Languages of Oceania

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Oceania is home to about one-fourth of the world's total languages. Terence E. Hays wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Most Pacific languages have not yet been studied systematically, and classifications based on their presumed genetic relationships (i.e., connections through common ancestral languages) are continually being modified as we learn more about them. Virtually all linguists agree, however, that the languages of Oceania can be assigned to three major groups, each of which is unrelated to the others: Australian, Austronesian, and Papuan. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

“Indeed, as if the linguistic picture in Oceania were not complex enough, one result of that very complexity has been the creation of numerous pidgin languages, with some arising among Pacific islanders themselves as they traded and otherwise interacted across language boundaries, and others occurring in the context of the colonial period when islanders vastly expanded their contacts with others, especially through plantation labor (see below). A partial list would include Micronesian Pidgin English, Hawaiian Pidgin, Samoan Plantation Pidgin, Queensland Plantation Pidgin, Chinese Pidgin English, Sandalwood English, Macassarese Pidgin, Torres Strait Broken, Him Motu, Bahasa Indonesia, and Melanesian Pidgin English, the last with three main dialects: Tok Pisin (in Papua New Guinea), Solomons Pijin, and Bislama (or Bichelemar, in Vanuatu). |~|

“Oceania's linguistic diversity, with about 1,500 distinct languages traditionally spoken and probably most islanders fluent in at least one of the pidgins just mentioned, parallels at least as much diversity in cultures. A few cultural traits could be said to have been shared throughout the traditional Pacific (e.g., subsistence-based life in domestic households, land typically owned by kinship-based units, and the absence of draft animals and the wheel). But differences far outnumber similarities, and the 'culture areas" into which Oceania is conventionally divided must themselves be appreciated as broad regions possessing some general shared characteristics but also much diversity, as is evident from the 151 cultural summaries included in this volume. These cultures have been selected for inclusion on the basis of their representativeness of this range as well as for their prominence in the literature on the Pacific. |~|

Austronesian Languages

There are 1,200 Austronesia languages — about a fifth of the world's total. They are spoken on island in the Indian and Pacific Oceans from Madagascar to Hawaii. About a hundred different languages are spoken on Vanuatu alone. Malay, Formosan, and most of the languages of Indonesia, the Philippines and Polynesia are Austronesia languages.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ “The second-largest group consists of the Austronesian (formerly called 'Malayo-Polynesian") languages. After the Indo-European Family, Austronesian languages are the most numerous and most widely dispersed in the world, with more than 800 languages spread across two-thirds of the Earth's circumference, from Madagascar to southeast Asia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and throughout most of the Pacific. Perhaps as many as 450 of these are found in Oceania as defined in this volume. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

Nearly 250,000 people speak Fijian, and Samoan has about 200,000 speakers; however, most Austronesian languages in Oceania currently have fewer than 10,000 speakers. Most linguists consider these languages to be derived from a language (called Proto-Oceanic) associated with the Lapita culture discussed earlier.

Over time, it is thought, this single ancestral language community dispersed and diverged; now members of the Oceanic Subgroup of Austronesian languages are found along the northern and eastern coasts of New Guinea and throughout most of Melanesia, Polynesia, and all of Micronesia, except for Palauan, Yapese, and the language of the Chamorros of Guam (these being affiliated with Southeast Asian Austronesian languages). The Austronesian languages of the Pacific are in continual evolution, influenced in part by dynamic interaction with speakers of Papuan languages, and there is much controversy among linguists regarding lower-level groupings, especially for those Austronesian languages spoken in Melanesia. |~|

Papuan Languages

Terence E. Hays wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The largest and most complex major group of languages in Oceania consists of the Papuan languages. There are over 700 distinct Papuan languages (with uncounted dialects), but fewer than 50 of these are adequately documented. More than 60 language families have been proposed to bring order to this diversity, but current evidence suggests that not all of the Papuan languages are genetically related to each other. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

“Indeed, until recently, they were designated simply as "NonAustronesian languages," a label still used by many scholars, to indicate this fact; that is, it was clear from their grammatical structures and other features that they were not related to Austronesian languages or to those of Australia, but it was doubted that they formed a single higher-level group. Some Papuan languages are found in eastern Indonesia, but most are spoken by the peoples of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the island of Bougainville.

Given their distribution, and especially their predominance in the interiors of Melanesian islands, most scholars suppose that the first settlers of Near Oceania (see above) were speakers of a language (or languages) ancestral to Papuan languages, with the current diversity and complexity developing subsequently within the region. While a few languages, such as Chimbu and Enga in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, have nearly 200,000 speakers each, most Papuan languages are spoken by only a few hundreds or thousands of people. Extensive borrowing from Austronesian-speaking neighbors and the influence of lingua francas and intrusive languages such as English and Indonesian make the situation even more dynamic and complex today. |~|

Aborigines in Australia

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The smallest of these groups consists of about 200 languages that were spoken by Aboriginal Australians. Perhaps 50, or one-fourth, of these are now considered to be extinct and many more are on the path to extinction as increasing numbers of Aborigines adopt English and fail to pass on their traditional languages to their children. Virtually all of the Australian languages are thought to be genetically related to each other, but their classification into language families and other groupings is still debated. At present, no clear linkages have been demonstrated between any Australian language and others in the Pacific or elsewhere in the world. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

“When they first met Europeans there were perhaps as many as 300,000 Aborigines, divided into about 600 tribes, living in Australia. Tribes varied considerably in size (averaging about 450 members) and consisted of intermarrying "hordes," each of which claimed a common territory and shared a language, name, and certain cultural practices. A horde comprised the members of a clan (based on either matrilineal (descent through the female line) or patrilineal descent (through the male line)) and their in-married spouses; the clan was considered to be the collective owner of an area identified by the presence of sacred places, established by ancestral beings during "the Dreamtime" (or 'the Dreaming"), when they gave form to the Earth and established traditional customs.

Throughout Aboriginal Australia, subsistence was based on hunting and gathering and tribal boundaries were ecologically based. Vast and intricate networks of tracks and paths crisscrossed the continent, through which intertribal trade was conducted and joint ceremonial undertakings were facilitated. While coastal regions offered somewhat richer and more various food resources than did the deserts of the interior, wild game and plant food in general were seasonal and scattered, requiring frequent traveL In the desert areas, people engaged in what has been called "restricted wandering" within a prescribed, though often huge, area; some coastal peoples practiced "centrally based wandering," periodically fanning out from semipermanent home bases. In this volume, the diversity of Aboriginal cultures is well represented by seventeen summaries, including the major desert peoples (e.g., Aranda, Mardudjara, Ngatatjara, Pintupi, and Warlpiri), those of the more varied northern regions (e.g., Murngin, Tiwi, and Wik Mungkan), and island dwellers as different from each other as the Torres Strait Islanders and the Tasmanians. |~|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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