Is Tokelauan facing extinction?

Opinion: What happens when a language shifts from its homeland, when more speakers live here, in NZ? In Tokelau Language Week, John Middleton explains.

It is Tokelau Language Week and although a brief glance at the statistics paints a dire picture for its survival, the real picture for Tokelauan is much more interesting: The native language of this tiny South Pacific nation is shifting across geographical borders with the majority of its 4000 speakers now living in New Zealand.

The language is undoubtedly endangered, but the complete story is extremely complex.

The physical land of Tokelau is made up of three atolls, Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo, with a combined total of only 12 square kilometres. The inhabited land is even smaller; the singular villages of each atoll are barely a couple of hundred metres in diameter. So a walk across one island would be like walking from one entrance of Albert Park in Auckland, to another. That’s not a lot of land.

The total population on these atolls is 1647, according to the Tokelau National Statistics Office (December 2019). Meanwhile, in New Zealand, there are more than 7000 Tokelauans and 3000 speakers of the language. Is there any other endangered language in the world where the majority of speakers don’t live in the place where the language originated?

This situation is not static. The language will continue to shift away from the atolls because the entire nation is less than 5m above sea level, which means the changing climate is a threat to their very existence. A quote from the Sydney Morning Herald gives a clue to the immediacy of the problem:

“The tiny island-nation of Tokelau is facing extinction. Its unique people, who for generations have lived on a mere 12 square kilometres of land in the middle of the South Pacific, have been told that within decades their homeland could be rendered uninhabitable by the greenhouse effect.”

That article came out December 7, 1991 - 29 years ago.

For a linguist, this is unique and tragic, but it is also exciting. Culture and land are always embedded into language. Tokelauan literature illustrates this with words like tautai (fisherman) and vaka (boat) showing up regularly.

But with a shifting home, language must also undergo lexical expansion. For example, on an atoll where the highest point is 5m above sea level, and crossing the island takes 10 minutes, when would you need the phrase ‘mountain-climbing’, or ‘tramping’? In New Zealand, for obvious reasons, this terminology is commonplace.

Someone recently asked me why we should care about the health of a language. It’s not an uncommon question; why, after all, does it really matter if a language becomes extinct? But no-one would say the same about an animal species, tigers for example, and that’s not such an outrageous comparison. Languages are as complex and unique as animal species. Let’s take Tokelauan and English, which couldn’t be more different.

In English, the first word in a sentence is the subject, followed by the verb and object, so we get sentences like ‘John eats food’ or ‘John cooked the fish’. In contrast, the verb comes first in Tokelauan, so the sentence ‘Na tunu e John te ika’ directly translates as ‘Cooked by John the fish’. This makes Tokelauan one of only 10 percent of the world’s languages which start sentences with a verb.

The majority of Tokelauan speakers already live in New Zealand, but the ongoing destruction of their homeland makes for a strange cultural situation – the future extinction of the soil, but the survival of the language in a completely different area of the world. What will happen to Tokelauan when New Zealand becomes its physical homeland? With no land associated with the language anymore, where does Tokelauan fit in New Zealand’s constitution?

Currently, New Zealand has two official languages: Te reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language (English is only a de facto official language). We have extensive education policies to increase the use of both and to protect and revitalise te reo Māori as the indigenous language of this country.

Should we also consider whether Tokelauan will be officially codified in statute, with the others? And how will we manage an educational approach that recognises the unique challenge of having a language with no home, based in our country?

These are not just hypothetical questions. As the atolls of Tokelau become more and more threatened, the migration of the language centre continues to shift. This cannot simply be an academic discussion; real policies need to be put in place to prepare for the inevitable.

John Middleton is a doctoral candidate in the School of Cultures, Languages and Linguistics, Faculty of Arts.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Is Tokelauan facing extinction? 28 October 2020.

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