Exploring the languages at Earth’s extremities

The idea of geographical or social isolation and their immense scale amazes and intrigues me. From being miles away from the closest road or airstrip to the rest of the country, or part thereof, to being days of boat rides away from literally everyone else, it is unfathomable how there are people living and forming communities across even the most remote islands, or the most extreme environments on Earth.

Quantifying isolation here is broader than just geographical distance from the nearest inhabited place, or continent. This comes in contrast to the paper, or papers we have looked at that investigated the role of geographical isolation in language evolution. Water, mountains, and probably deserts form the most significant boundaries to the flow of people from one place to another, and are perhaps the factors most accounted for when it comes to geographical isolation. From the Pitcairn Islands, to Tristan da Cunha and St Helena, these islands are inhabited, but are hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from the closest major settlements like Cape Town in South Africa.

But the access to transport between settlements is also an important factor, although this could also be influenced by geographical separation. Antarctica is hundreds of kilometers away from the countries of New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina, and there is a permanent settlement in King George Island nearby. Otherwise, there are various research stations scattered across the continent, which are serviced by researchers and other staff. Transport to specific research bases can vary, however. While one could have a ferry service every couple days, others could only be serviced by flights, leaving a narrow window in which it is safe to do so. Supai, Arizona, is also another example of a settlement cut off from major transport options. This village in Arizona is only accessible by helicopter, horseback, or a 12.8km hike from the nearest road. Not town, road. That is, on top of the additional paperwork to obtain permits to get there.

Furthermore, amongst all of these isolation, are people groups whom we have yet to make contact yet. From the Amazon to Papua New Guinea, and more famously, North Sentinel Island, there exist various uncontacted peoples across these regions, each with their own culture, their own beliefs, their own languages, but we have never communicated with them before. While some like the North Sentinelese outright refuse contact, often with hostilities, others we are unsure about, other than the fact that when we do make contact, these people would be more susceptible to diseases we have developed an immunity to.

All of these examples of isolation has left me wondering, how do the languages there sound like? Some have supposedly empirically observed the formation of an accent, while some Englishes have diverged to form new accents or dialects from the mixing of certain languages or dialects amongst settlers centuries back. To explore this little curiosity that I have, we will be taking a dive into the languages, dialects, or accents used in the most isolated settlements on Earth, coming to you on a post in the Secret Languages category. I hope you will join me in this adventure, and that we will learn at least a couple of things along the way.


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