They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. And they are probably right. Anything with colours, lines, dots, or arrows just stays in our heads better. Now, I would love to explain to you the relationships between Pacific languages using a nicely created tree diagram, but – truthfully – I suck at this. So instead of drawing a graph here, I’ll tell you a story about two big linguistic families.
Once upon a time… Ok, I’m just kidding. This wouldn’t be a good beginning. Or would it? Let’s try again.
Once upon a time linguists decided to group the world’s languages into families based on common or similar features the languages displayed. Pacific tongues – all eleven hundred of them – were divided between several families, two of which happen to be very broad. Think of them as the great ancestors.
One of these ancestors is called Austronesian. It includes all the languages spoken in Polynesia, Micronesia, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Vanuatu; almost all languages of Solomon Islands; and a few languages of Papua New Guinea. This big family further splits up into two smaller units: Formosan and Malayo-Polynesian. These are our clans.
Let’s leave the Formosan clan alone and focus on the Malayo-Polynesian one. It consists of the following subgroups (or little families if you prefer): Western Malayo-Polynesian and Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian. Among the “children” of the former are two languages spoken in Micronesia: Palauan and Chamorro.
When it comes to the latter subgroup, it’s not hard to guess that it breaks into Central Malayo-Polynesian (we are not interested in this one) and Eastern Malayo-Polynesian. I know, a lot of different names. But isn’t that typical of all big families? So bear with me, please, we’re almost there.
The Eastern Malayo-Polynesian branch leads us straight to the Oceanic household. Now, this one is a lively brood! It comprises Yapese, the languages of the Admiralty Islands, and the tongues of the Saint Matthias Islands as well as the Western Oceanic unit, which contains some of the languages of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, and Central-Eastern Oceanic unit, which is made up of the tongues of Polynesia, Fiji, Micronesia, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands.
So that was the Austronesian family. Now that you already know it, let me tell you about the second great ancestor of Pacific languages – the Papuan (or Non-Austronesian) family. The truth is, this is not a single family but rather several dozen different families (depending on classification). Seems a bit confusing? Well…it is confusing!
The vast majority of Papuan languages that are not of Austronesian descent are spoken in the interior of the island of New Guinea. They do not necessarily have a common origin, hence the trouble with establishing a coherent grouping. Nonetheless, some taxonomies do exist.
The largest family of Papuan languages is the Trans-New Guinea family, which stretches across the island from east to west. It is divided into several subgroups and according to Ethnologue contains nearly 500 tongues.
Other well-known and fairly sizeable clans are the Sepik (55 languages) and Ramu-Lower Sepik (32 languages) families spoken along the Sepik and Ramu rivers in the northern part of Papua New Guinea and the South-Central Papuan family (22 languages) used on the south-eastern coast of the country. The rest of Papuan tongues belong to families that are extremely small, such as: South Bougainville (9 languages), Skou (8 languages), East New Britain (7 languages), Yuat (6 languages), North Bougainville (4 languages), Central Solomons (4 languages), Eastern Trans-Fly (4 languages), Senagi (2 languages), or Piawi (2 languages).
As you can notice, a family tree of Austronesian languages is much easier to create. It may have something to do with the fact that these tongues have simply been better researched. Papuan languages remain a mystery, even today. Most of them are spoken by minuscule communities living in remote areas, who have had little contact with the outside world. Maybe in the future linguists – and the rest of us – will know more.
I haven’t adorned this text with colours, graphs, or charts, but I hope I’ve helped you learn something new about Pacific tongues. You must admit that every single one of them has quite a family! Which should surprise no one. After all, large families are the norm in Oceania.