There were once more than 100 native language newspapers in circulation in Hawaii that chronicled daily life on the islands. As early as 1834, the newspapers supplied native Hawaiians with news, current affairs, opinion, and, importantly, information about extreme weather events.
In 1871, an intense hurricane struck the islands of Hawaii and Maui, causing catastrophic damage. The newspapers reported on the destruction, traced the likely path of the storm, and documented the impact on Hawaiians.
“The streaming of the wind was similar to 5,000 steam whistles set off at one time,” reported the paper Ke Au Okoa. “The rain continued from morning til night. At 11 o’clock, the waters rushed swiftly and the lowlands were flooded, sweeping everything that was in their paths. The damages were great concerning the koa trees and the grapevines.”
In 1893, a group backed by U.S. troops illegally overthrew Hawaii’s monarchical government and, shortly after, passed a law mandating all schools teach their classes in English. The Hawaiian language fell into decline, and, as a result, the native-language newspapers faded first into obscurity, then completely ceased to exist. Records of the 1871 hurricane were consigned to dusty archives and its devastating impact on the islands all but forgotten by Hawaii’s residents.
But in the early ’90s, Puakea Nogelmeier, PhD, a professor of language at the University of Hawai‘i, discovered that the archipelago’s libraries and museums had hoarded its old newspapers. Realizing their historical and cultural value, he started the painstaking process of translating and digitizing each article.
Read more: Future Human
The thatched roof held back the sun’s rays, but it could not keep the tropical heat at bay. As everyone at the research workshop headed outside for a break, small groups splintered off to gather in the shade of coconut trees and enjoy a breeze. I wandered from group to group, joining in the discussions. Each time, I noticed that the language of the conversation would change from an indigenous language to something they knew I could understand, Bislama or English. I was amazed by the ease with which the meeting’s participants switched between languages, but I was even more astonished by the number of different indigenous languages.
Thirty people had gathered for the workshop on this island in the South Pacific, and all except for me came from the island, called Makelua, in the nation of Vanuatu. They lived in 16 different communities and spoke 16 distinct languages.
In many cases, you could stand at the edge of one village and see the outskirts of the next community. Yet the residents of each village spoke completely different languages. According to recent work by my colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, this island, just 100 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide, is home to speakers of perhaps 40 different indigenous languages. Why so many?
We could ask this same question of the entire globe. People don’t speak one universal language, or even a handful. Instead, today our species collectively speaks over 7,000 distinct languages.
Read more: Inverse
Why does the Hawaiian language flow melodically from vowel to vowel, whereas Hungarian is peppered with consonants? It may have something to do with the climate and terrain where those languages developed, a new study of more than 600 languages from around the world suggests.
Previous research has shown that some other species’ vocalizations are shaped by their environment. Birds such as the song sparrow, for example, sing at higher pitches in cities, where lower frequency notes would be drowned out by urban noise. And birds living in forested areas tend to sing at lower frequencies than birds living in open spaces, suggesting different species and populations may optimize their vocalizations to travel through branches and other obstacles that deflect high-frequency sounds. The phenomenon—called “acoustic adaptation”—“is seen in species after species,” of birds, bats, and other animals, says Caleb Everett, an anthropological linguist at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, who was not involved in the new work.
How much, if any, acoustic adaptation occurs in human languages is unclear, says Ian Maddieson, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. To explore that question, Maddieson and colleague Christophe Coupé, of the French National Center for Scientific Research’s Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage, combined data on 633 languages worldwide with ecological and climatic information on the regions where those languages developed, excluding internationally spoken languages—such as English, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish—that are no longer restricted to the geographic regions where they emerged.
Read more: Science/AAAS