to a different climate zone than the one that they were previously residing in, it may have an effect on their future ability to speak their native language in the new region. For example, “By mapping the distribution of more than 3,700 tonal and non-tonal languages, Everett and his colleagues found that tonal languages tend to cluster in warm, humid areas. And they’re 10 times less prevalent in dry, subfreezing climes, like Siberia, compared with non-tonal languages.”
Language death can occur more rapidly than one would expect. Mass migration can expedite the loss of language leaving few to no remaining speakers to record its historiological, geographical, and cultural influence on societies:
Migration also plays a large role in language change and language death. When speakers of Proto-Indo-European migrated to most of Europe and large parts of Asia between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, they probably brought about massive language change and language death. In Western Europe, Basque could possibly be the only modern language that survived the influx of the Indo-Europeans.
Islands and peninsular regions are particularly vulnerable to experiencing climate-induced natural disasters. These regions are often linguistically dense, such as Vanuatu with, ” 110 indigenous languages spoken in an area of about 15,000 square kilometres (about 6,000 square miles)—that’s about one language for every 136 square kilometres.”As demonstrated by Greenberg’s Diversity Index, approximately 60% of the top ten most linguistically diverse nations are either peninsular or are surrounded by water entirely. This poses a threat to the survival of their languages and dialects as sea levels rise and the likelihood of natural disasters continue to increase. The following chart published by the Economist measures this diversity based on the volume of indigenous languages spoken in a given country.
Interestingly, Researchers Alícia Adserà and Mariola Pytliková have found that some migratory patterns can be motivated by an individual’s native language:
…migration rates are higher between countries whose languages are more similar. Migration flows to a country with the same first official language as that in the origin country are around 20% higher than those to a destination with the most distant language, even after taking account of differences in other socio-economic conditions between origin and destination countries.
If this pattern were to persist, linguistic communities would be created in the destination countries that would foster the continuation of these languages. Jose Mira of the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela writes in the MIT Technology Review, “An exogenous injection of just a few speakers into one group or another can determine whether a language lives or dies,” It is the outcome of this competition between languages that can change the course of history for a community, though bilingual individuals have an advantage according to this research, “When bilinguals are taken into account, the models allow for a co-evolution of two languages, such as Galician and Castillian in north west Spain.”
Written by Olivia Dufour