Overview: Languages of the Pacific in Worldwide Perspective
The Pacific zone as defined in this volume can usefully be divided into three spheres, which linguistically can be taken largely independently of each other: Australia, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. Within the latter, we shall have call to frame the analysis here in terms of both the traditional tripartite division of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, and the alternative opposition between Near and Remote Oceania. For the purposes of surveying language distribution and prehistory, both are of value, albeit on different levels.
The structure of this chapter follows this division into three spheres. In each of them the linguistic picture resolves further into various basic contrasts, mirrored in opposing interpretations of the prehistories that underlie them. We begin in this first section with an overview of the main contrasts both between and within the three spheres, and of their place in the linguistic panorama across the globe. To that end we also introduce some of the most striking traits that characterise the languages of the different spheres, and turn out to be unusually clear-cut or distinctive in a worldwide perspective too.
Of the many independent language lineages of the Pacific region, only one can be traced back to origins outside it. This lineage includes notably the “Oceanic” languages, scattered from enclaves on the coast of New Guinea to the easternmost Pacific islands. Their expansion was certainly spectacular, in terms of both the sheer distances covered and the feats of seafaring and navigation required to achieve it – in many respects beyond anything accomplished elsewhere at the time. Yet in land area, speaker population, time-depth since expansion, and divergence history, the Oceanic languages make up just a fraction of the much wider family to which they belong: Austronesian. Within that family, sister lineages to Oceanic are also found in parts of western New Guinea, particularly around the coasts, and on islands to its west.