SIBLINGS, COUSINS, OR DISTANT RELATIVES: HOW SIMILAR ARE PACIFIC LANGUAGES?

You already know that the native tongues of Oceania, and let me remind you that there are over 1100 of them, belong to two big language families. Add to this the creoles spoken in Melanesia and Hawaii, and…well…you have a pretty sizeable brood. But have you ever tried to ascertain the exact degree of relatedness between those languages? Which of them are siblings or cousins, and which are just distant relatives? It’s time to find out.

To most people, all Pacific languages look either the same or very similar. At least at first glance, because after a more careful examination anyone will be able to notice smaller or bigger differences. Those differences are much easier to see in the Papuan tongues than in the languages spoken in the regions of Micronesia and Polynesia. That is because Melanesia boasts far greater cultural and linguistic diversity than its neighbours. With such a big number of languages used by very small communities not infrequently living in remote and inaccessible areas, it’s virtually impossible to determine with 100 percent certainty in what ways those tongues may be related to one another. They probably are, but this is more of a speculation rather than a proven fact. Various attempts have been made, and yet linguists have still been unable to deduce the genetic relationships between the tongues spoken by the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. So unfortunately I won’t tell you if the Buin and Uisai languages are siblings or if Buin and Koromira are cousins, because I simply don’t have this knowledge. (That’s kind of a bummer, isn’t it?)

Now, languages that are most often confused almost always belong to the same language family – which, by the way, could also explain why there are so many doubts regarding the Papuan tongues. So why don’t we look into the Micronesian region and see what happens there? The two westernmost islands of the area are Palau and Guam. And not surprisingly, both Palauan and Chamorro are part of the Sunda-Sulawesi branch of the Western Malayo-Polynesian language family, and thus we can say that they are siblings. However, the rest of the tongues spoken in Micronesia are merely Palauan and Chamorro’s distant relatives, as they are included in the Oceanic branch of the Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian family. So now you may think that Pohnpeian, Chuukese, Yapese, Kosraean, Marshallese, Gilbertese, and Nauruan are sister languages. Well, not exactly. Yapese, which doesn’t belong to the Micronesian subgroup, is separate from all other Oceanic tongues. The status of Nauruan within the Micronesian subgroup is also unclear. But the remainder can indeed be thought of as full siblings.

And what about the languages of Vanuatu and New Caledonia? There are quite a few of them! They all are part of the Southern Oceanic linkage, which means they are closely related. Some of the tongues are cousins (for example Bierebo and Lonwolwol) and some are siblings (for instance Drehu and Nengone).

The most linguistically homogeneous region of Oceania is Polynesia. Its languages show considerable similarity. Actually, some of them look and sound almost identical. Twins, then? I wouldn’t go that far, but the tongues in the Polynesian subgroup can justifiably be regarded as immediate relatives. Tongan and Niuean descended from a common ancestor, so they are sibling languages. All other Polynesian tongues, which form a separate unit within the subgroup, are slightly – just slightly – more distant. Samoan, Tokelauan, Tuvaluan, East Uvean, and East Futunan are closely akin; just as are Hawaiian, Marquesan, Mangarevan, Tahitian, Tuamotuan, and Rarotongan. An interesting fact is that Marquesan share more characteristics with Hawaiian than with Tahitian. Which is somewhat surprising taking into account the distance between the three archipelagos.

Last but not least, Fijian. Fijian and Rotuman are…a bit like Polynesian languages’ second cousins. Although geographically situated in Melanesia, linguistically and culturally Fiji has always had a much closer relationship with the neighbouring islands of Polynesia. I don’t reckon anyone would mistake iTaukei (standard Fijian) or even Rotuman for say Samoan or Rarotongan, but there is no doubt that the connection does exist.

So now you know nearly everything there is to know about the genetic classification of the Pacific languages. Is it just me, or do you also find it thoroughly fascinating? Would you ever think that Palauan is not so closely related to Chuukese, and that Hawaiian is basically Marquesan’s next of kin? Amazing… Just like the Pacific Islands, right?


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