Several Nuatambu islanders watched their homes get washed into the sea and disappear due to rising sea levels along the solomon islands forcing them to leave their traditional lands to settle elsewhere.

Coffee farmers in Guatamala worried as coffee rust spreads far and fast threatening the disappearance of many people’s favourite beverage due to increase in global temperatures.

Scientists see the Great Barrier Reef bleaching and causing the Bramble Cay Melomys (Melomys rubicola), a small rodent named after its home being the first mammal species to go extinct.

Avaha Village in 2009. Today it is completely washed away. Photo by Nigel Kelaepa.

As the world continues to heat up and as sea levels keep rising, we are going to see more things disappearing. As our lands, animals and food continue to disappear it may alter who we are, affect how and what we eat, where we live and how we relate to each other. From simple things like an apple a day or a chat over a cup of coffee to festivals that celebrate the land we live and cultivate. Research suggests that climate change may be affecting more than just our health, domestic, socio-economic and political aspects of life but also threatens our very cultures, traditions and languages.

It is estimated that, half of the worlds more than 6,000-7,000 languages will disappear by the end of the century. Language loss is all the more threatened as  more people migrate from their lands. As people migrate from their traditional homes and settle in new places they risk slowly losing part of who they are and tend to adopt the new (dominating) languages, customs, sometimes food and ways of their new surroundings.

Loss of language and culture means loss of identity; stories, myths, songs, proverbs, festivals, tradition and knowledge that has been passed on from generation to generation. We lose connection to the land we are most familiar with and in a way it is like letting go of a part of us, unwillingly, as most displaced people have the least copying abilities. As fewer people speak a language or fail to pass it on to the next generation, it slowly disappears.

The cry of many speakers of endangered languages is like that of Alitet Nemtushkin an Evenki poet who poured out his feeling about losing his language in a poem:

If I forget my native speech, and the songs that my people sing. What use are my eyes and ears? What use is my mouth?

If I forget the smell of the earth and do not serve it well. What use are my hands? Why am I leaving in the world?

How can i believe the foolish idea that my language is weak and poor, if my mothers last words were in Evenki?

Many small islands and low lying areas are of high diversity and it is believed that they also have high linguistic diversity. But most of the inhabitants of these areas are the most at risk of the impacts of climate change. In many cases climate change hits these places so hard that they become inhabitable and the owners of the land are forced to relocate, living the land they have learned to love and call home behind. Migrating most often also means leaving our languages and cultures behind as we join new lands and become diluted in their ways of life, the languages they speak, the food they eat and sometimes even how they dress. With time, parents stop speaking their native languages to their children, and as the children grow in theses different surroundings they may have more interest in the languages and cultures of their new adopted home rather than those of their parents.

In Greenland, home to approximately 60,000 native speakers, climate change has suddenly made certain natural resources such as oil and gas become more accessible. This has attracted the attention of major oil and gas companies who want these resources, as a result more people are flocking into Greenland in search of employment. The oil and gas companies have the potential to employ so many foreigners (probably twice the population of greenland). However the employment opportunities are not the only thing attracting people to greenland. Many tourists are visiting it to see the famous ice mountains before they melt. While many of these high risk areas are beloved homes to many people, for others its just another place on their bucket list. Sometimes emigration has the same impact on language and culture as immigration.

The tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands could avoid being swamped entirely, although it will still suffer profoundly from sea-level rise.Christopher Johnson/Wikimedia Commons

In Africa, where it is estimated that 2,000 of the 6,000 languages of the world are, much of our traditional religious practices and languages find expression in nature. Therefore, anything that threatens the normal occurrence of events threatens our religious traditional practices/festivals/ceremonies as well. Not only that, these may affect the religious faith of many displaced people.

Climate change also threatens to damage places of spiritual value to a community, places where leaders/people meet to pray or worship in their native languages. In Nigeria, the floods may have wiped out statues, shrines, and temples of spiritual/cultural importance. It may take people years to rebuild these statues or temples.

For generations and generations, farmers have been able to predict weather patterns however the recent changes in our climate have made that almost impossible and in many ways affected the patterns of farming and cultivation. This is an indirect impact on local festivals as there are many festivals that are affected due to poor yields.

In Zambia we have many festivals such as one in the north-western part of the country which is a celebration of bounty farm harvests. An example of one ceremony affected by climate change is the Kuomboka. Kuomboka is a celebration of local culture held in the western part of Zambia annually. The word Kuomboka is a Luyana name which originates from the Lozi speaking tribe, it means literally “to get out of water.” This traditional ceremony is usually done at the end of March or beginning of April with the specific date only known secretly by the Lozi chief/king who is popularly known by his title ‘The Litunga.’ it is a celebration of the move of the Litunga from his compound at Lealui when the upper Zambezi river floods the Barotse floodplain to Limulunga on higher ground. The king leads his people to higher ground. Because of recent droughts in Southern Africa, the traditional ceremony missed 3 years of celebrations. This change in weather patterns has altered the seasons of rituals and festivals.

Kuomboka is a word in the Lozi language; it literally means ‘to get out of water’. In today’s Zambia it is applied to a traditional ceremony that takes place at the end of the rain season, when the upper Zambezi River floods the plains of the Western Province. The festival celebrates the move of the Litunga, king of the Lozi people, from his compound at Lealui in the Barotse Floodplain of the Zambezi River to Limulunga on higher ground. Source: Wikipedia

In the cold parts of Siberia, the warm winters have caused elders to question whether their traditional beliefs will continue as they always have. For generations the indigenous horse and cattle breeders have believed and passed on the story of the bull that keeps the cold in winter until the time of spring. The bull is believed to melt of its horns as the weather gets warm and eventually its head which is what marks the beginning of spring. But with the winters already being warm, the bull may not return to keep the cold.

The loss of most of these languages does not matter much to the majority of humans despite the fact that these languages are spoken by millions of different people worldwide as either their first or second language. However, it is important for these languages to be preserved. Language is very intimately linked to identity and it unites many people in different parts of the world. It supports cultural identity and plays valuable roles in a community’s heritage. Spiritual, ecological and historical knowledge may be lost in the process if a language goes extinct. This knowledge irrespective of the language being endangered receives little or no attention or documentation.

We cannot simply let these languages, traditions, festivals and cultures disappear. There is beauty in diversity. We need to keep them relevant in all their forms, even if these areas become inhabitable. We need to encourage people to still carry on their native languages even if they learn new languages. The world would be a boring place if we were all just a big one/two-language speaking society despite the increasing need for globalisation which people feel would make it much easier to communicate and conduct business if the world spoke more more widely used languages like English, Chinese or Spanish. People all over the world are trying different ways of either making these languages and customs relevant or preserving them for future generations. For example in Greenland, the government is removing Danish names and restoring Inuit names; in Norway, a group of teens organised a campaign called “speak Sami to me” where peers where invited and encouraged to use Sami language (even on Facebook). 1.5 degrees may seem like a small number but it is important that we stay below it in order to limit the risks associated with climate change as literally everything we know and hold dear is at stake. Hopefully some of these languages and cultures will survive the impacts of climate change.

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References:

https://www.google.co.zm/amp/s/ amp.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate- change

https://www.google.co.zm/amp/www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/revealed-10-favourite- foods-could-7093232.amp

https://www.google.co.zm/amp/relay.nationalgeographic.com/proxy/distribution/ public/amp/2016/06/first-mammal-extinct-climate-change-bramble-cay-melomys

http://www.k-international.com/blog/climate-change-and-endangered- languages/

http:// www.uchicago.edu/features/resquing_endangered_native_languages/

Nancy Saili

About Nancy Saili