Dying tongues. There are quite a few of them in the Pacific. So what? Why should anyone care? Does it really matter if a little-known language spoken by a tiny group of people in some island country no one has heard about goes out of existence? Is that such a tragedy? For most of the world, it is not. A fact of life, they will say. But for the affected communities, it is much more than just that. Isn’t that reason enough for us to bother?
I am not a Pacific Islander. I’m just a haole/pala(n)gi/I-matang woman with no connection to Oceania except one – I wholeheartedly adore that corner of our globe. I also think that every nation should be able to preserve its culture and heritage, a big part of which is the unique system of communication we call a “language”. If we allow the endangered tongues to die out, the world – yes, the whole world – will lose more than just words. So that’s why I am convinced that the cause is worth fighting for. And I really hope you will agree with me (unless you already do).
Hardly ever do people think about languages. We only use them. Every single day we create sentences to let others know what’s on our minds. But we tend to forget that there is a hidden message encoded in each statement. That message is a mix of our culture, heritage, and national identity.
Indigenous tongues hold information and nuances specific to people and places. The wisdom and knowledge handed down from generation to generation can survive because of the language. The names of plants endemic to a region, traditional healing methods, customs, metaphors, ways of thinking and perceiving. Some words and expressions, often described as “untranslatable” because they lack an exact equivalent in other tongues, can only truly be understood by native speakers. They are like little secrets of cultures. Of course, you may understand what “ifoga” is, but if you are not Samoan you will never fully comprehend the meaning of this word.
Because languages give us roots, the loss of a language means the loss of a sense of belonging. It is said, not without reason, that one must know where one came from to know where one is going. The moment we let the Pacific tongues to vanish is the moment the Islanders get deprived of their heritage. It’s important to remember that Oceania is one of the regions most threatened by climate change. Hundreds of low-lying islands may disappear, in some cases wiping out whole countries. Imagine Marshallese or Kiribati people forced to flee their homelands. Living in a foreign territory, they’ll be left with not much than their values, traditions, beliefs, memories, and, yes, language. Without these no group will ever be able to continue to exist as a people with a unique culture.
But maintaining culture and heritage is not the sole reason why we must save the endangered tongues. Do you know why our world is so fascinating? Because it’s diverse. If we all looked the same, thought the same, and talked the same, it would immediately lose its charm and appeal.
An essential part of this diversity are languages. They make the planet Earth so unbelievably interesting! By discovering a foreign tongue, we discover a whole new world. From characteristic sounds to specific terms to distinctive word order – every language is a treasure of its own. No two are identical. Some are similar, but even those show differences. This abundance of tongues should never be considered an inconvenience. Quite the contrary. As it expands our worldview and alters the definition of “normal”, it is a gift we ought to appreciate.
Languages are important. All the languages. Even the smallest ones spoken by a few people at the “end” of the world. We must act together now. Because if not us, then who? If not now, then when? Climate change is real. Globalization won’t stop. What are we waiting for?
Māoris have this saying: “Ko taku reo taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku mapihi mauria” – “My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul”. We can’t let anyone close that window. May the island breeze keep blowing.