Have you ever wondered exactly how many languages are spoken in the Pacific region? I had been pondering over this for quite some time before I finally decided to do some research. And although I had always been somewhat aware of the Oceania’s linguistic richness, I was shocked/amazed/surprised by what I discovered.
The islands of the Pacific may be tiny in terms of land mass (except Papua New Guinea, that is), but they are spread over a vast area of ocean, which makes them a lot larger than they appear. The countries and territories contain just 0.1 % of the world’s population and… ⅓ of the world’s languages! Impressive, isn’t it? Actually, Oceania is considered one of the most linguistically diverse continents on the planet Earth. But what does that mean, exactly? How many languages exist in what’s often (and lovingly) called the Blue Continent? Well, let’s do the math, shall we?
According to Ethnologue, the most authoritative resource on world languages, there are 1059 living tongues in Melanesia (institutional: 48, developing: 351, vigorous: 398, in trouble: 195, dying: 67), 27 in Micronesia (institutional: 11, developing: 4, vigorous: 4, in trouble: 5, dying: 3), and 19 in Polynesia (institutional: 5, developing: 3, vigorous: 0, in trouble: 11, dying: 0). This gives us a total number of 1105 languages. Quite a lot for such a little-known part of our globe, don’t you agree? And what’s even more striking, these figures cannot be considered as official data, because it is virtually impossible to determine the exact number of languages in the Pacific, which I will explain further on. If you got lost at this point, I don’t blame you.
Now, as you can easily notice, there is a disproportion between the number of tongues in each of the three Oceanian regions. The area with the fewest languages – and our bronze medalist here – is Polynesia, where there is generally one language per island group. So we have Samoan in the Samoan Archipelago (Samoa and American Samoa); Cook Islands Maori (often called Rarotongan), Penrhyn, Pukapukan, and Rakahanga-Manihiki in the Cook Islands; Tahitian, Tuamotuan, Marquesan, Mangareva, Rapa, and Austral in French Polynesia; Niuean in Niue; Tokelauan in Tokelau; Tongan and Niuafo’ou in Tonga; Tuvaluan and Gilbertese (Kiribati) in Tuvalu; Wallisian (Uvean) and Futunan in Wallis and Futuna. Some of these languages are spoken by quite a large number of people (for instance Samoan or Tongan), while others are used only by small communities.
Having eight languages more than Polynesia, Micronesia finishes in second place. Out of seven countries/territories that make up the region, four encompass more than one tongue. These are the Federated States of Micronesia with its seventeen languages (the most popular ones are Chuukese, Pohnpeian, Kosraean, Yapese); Palau with its three (Palauan, Sonsorolese, Tobian); Northern Mariana Islands with its three (Carolinian, Chamorro, Tanapag); and Nauru with its two (Nauruan, Chinese Pidgin English). Each of the remaining countries has only one language, so there is Chamorro in Guam, Gilbertese in Kiribati, and Marshallese in the Marshall Islands.
The outright winner of this competition is, of course, Melanesia. It seems almost unbelievable that five island chains can contain over 1050 tongues. I don’t think you want me to go through all of them here, so I will only allude to the “major” ones. Fiji is home to ten languages, the most notable of which is Fijian. Thirty-eight languages can be found in New Caledonia, but only Drehu and Paicî have a sizeable number of speakers. The lingua franca of Solomon Islands, which has around seventy local tongues, is Pijin. Bislama serves a similar function in Vanuatu, a country with more than one hundred tongues. Last but definitely not least is Papua New Guinea. It boasts an impressive eight hundred and forty living languages, but the primary one is Tok Pisin.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the exact number of languages in Oceania is difficult to assess. Some of the tongues are spoken by such small communities that when they become extinct, no one takes any notice. And the sad truth is that vernacular languages are dying at an alarming rate. They simply go silent with the death of a last speaker, or they get abandoned in favour of the omnipresent English.
What further compounds the matter is the fact that linguists still have trouble differentiating a language from a dialect. Although there are criteria that help make the distinction, it’s not as simple as the theory makes it sound. But that’s a topic for another day.
So, one more time: how many languages are there in the Pacific? Well, a lot. A lot of beautiful languages worth nurturing.