Endangered Languages of the Pacific Region

by Osamu Sakiyama

1. Linguistic Background

The languages that are currently spoken in the Pacific region can be divided broadly into three groups: the Australian and New Guinean languages formed by people who participated in the region’s earliest migrations over a period of 20,000-30,000 years starting several tens of thousands of years ago, and the Austronesian languages spoken by Mongoloid people who migrated from the Asian continent around 3,000 B.C. The region has numerous languages, including 250 Aboriginal languages in Australia and 750 Papuan languages on the island of New Guinea (including the Indonesian territory of Irian Jaya) and neighboring areas. There are also 350 Austronesian languages in Melanesia, 20 in Polynesia, 12 in Micronesia and 100 in New Guinea (Comrie, Matthews, and Polinsky 1996). There is wide variation not only among language groups, but also among the families of languages. Few language families have been identified among the languages of Australia and New Guinea using the methods of comparative linguistics. Pacific languages are also characterized by the small size of speaker populations and by the absence of dominant languages. However, there are usually bilingual people who can speak or at least understand the languages of neighboring populations, and it is believed that this situation has existed for a long time. In terms of cultural factors, it appears that the diversification of languages in the Pacific region was accelerated by the emblematic function of language in the creation of a clear distinction between “ingroup” and “outgroup.”
                The languages of New Guinea and the region around it show diverse linkages and wide variations between languages. The Austronesian languages of the Pacific region are mostly classified as Oceanian languages, while the Chamorro and Palau languages of Micronesia are classified into the languages of Western Malaya and Polynesia (WMP, Indonesian family), and the indigenous languages of Maluku and Irian Jaya in Eastern Indonesia into the Central Malayo-Polynesian (CMP) or the South Halmahera-West New Guinea (SHWNG) subgroups. In particular, there are strong similarities between the linguistic characteristics of the CMP and SHWNG languages and those of the Melanesian branch of the Oceanian languages. These linguistic conditions and characteristics are attributable to ethnic migrations within the region over a long period of time, accompanied by contacts and linguistic merging with indigenous Papuan people. Papuan languages are still found in parts of Indonesia, including Northern Halmahera and the islands of Pantar and Alor and central and eastern Timor in the Province of Nusa Tenggara. In New Guinea, contact with Papuan languages has caused some Austronesian languages to exhibit a word order change from subject-verb-object to subject-object-verb (Austronesian Type 2) (Sakiyama 1994).

2. Linguistic Strata

With the start of colonization by the European powers in the nineteenth century, a new set of linguistic circumstances developed in the region. First, pidgin languages based on European and Melanesian languages gradually emerged as common languages. The establishment of plantations in Samoa and in Queensland, Australia, which had concentrations of people who spoke Melanesian languages, was important in providing breeding grounds for pidgin languages. A pidgin language is formed from elements of the grammar of both contributing languages, though the pidgin languages tend to be looked down upon from the perspective of the more dominant of the two parent languages. The region’s newly formed common languages, including Tok Pisin, Bislama, and Solomon Pidgin, flourished after they were taken back to the homelands of the various speakers. This was possible because Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea were all multilingual societies without dominant languages. The number of speakers of pidgin languages increased rapidly in this environment. At the same time, the continuing existence of ethnic minority languages came under threat.
                Examples of pidgins that were creolized (adopted as mother languages in their own right) include Solomon Pijin, which eventually had over 1,000 speakers aged five and over (1976) in the Solomon Islands. Bislama, a mixture of over 100 indigenous languages grafted upon a base of English and French, is now spoken by almost the entire population of Vanuatu (170,000 in 1996) and is partially creolized. Of particular interest is the fact that a group of more than 1,000 people who emigrated to New Caledonia have adopted Bislama as their primary language. The situation in Papua New Guinea, which has a population of 4,300,000 (1996), is even more dramatic. By 1982 the number of people using Tok Pisin as their primary language had reached 50,000, while another 2,000,000 used it as a second language (Grimes 1996).

3. Minority Languages and Common Languages in the Pacific Region

The Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing published by UNESCO (Wurm 1996) provides merely a brief overview of the current situation in Papua New Guinea, Australia, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. There is no mention of Micronesia, New Caledonia, or Polynesia, presumably because of a lack of information resulting from the large number of languages in these areas. The following report covers areas and languages that I have researched and endangered languages covered by field studies carried out by Japanese researchers.

3.1 Belau (Palau), Micronesia

According to Belau (Palau) government statistics (1990), the total population of 15,122 people includes 61 people living on outlying islands in Sonsorol State, and 33 in Hatohobei (Tochobei) State. Apart from the Sonsorol Islands, Sonsorol State also includes the islands of Fanah, Meril and Pulo An. In addition to the Hatohobei language, the language mix on these outlying islands also includes nuclear Micronesian (Chuukic) languages, which are the core Oceanian languages spoken in the Carolines. They differ from Palauan, which is an Indonesian language. To lump these languages together as the Sonsorol languages with a total of 600 speakers (Wurm and Hattori 1981-83) is as inaccurate as combining the Miyako dialects of Okinawa into a single classification.
                The number of Chuukic speakers has declined steadily since these figures were compiled. Starting in the German colonial period of the early twentieth century, people have been relocated from these outlying islands to Echang on Arakabesan Island in Belau. Today there are several hundred of these people. Many of those born in the new location only speak Palauan. A study by S. Oda (1975) estimated that there were 50 speakers of Pulo Annian. The language of Meril continued to decline and has now become extinct.
                From the early part of the twentieth century until the end of World War II, Micronesia was under Japanese rule, administered by the South Seas Mandate. Japanese was used as a common language, and its influence is still evident today. The linguistic data on Micronesia presented by Grimes (1996) is distorted by the fact that, while the number of English speakers is shown, no mention is made of Japanese. A study carried out in 1970 (Wurm, Mühlhäusler, and Tryon 1996) found that people aged 35 and over could speak basic Japanese. This group is equivalent to people aged 63 and over in 1998. An estimate based on Belau government statistics (1990) suggests that more than 1,000 of these people are still alive. In the State of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia, where the percentage of females attending school is said to have been low, we can assume that the number of Japanese speakers has fallen below 500.
                It has been suggested that if Japan had continued to rule Micronesia, Japanese would certainly have become the sole language in the region, and indigenous languages would have disappeared (Wurm, Mühlhäusler, and Tryon 1996). This seems an overly harsh appraisal of Japan’s language policy. Except in the schools, as a matter of fact no significant steps were taken to promote the use of Japanese. Micronesia previously had no common language for communication between different islands. Even today, old people from different islands use Japanese as a common language (Sakiyama 1995; Toki 1998). However, the role of this Japanese pidgin appears to have ended within a single generation, and in this sense it too is an endangered language. Pidgin Japanese continues to be used as a lingua franca by Taiwanese in their fifties and older (Wurm, Mühlhäusler, and Tryon 1996), and the number of speakers is estimated to have been 10,000 in 1993 (Grimes 1996).

3.2 Yap, Micronesia

Ngulu Atoll is situated between the Yap Islands and the Belau Islands. The Nguluwan language is a mixture of Yapese and Ulithian, which belongs to the Chuukic family. It has inherited the Ulithian phonetic system and a partial version of Yap grammar (Sakiyama 1982). Nguluwan appears to have evolved through bilingualism between Yapese and Ulithian, and to describe it as a dialect of Ulithian (Grimes 1996) is inappropriate. In 1980 there were 28 speakers. Even with the inclusion of people who had migrated to Guror on Yap Island, where the parent village is located, the number of speakers was fewer than 50. Speakers are being assimilated rapidly into the Yapese language and culture.

3.3 Maluku, Indonesia

The book Atlas Bahasa Tanah Maluku (Taber et al. 1996) covers 117 ethnic languages (Austronesian, Papuan), including numbers of speakers for each language, areas of habitation and migration, access routes, simple cultural information, and basic numbers and expressions. This work is especially valuable since it corrects inaccuracies and errors in the 1977 Classification and Index of the World's Languages by C. Y. L. Voegelin and F. M. Voegelin. It also distinguishes languages and dialects according to their a priori mutual intelligibility. Fifteen languages are listed as having fewer than 1,000 speakers. They include the Nakaela language of Seram, which has only 5 speakers, the Amahai and Paulohi languages, also of Seram, which are spoken by 50 people each, and the South Nuaulu and Yalahatan languages, which have 1,000 speakers each on Seram Island. The data, however, are not complete. For example, the Bajau language is not included, presumably because of the difficulty of accessing the various solitary islands where the Bajau people live. The author researched the Yalahatan language in 1997 and in 1998, and the Bajau language (2,000 speakers) on Sangkuwang Island in 1997.

3.4 Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea

Detailed information about the names, numbers of speakers, and research data for over 800 languages spoken in New Guinea and its coastal regions can be found in the works by the Barrs (1978), Voorhoeve (1975), and Wurm (1982). However, not only the minority languages but even the majority languages other than a few have yet to be surveyed and researched adequately. There are many languages for which vocabulary collection has yet to be undertaken. It appears that dictionaries or grammars have been published for less than one-tenth of the region’s languages. However, the gospel has been published in several dozen languages using orthographies established by SIL. Papuan languages range from those with substantial speaker populations, including Enga, Chimbu (Kuman), and Dani, which are spoken by well over 100,000 people, to endangered languages such as Abaga with 5 speakers (150 according to Wurm [1982]), Makolkol with 7 (unknown according to Wurm), and Sene with under 10. There are very many languages for which the number of speakers is unknown and more up-to-date information is needed. Also, despite having substantially more than 1,000 speakers (Wurm 1982; Grimes 1996), Murik is in danger of extinction due to the creolization of Tok Pisin (Foley 1986). Moreover, it is questionable whether the present lists include all of the region’s languages.
                Information about Irian Jaya is even sparser. A study on popular languages carried out by the author in 1984-85 revealed that Kuot (New Ireland), Taulil (New Britain), and Sko (Irian Jaya) all had several hundred speakers and that, in the case of Taulil in particular, an increasing number of young people were able to understand what their elders were saying but could no longer speak the language themselves. There has been a rapid shift to Kuanua, an indigenous language used in trade with neighboring Rabaul, which is replacing Taulil.

3.5 Solomon Islands, Melanesia

The total population of the Solomon Islands is 390,000 (1996). There are 63 Papuan, Melanesian, and Polynesian indigenous languages, of which only 37 are spoken by over 1,000 people (Grimes 1996). The Papuan Kazukuru languages (Guliguli, Doriri) of New Georgia, which were known to be endangered as early as 1931, have become extinct already, leaving behind just some scant linguistic information. The Melanesian Tanema and Vano languages of the Santa Cruz Islands and the Laghu language of the Santa Isabel Islands were extinct by 1990. This does not mean that the groups speaking them died out, but rather that the languages succumbed to the shift to Roviana, a trade language used in neighboring regions, or were replaced by Solomon Pijin (Sakiyama 1996).

3.6 Vanuatu, Melanesia

The situation in Vanuatu is very similar to that in the Solomon Islands. The official view, written in Bislama, is as follows:
                I gat sam ples long 110 lanwis evriwan so i gat bigfala lanwis difrens long Vanuatu. Pipol blong wan velej ol i toktok long olgeta bakegen evridei nomo long lanwis be i no Bislama, Inglis o Franis. (Vanuatu currently has 110 indigenous languages, which are all very different linguistically. On an everyday basis people in villages speak only their local languages, not Bislama, English, or French). (Vanuatu, 1980, Institute of Pacific Studies)
                Among the Melanesian and Polynesian indigenous languages spoken by 170,000 people, or 93% of the total population (1996), there are many small minority tongues. These include Aore, which has only a single speaker (extinct according to Wurm and Hattori [1981-83]); Maragus and Ura (with 10 speakers each); Nasarian, and Sowa (with 20); and Dixon Reef, Lorediakarkar, Mafea, and Tambotalo (with 50). If languages with around 100 speakers are included, this category accounts for about one-half of the total number of languages (Grimes 1996). The spread of Bislama has had the effect of putting these languages in jeopardy.

3.7 New Caledonia, Melanesia

New Caledonia has a total population of 145,000 people, of whom 62,000 are indigenous. As of 1981, there were 28 languages, all Melanesian except for the one Polynesian language Uvean. The only languages with over 2,000 speakers are Cemuhi, Paicî, Ajië, and Xârâcùù, along with Dehu and Nengone, which are spoken on the Loyalty Islands.
                Dumbea (Paita), which is spoken by several hundred people, has been described by T. Shintani and Y. Paita (1983). And M. Osumi (1995) has described Tinrin, which has an estimated 400 speakers. Speakers of Tinrin are bilingual in Xârâcùù or Ajië. Nerë has 20 speakers and Arhö 10, while Waamwang, which had 3 speakers in 1946, is now reported to be extinct (Grimes 1996). Descendants of Javanese, who began to migrate to New Caledonia in the early part of the twentieth century, now number several thousand. The Javanese language spoken by these people, which has developed in isolation from the Javanese homeland, has attracted attention as a new pidgin language.

3.8 Australia

When Europeans first arrived in Australia in 1788, it is estimated that there were 700 different tribes in a population of 500,000-1,000,000 (Comrie, Matthews, and Polinsky 1996). By the 1830s Tasmanian had become extinct, and today the number of Aboriginal languages has fallen to less than one-half what it once was. However, T. Tsunoda left detailed records of the Warrungu language, the last speaker of which died in 1981, and the Djaru language, which has only 200 speakers (Tsunoda 1974, 1981). Yawuru, which belongs to the Nyulnyulan family, reportedly has fewer than 20 speakers, all aged in their sixties or older. The language is described by K. Hosokawa (1992).

4. Conclusions

The Pacific has been heavily crisscrossed by human migration from ancient to modern times. All Pacific countries except the Kingdom of Tonga were colonized. This historical background is reflected in the existence of multilevel diglossia in all regions of the Pacific.
                Depending on the generation, the top level of language in Micronesia is either English (the official language) or pidgin Japanese (used as a lingua franca among islands). The next level is made up of the languages of major islands that exist as political units, such as Palauan, Yapese and Ponapean. On the lowest level are the various ethnic languages spoken mainly on solitary islands.
                 In the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, local Malay languages such as Ambonese Malay, North Maluku Malay and Bacanese Malay, form a layer beneath the official language, Indonesian. Under them are the dominant local languages, such as Hitu, which is spoken by 15,000 people on Ambon Island, and Ternate and Tidore, which are spoken in the Halmahera region. These are important as urban languages. On the lowest level are the various vernaculars.
                In Papua New Guinea, standard English forms the top level, followed by Papua New Guinean English. Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu are used as common languages among the various ethnic groups. Beneath these layers are the regional or occupational common languages. For example, Hiri Motu is used as the law enforcement lingua franca in coastal areas around the Gulf of Papua, Yabem as a missionary language along the coast of the Huon Gulf, and Malay as a trade language in areas along the border with Indonesia. On the next level are the ethnic and tribal languages used on a day-to-day basis.
                An example of a similar pattern in Polynesia can be found in Hawaii, where English and Hawaiian English rank above Da Kine Talk or Pidgin To Da Max, which are mixtures of English and Oceanic languages and are used as common languages among the various Asian migrants who have settled in Hawaii. Beneath these are ethnic languages, including Hawaiian and the various immigrant languages, such as a common Japanese based on the Hiroshima dialect, as well as Cantonese, Korean, and Tagalog.
                All of the threatened languages are in danger because of their status as indigenous minority languages positioned at the lowest level of the linguistic hierarchy. Reports to date have included little discussion of the multilevel classification of linguistic strata from a formal linguistic perspective. It will be necessary in the future to examine these phenomena from the perspectives of sociolinguistics or linguistic anthropology.


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*Translation of the author’s essay “Taiheiyo chiiki no kiki gengo”, Gekkan Gengo, Taishukan Publishing Co., 28(2), 102-11, 1999, with the permission of the publisher.
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