Linguistic Ecology: Language Change and Linguistic Imperialism in the Pacific Region

By Peter Mühlhäusler | Go to book overview

2

Language ecology in pre-European days

Nothing…authorizes us to project the picture which emerges very far back into the Melanesian past.

(Lyons 1986:13)


INTRODUCTION
Let me begin with a disclaimer. I cannot hope to offer an exhaustive empirical study of the very complex topic of this chapter. Instead, I shall try to make sense of a rather motley, often unreliable or patchy butterfly collection of evidence. My attempts to make sense will take place against the background of ecological questions such as:
1 What were salient properties of the linguistic ecologies of Australia and the Pacific area?
2 What factors promoted the well-being of traditional language ecologies?
3 What properties made traditional language ecologies vulnerable?
4 What were the advantages and drawbacks of the characteristic linguistic diversity of the area?

Not only will the answers to such questions help reconstruct the sociolinguistic past of the area, thereby providing urgently needed constraints or reconstructions of the past based solely on structural linguistic evidence, but also such knowledge is an indispensable part of any attempt to preserve and strengthen or reconstitute the remaining traditional languages.

Before attempting to isolate the salient properties of the ‘prehistorical’ linguistic picture, it would seem useful to comment on past attempts to learn about the language and culture of the Pacific region. Knowing how reliable past information might be is important in the absence of the applicability of the uniformitarian method and the scarcity of in-depth accounts of languages that have been minimally

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