Preserving the Languages of the Arctic.

Lorraine Boissoneault writes in Jstor Daily about the 2008 Arctic Indigenous Languages Symposium and the link between linguistic preservation and biological diversity in the Arctic; here’s the conclusion:

The Saami aren’t the only indigenous people collaborating with scientists to better document the effects of climate change. A number of hunters in Alaskan native communities along the northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea provided information about changing sea ice patterns and polar bear behavior. The scientists concluded: “The hunters also provided information about local abundance that is complementary to research on larger scales, but which could not have been gained in any other way.” Basically, because of their connection to the environment, the hunters saw and knew things that scientists did not.

“It’s not that things are untranslatable,” said Holton, the documentary linguist, on the topic of lost languages. He works with Alaskan native communities to record local place names and samples of their languages in hopes that they won’t die out or be forgotten. “You just lose a subtlety for how you view the world. You can’t recover that sense of intimacy, that ability to express things in a certain way that can’t be captured by other languages.”

And this might be exactly why the six permanent members of the Arctic Council chose to focus their efforts on language revitalization. In doing so, they might be able to protect their homes and ways of life–or, at the least, show resilience in the face of enormous change.

“Neither nature nor language can be permanently conserved; there would be only a record of that time. Living language and living environment will always change,” Retter said. “Our challenge now is how fast things are changing. When you don’t use things your vocabulary goes to sleep. When nature is changing, you might have vocabulary for it that goes to sleep.”

Thanks, Paul!


  1. Reasonably relevant (as well as touching on a supposed urban legend that may not be so wrong after all): an Inupiaq-English ice dictionary listing over 100 terms for ice and ice-associated phenomena.–Wales-Dictionary.pdf

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