In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Oceanic Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Foundational Works
  • Reference Resources
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Publication Series
  • Phonology and Phonetics

Linguistics Oceanic Languages
Malcolm Ross
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0172


Oceanic languages are spoken across the Pacific Ocean, stretching from the Caroline Islands and the north coast of New Guinea in the west to Easter Island in the east and from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south. In mainland New Guinea and on Bougainville Island, Oceanic languages are spoken mostly in coastal enclaves and are in contact with Papuan languages. In the rest of northwest Melanesia (the Papua New Guinea islands plus the northwestern half of the Solomon Islands), most inhabited territory is occupied by Oceanic speakers, interspersed by smaller numbers of Papuan speakers. In an area that embraces southwest island Melanesia (the southeastern Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji) and all of Micronesia and Polynesia, only Oceanic languages were spoken until European contact. Counting Oceanic languages is tricky because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a dialect from a separate language, but the conservative source The Oceanic Languages by John Lynch, Malcolm Ross, and Terry Crowley (Lynch, et al. 2002, cited under General Overviews and Textbooks) lists 464 languages. The Oceanic languages are a clearly defined subgroup of Malayo-Polynesian, which, in turn, includes all Austronesian languages except those of Taiwan (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Linguistics “Austronesian Linguistics”). A number of the references listed in this article concern the Austronesian language family as a whole, but the article includes useful material on Oceanic languages as well. Oceanic linguistics has a strong tradition of historical scholarship, dating largely from the publication of Otto Dempwolff’s work Vergleichende Lautlehre des austronesischen Wortschatze (Dempwolff 1937, cited under Foundational Works), but descriptive grammars have increased greatly in number since about 1990. Oceanic languages tend to be phonologically straightforward and morphosyntactically head-marking with VO clause structure. Morphology is mostly agglutinative, varying across languages in either the isolating or the fusional direction and with medium synthesis. Morphological and syntactic issues that have attracted theoretical attention are the encoding of possession, transitivity and object incorporation, serial verb constructions, and, in Polynesian languages, alignment and verb-initial constituent order. Selecting a bibliography of literature on Oceanic languages is tricky since, other than grammars and dictionaries, most of the literature consists of papers published in edited volumes or journals. This means that there are potentially hundreds of bibliographic entries. To reduce the number of entries, often the most recent paper on a topic (often the most recent of several papers by the same author) is given as it contains references to earlier publications on that topic.

General Overviews and Textbooks

Lynch, et al. 2002 is the only work devoted to the Oceanic family as a whole. Blust 2013 concerns the whole Austronesian language family and will be useful to a reader who wishes to examine Oceanic languages in their broader Austronesian context. Lynch 1998 is the only undergraduate textbook that tackles Oceanic languages, but it is not exclusively dedicated to them. Krupa 1982 provides a concise introduction to the languages of the Polynesian subgroup.

  • Blust, Robert A. 2013. The Austronesian languages. Rev. ed. Asia-Pacific Linguistics 008. Canberra, Australia: Asia-Pacific Linguistics.

    First published in 2009, this is a large dowloadable introduction and overview of the Austronesian language family treating sociolinguistics, phonology, lexicon, morphology, syntax, and the history of Austronesian studies as well as aspects of the history of Austronesian languages. It places Oceanic languages in their larger Austronesian context.

  • Krupa, Viktor. 1982. The Polynesian languages: A guide. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    A short introduction to the Polynesian languages, which form a subgroup within Oceanic, treating their research history, classification, phonology, grammar, lexicography, and semantics. Now somewhat dated.

  • Lynch, John. 1998. Pacific languages: An introduction. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai‘i Press.

    A textbook that assumes minimal knowledge of linguistics and introduces the reader to Oceanic, Papuan, and Australian languages, the history of Pacific settlement, and the development of Pacific pidgins and creoles.

  • Lynch, John, Malcolm Ross, and Terry Crowley. 2002. The Oceanic languages. Richmond, UK: Curzon.

    An introduction with overview chapters on sociolinguistics, typology, history, and subgrouping as well as forty-three grammar sketches of languages from across Oceanic, all following the same format but in varying degrees of depth.

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