Oceania includes Australia, New Guinea, as well as 24 countries and territories in the Pacific which form the large regions of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. This geographical area is linguistically quite remarkable: while Oceania is home to less than 1% of the world’s population, it is home to around 32% of the planet’s languages and 38% of its phylogenetic diversity (in terms of language families).
The island of New Guinea (15 million inhabitants) is the most linguistically diverse region in the world, since it has a thousand different languages belonging to a hundred distinct phyla. As for the Vanuatu archipelago, with 138 different languages spoken by only 300,000 inhabitants, it is the country with the highest linguistic density in the world, i.e. the greatest number of languages per capita.
Because of this extreme density, most of the languages of Oceania are seriously endangered, often only spoken by a few thousand or even a few hundred speakers.
The Austronesian family, represented in Oceania by its so-called “Oceanic” branch, is geographically the most extensive. It has about 450 languages, the best known of which are Polynesian languages such as Maori, Hawaiian or Tahitian. However, 90% of Oceanic languages belong to non-Polynesian branches of the family: the languages of Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Fiji, the Kanak languages of New Caledonia, etc.
The Aboriginal languages of Australian, known collectively as “Australian languages”, were, before colonization, numbered 300 distinct varieties (between 250 and 363 languages according to the authors). They represent more than 30 linguistic phyla, both families and isolates. Due to the tragic history of colonization in Australia, the majority of these languages have now disappeared; only a dozen are transmitted to children today.
Finally, the richest linguistic group in the Pacific region is made up of the so-called “Papuan” languages, encompassing around 800 varieties. This group is geographically concentrated on the island of New Guinea (in particular in the State of Papua New Guinea). The Papuan languages do not form a unified family but a set of 80 to 100 distinct linguistic phyla, the exact distribution of which remains the subject of scientific debate. The Papuan languages are descended from the earliest populations of New Guinea, present in the region for around 50,000 years; this group excludes the Austronesian languages, which arrived much more recently, only 3,500 years ago.