Written by Ana Carolina Grillo
Edited by Casandra Wilson
Some weeks ago, while wasting time scrolling through social media, I saw a title that caught my attention: “To speak of the Sea in Irish”. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was about: Irish dialects? A new communication system? A dictionary to learn Irish words related to the sea? As a marine biologist, ecologist, and Ocean culture lover, I began to glance over the first paragraphs of the article and understand the profound meaning of the words.
While interviewing local villagers from the Irish west coast, Manchán Magan, an Irish writer and documentarian, realized that several words spoken by these people were unique. The hunt for the ‘coastal vocabulary’ was born as Magan began recording every unique word and their meaning. This was not a project about merely documenting dialects, but rediscovering Ocean tradition that had almost been forgotten, which reconnects old and new villagers to the importance of securing a healthy Ocean.
Due to its historical and political background, the Irish language has been in decline since 1603 but worsened in 1973 when Ireland joined the European Union (EU). With it arrived the English language, which opened up new opportunities and allowed EU members to have access to Irish waters, resulting in a new fishing industry around the island’s jagged coast. As a result, local fishing declined, and with it, an entire vocabulary associated with this coastal practice. As Magan’s journey continued, his mission was to collect words from a forgotten past, a past where Irish villagers interacted daily with the coast, its water, and fish. Furthermore, the words also kept the strong connection that these people, like many others around the globe, once had with the Ocean.
Throughout mankind’s history, several languages and dialects have risen and fallen. Moreover, it’s common for existing languages to eliminate or add words as their cultural and societal context evolves. The technological era we are living in is a vivid example of this linguistic evolution. The new Generation Alpha, for example, probably has no idea what a floppy disk or videocassette is. From an environmental conservation perspective, these ideas can be frightening. Could you imagine forgetting and never again speaking the word coral? Or shark, or fishing? Well, this happened to Ó Confhaola, an Irish fisherman, who hasn’t spoken some words relating to the sea out loud in the last 50 years! Imagine losing your connection to the Ocean at a level where you forget the words that you once used to speak about it.
Unlike old technologies or activities no longer performed, the Ocean still covers more than 70% of our planet and is responsible for essential features and cycles that make the Earth habitable. Despite its major importance to support life as we know it, we have witnessed a major human disconnection from this huge life generator. Pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction, and climate change are some examples of the threats that we, as humankind, have imposed on the Ocean because of that disconnection.
In the face of these concerns, the United Nations has declared this year as the first of an entire global decade dedicated to the Ocean (the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development), while strengthening the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Ocean Decade aims to support actions to a sustainable and healthy Ocean through Ocean science, integrating several fields of knowledge to achieve an inclusive environment in all spheres. With it, Ocean Literacy is gaining the spotlight, and we, as a society, are encouraged to know and comprehend the Ocean’s influence on us and our influence on the Ocean. This allows all citizens to be able to value and make informed and responsible decisions concerning our Blue Planet.
Just like Magan’s journey, we too must rescue those Ocean words and meanings. We must also translate new acquired knowledge and ensure the continuation of traditions based on the correct understanding of the Ocean. We must keep Ocean Literacy alive. To be able to communicate about the Ocean in every language and dialect is fundamental to sustain our future and our planet – and the Ocean that we want.
To learn more about the Ocean Decade and Ocean Literacy, check:
United Nations (2021). 2021-2030 United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Available at https://www.oceandecade.org/
United Nations. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Available at https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Ocean Literacy Portal. Available at https://oceanliteracy.unesco.org/about/