Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Most Diverse Place on Earth

Hey, everyone. I re-designed the blog... at least temporarily. I hope you like it. The background image is of Japanese fireflies by the wildlife photographer Rei Ohara.

Today I want to talk about the most linguistically diverse area of the globe. There are a few areas where language diversity is especially high. Each candidate region is worth a mention. The Caucasus are home to five major language families and hundreds of languages; even in antiquity, Julius Caesar needed 120 translators to communicate with the local chieftains, and the region was probably more diverse back then. South America's jungles are especially diverse; again hundreds of languages, some spoken by still-uncontacted tribes.

But neither of those areas hold a candle to the most diverse place on earth: New Guinea. Eight hundred languages and most are unrelated. The collection of islands is so diverse that linguists devote a language "family" just to the isolates, the Papuan Family, meaning there are so many languages that are unrelated to any other on earth that linguists defeatedly lump them into one big mystery category.

Above is Southeastern Asia at roughly 40,000 years ago, when the first human mass migrations began. There was not the thousands of islands we have today, but large land bridges broken by canals of water from the Asian continent to Australia. 10,000 years ago the Ice Age ended, the glaciers and ice caps receded, and the oceans rose. The lowlands of Southeastern Asia were swallowed by the waters in Noachian fashion. The peoples of New Guinea were cut off from each other, only visitable by boat. Below is a picture of the negritos, the genetic descendants of the first men and women.

Complicating the matter is the introduction of Austronesians, the boat travelers of Taiwan (pictured below), who colonized New Guinea about 2,000 - 3,000 years ago. They spoke a language called Proto-Oceanic. Some of their descendants would later settle Polynesia, Melanesia, Easter Island, and Hawaii. Proto-Oceanic and its descendant tongues replaced and influenced the surrounding languages so that the study of Papuan languages grows all the trickier.

What this means for language studies is that the first migrants settled the land at 38,000 BCE and were permanently separated from each other at 8,000 BCE. This means that at best, each island's languages broke apart from each other 10,000 years ago. Potentially, there may have been different languages spoken by different tribes at the moment of first settlement, meaning that at worst, the languages are separated by more than 40,000 years. Contrast this to the oldest language family, Proto-Afrasian, which we can date back to roughly ~10,000 years old, and the second oldest, Proto-Indo-European, which is about 7,000 years old. In other words, the Papuan languages are going to stay a mystery.

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