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Scholars familiar with language communities from other parts of the world may be startled not only at the small size of many of these language communities, but also that many…have been linguistically relatively stable for centuries.
This is not to say that no languages have ever gone extinct in Melanesia. As scholars of language vitality concentrate on how small languages are lost as communities shift to huge languages, Melanesia gives examples of how languages can be displaced even by very small languages. In Vanuatu, Ariki is being replaced by Tangoa, an adjacent language community of only eight hundred. In many parts of the world, such a language of only eight hundred speakers is considered severely endangered, but in this context… [it is] a ‘killer language.’
- M. Lynn Landweer and Peter Unseth in “An introduction to language use in Melanesia”
(May 2012) The South Pacific region of Melanesia contains roughly nineteen percent of the world’s living languages—the highest concentration of languages per square kilometer in the world. However, surprisingly little research has focused on the social dynamics of language use in the region. “Language Use in Melanesia,” a recent special issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language (IJSL), examines a variety of topics, including language vitality and endangerment. SIL linguists Dr. M. Lynn Landweer and Dr. Peter Unseth served as issue co-editors with other SIL personnel also contributing several of the articles. Landweer and Unseth both serve on the faculty of the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.
The sociolinguistic situation in Melanesia* is of special interest, not only because of the high concentration of the world’s languages, but also because most of these ethnolinguistic communities have very small populations. According to Landweer and Unseth, both geographic and social factors have contributed to the diversity of small language communities. While many of these groups have long functioned with some level of multilingualism, new situations encountered by the communities (e.g., communication technologies and easier transportation) are expected to influence language use. With growing attention being paid to the issue of language endangerment around the world, this issue of IJSL is a timely and valuable contribution to research on the topic.
Another interesting feature of the language situation in Melanesia is the phenomenon of creoles functioning as languages of wider communication. Prominent Melanesian creoles include Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu in Papua New Guinea, Pijin in the Solomon Islands and Bislama in Vanuatu.
“Language Use in Melanesia” contains a number of informative studies authored by researchers with long experience in the region, many of whom have spent considerable time living among the communities they describe. Issues of language contact between different local communities and between the local communities and outsiders are examined.
Recognizing the value of the world’s languages and the cultures they express, SIL works alongside partners to survey and document languages, facilitate language development, and where possible, prevent loss of language and culture. SIL is a founding member of Maaya, the World Network for Linguistic Diversity.
*For purposes of this study, Melanesia includes Papua New Guinea, the Indonesia province of Papua (formerly called Irian Jaya, the west end of the island of New Guinea), the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia.