TOWER OF BABEL IN THE SOUTH SEAS

Can you imagine a world where people speak the same language? Can you imagine yourself always understanding what foreigners say and being able to express your thoughts no matter where you are? Hold on a moment, I’m trying to form this picture in my mind… A world with one language. Convenient, that’s for sure. And scary as hell. Because what gives our little universe a distinctive flavor is a multitude of tongues.

Yes, I admit, if we all spoke the same language, it would be much easier. Think about it. You go to another country and have absolutely no trouble communicating with the locals. You simply know what they’re saying. Moreover, you can tell them what you want and need. Wonderful, right? Whenever somebody utters a word, your brain screams: “Bam, deciphered! Bam, deciphered! Bam, deciphered!” Everything is so transparent that it starts to become…boring. You suddenly feel as if you were 5 km from your own place, wandering the streets of the city you know oh-so well. You are no longer surrounded by a cacophony of foreign sounds, so there’s no mystery, no excitement of the unknown. And – just like that – the world loses its appeal.

I dare to say that God (it was God, wasn’t it?) knew exactly what he was doing when he mixed up the languages. He gave us diversity and thus an incredible chance to discover the exotic and unfamiliar. And what better way to do that than to learn a foreign lingo?

The Pacific Islands region covers a vast area of more than 300,000 square miles. And nowhere in the world is the Tower of Babel taller than there. It is filled to the brim with over ten hundred distinct languages. Actually, Oceania is believed to be linguistically the most complex part of our globe. But do you know what’s even more staggering? As John Lynch, a linguist specializing in Oceanic languages, writes in his book, these languages are spoken by  not much more than 0.1 percent of the world’s population. Only 0.1 percent! Unfortunately, Pacific languages have never been in demand. Well, why would they be? There are approximately 175,000 Tongan speakers worldwide; 440,000 Samoan; 660,000 Fijian; 120,000 Kiribati. Not a lot, huh? What is more, half of these tiny islands may sink beneath the ocean waves, so why care? Let me tell you why.

First and foremost to show that “small” doesn’t mean “worse” or “less important”. We cannot neglect both the Pacific countries and their languages just because most individuals fail to find the islands on a map (which is embarrassing, just so you’re aware).

Second, to preserve what can be preserved. They say that when a language dies, a part of culture dies with it. There is no doubt that words connect people with places. They hold ancient wisdom, knowledge, and information only those from within the culture can fully comprehend.

Third, to make sure that if one day the frigate birds are forced to leave the last atoll of Kiribati, the country’s people – as well as their neighbours from the Marshalls, Tuvalu, etc. –  will have a piece of home in their new lives.

Languages matter. All the languages; not only English, French, Mandarin, German. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people were willing to learn Samoan? Or Tokelauan? Or Chamorro? Not because these are particularly sought after (regretfully, they are not), but for pure personal enjoyment.

It’s easy to predict that some of the Pacific languages – the small, regional ones with only a few hundreds of speakers – will vanish, sooner or later. The truth is, quite a few of them have been nearing extinction. Maybe at this very moment, as you are reading my words, one of these tongues is slowly disappearing. Just like that. Without anyone even noticing. That’s the sad reality I don’t think we will be able to change. But the “major” Oceanic languages can not only survive but thrive. All they need is a little well-deserved attention. The Tower of Babel in the South Seas may continue to buzz with the islands’ sounds: beautiful, distinctive, one of a kind. We can’t let this tower collapse. Because if it does, it will be impossible to rebuild. You wouldn’t want to hear “Hello” instead of “Aloha”, would you?


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