Pacific studies

Languages studied:

Language families and areas

  • Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages of the Western Pacific
      • The Austronesian languages of Formosa
      • New Guinea and Wallacea
  • Oceanic languages
      • New Caledonia
      • Vanuatu
      • Solomon Islands
      • Polynesia
Carte langues étudiées sur le continent océanien

Fig. – The Pacific languages studied at LACITO
(see this page for a key to symbols, and for access to LACITO’s global map)

​Language families and areas

Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages of the Western Pacific

The Austronesian languages of Formosa

Formosa (Taiwan) is the homeland of the Austronesian family. Fourteen Austronesian languages are still spoken on Taiwan. They are called ‘Formosan’ languages to distinguish them from the Sinitic languages spoken on the island. Their internal subgrouping in the Proto-Austronesian tree is still debated.

These morphologically complex languages are known in particular for their multiple voice systems (called “symmetrical” voice systems). They are also endangered languages.

Since 2009, I. Bril has been investigating a variant of the Amis language. The project aims at documenting the northern dialect (also called Amis-Natauran) which has important phonological, lexical and grammatical peculiarities, and which is in contact with Sakizaya.

Langues des Amériques

New Guinea and Wallacea

The island of New Guinea is divided, policitally, in two halves: the eastern half is the independent country of Papua New Guinea (PNG), whereas its western half forms part of Indonesia, under various names (Papua, West Papua, Irian Jaya, Western New Guinea). This large area is home to more than a thousand languages – some Austronesian, and some non-Austronesian.

A number of Austronesian languages spoken west of New Guinea belong to the Central Malayo-Polynesian (CMP) subgroup of Austronesian. One of our members, Antoinette Schapper, studies five CMP languages of the region: Kei, Kola, and Ujir; Kemak, Tokodede.

As for the non- (or pre-) Austronesian languages of the area, they are often referred to as Papuan languages, even though they form different genealogical families. In 2017, LaCiTO was joined by three new members focusing on such languages: Sylvain Loiseau (studying Tuwari), and Sebastian Fedden (Mian), both doing fieldwork in PNG. As for Antoinette Schapper, she studies not only the aforementioned Austronesian languages, but also several Papuan languages — especially, languages of the Timor-Alor-Pantar family.

Fedden, Sebastian, 2011. A grammar of Mian. Mouton Grammar Library, 55. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Schapper, Antoinette (ed.) 2017. Contact and substrate in the languages of Wallacea. (NUSA: Linguistic studies of languages in and around Indonesia, vol. 62.)

Schapper, Antoinette (ed.), 2014. The Papuan Languages of Timor, Alor and Pantar: Volume 1: Sketch Grammars. Vol. 644. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.

Schapper, Antoinette (ed.), 2017. The Papuan Languages of Timor, Alor and Pantar: Volume 2: Sketch Grammars. Vol. 655. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.

Oceanic languages

The Oceanic languages, a subgroup of the Austronesian family, form a cohesive set, both geographically and genetically.

For several decades, LaCiTO linguists have endeavoured to describe several Oceanic languages, whether in the form of data-oriented articles, or of monographs. These publications include grammars, dictionaries, linguistic atlases:

BRIL Isabelle, 2000, Dictionnaire nêlêmwa-français-anglais, Louvain-Paris, Peeters (SELAF LCP 14), 510 p. (présenté ici)

FRANÇOIS Alexandre, 2002, Araki: A disappearing language of Vanuatu, Canberra, Université Nationale Australienne (Pacific Linguistics 522), 375 p. (présenté ici)

BRIL Isabelle, 2002, Le nêlêmwa (Nouvelle-Calédonie) : Analyse syntaxique et sémantique, Louvain-Paris, Peeters (SELAF LCP 16), 528 p. (présenté ici)

FRANÇOIS Alexandre, 2003, La sémantique du prédicat en mwotlap (Vanuatu), Louvain, Peeters (coll. Linguistique de la Société de Linguistique de Paris, 84), 408 p. (présenté ici)

CHARPENTIER Jean-Michel et Alexandre FRANÇOIS, 2015, Atlas linguistique de la Polynésie française / Linguistic Atlas of French Polynesia, Berlin-Papeete, De Gruyter–UPF,, 2562 p., 2553 cartes. (présenté ici)

HENRI Agnès, 2011, Le sungwadia. Éléments de description d’une langue du Vanuatu), Louvain, Peeters (Collection linguistique de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 97), 463 p. (présenté ici)

Our Oceanic research focuses on two major linguistic areas within the linguistic family, namely: Island Melanesia (New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Solomon Is.) and Polynesia.

New Caledonia

One Melanesian region has for several decades been a LaCiTO specialty: namely, the French overseas territory of New Caledonia, where no fewer than 28 languages are spoken: the Kanak languages and one Creole. As the map shows, many of these languages have been studied and documented by our teams – starting with the pioneering work of Françoise Ozanne-Rivierre (1942-2007) and Jean-Claude Rivierre (1938-2018).

More recently, the descriptive work on Kanak languages has taken the form of “Comparative and thematic dictionaries of the languages of the northern Grande Terre”, a research program (2005-2010) established conjointly by LaCiTO and the Northern Province of New Caledonia. Three languages were concerned:

  • Yuanga or Zuanga (I. Bril)
  • Hamea (C. Moyse-Faurie)
  • Hmwaeke-hmwaveke (†J.-C. Rivierre)


Several PhD students have worked on languages of New Caledonia these last years:

  • Suzie Bearune:   A study of space in Nengone (Maré, Loyalty Is.)  [→2012]
  • Anne-Laure Dotte:   Lexical engineering in Iaai (Uvea, Loyalty Is.)   [→2013]
  • Alek Djoupa:   Description of Fagauvea (West Uvea, Loyalty Is.)  [→2013]
  • Fabrice Wacalie:   Description of Nââ Numèè, Yaté  [→2013]
  • Aurélie Cauchard:   A study of space in Caac   [→2014]


Further north is the Vanuatu archipelago, formerly the New Hebrides, home to the world’s highest concentration of linguistic diversity, with a total of 138 languages (François et al. 2015).

Alex François’s work focuses on the northern region (Torres & Banks Is), where 17 distinct languages are spoken. His publications include descriptive material, historical studies, and theoretical work inspired from his fieldwork experience in Vanuatu. His field recordings are archived online in the Pangloss Collection. Also online is his dictionary of the Mwotlap language.

In 2015, François co-edited a volume on the languages of Vanuatu, released in open access.

Agnès Henri described Sun̄wadia, the language of northern Maewo. She has also done fieldwork on Sun̄wadaga on the same island, and on Mwerlap further north.

Some of our PhD students have been working on Vanuatu:

  • Benjamin Touati:   Description of Sakao (Santo I.)   [→2014]

Solomon Islands

Further north again are the Solomon Islands, currently at the heart of archeological and historical debates. The Santa Cruz Islands are home to a dozen languages, both very diverse and little known.

Alex François has explored three languages in particular which are still spoken on Vanikoro Island: Teanu (see his online dictionary), as well as Lovono, Tanema. A grammar of Teanu is in preparation.

Some PhD theses are currently in progress:

  • Valentina Alfarano : Grammaire du nalögo, parlé sur l’île Santa Cruz (direction I. Bril, A. Naess) (english : a grammar of Nalögo (Santa Cruz Island), (supervisors: I. Bril, A. Naess)


A major linguistic group within the Oceanic family is that of the Polynesian languages.

C. Moyse-Faurie studies East Uvean and East Futunan, the two languages spoken in Wallis & Futuna.

Two LaCiTO members, †Jean-Michel Charpentier and Alex François, coauthored in 2015 a major Linguistic Atlas of French Polynesia. This reference work, released in Open access, consists in 2265 maps covering 20 different language varieties of French Polynesia, revealing the linguistic diversity of this remote territory.

One PhD theses was currently defended:

  • Claude Teriierooiterai,  Mythes, astronomie, découpage du temps et navigation traditionnelle : l’héritage océanien contenu dans les mots de la langue tahitienne [2013]

One PhD these is currently in progress:

  • Paul Horley, Analyse de l’écriture rongorongo dans le contexte culturel de Rapa Nui (Île de Pâques) (direction I. Bril, K. Podzniakov)

Comparative linguistics and historical reconstruction

Historically, the Oceanic languages share a common ancestor, Proto-Oceanic. Archeologists and linguistics agree that Proto-Oceanic was the language spoken by the famous Lapita civilization, whose expansion throughout the Pacific Ocean began approximately 3500 years ago.
Comparative history has contributed to better understanding how the Pacific was peopled, although the region’s history remains sketchy. This means that the work carried out by our linguists is also of interest to archeologists, historians and geneticists.
Historical linguistics is also useful for understanding language itself, as it contributes to a better understanding of linguistic change.

 Phonological change

 The evolution of syntactic constructions

 Semantic change in the lexicon

 The language ecology of northern Vanuatu, with its world-record density in number of languages (17 languages for 9,400 inhabitants), has proven a fertile domain of investigation for reconstructing the historical processes of language diversification. This has inspired A. François to adopt a wave-model approach to language genealogy, as a way to represent the layered accumulation of linguistic innovations in the area. Together with Siva Kalyan (ANU), François designed a new approach called Historical Glottometry.

Contributions of Pacific languages to language typology

Pacific languages regularly contribute to collective reflections in the domains of linguistic typology and general linguistics.

Topics developed in various articles or conference papers in the past few years (see individual researchers’ pages for their bibliography, by clicking on their names on top of this page) include the following:

  • Phonology, phonotactics
  • Morphology of number, pronoun systems
  • Morphology of classifier and gender systems
  • Tense, Mood and Aspect
  • Valency, transitivity, voice and alignment systems
  • Spatial systems, deixis and space directionals
  • Word classes, lexical and grammatical flexibility
  • Subordination and interclausal relations
  • Informational structure and prosody
  • Effects of language contact upon morphosyntax and lexicon

Besides our journal articles, we mention here just a few such collective volumes, edited by members of our Pacific team, yet with broader relevance to linguists of other language families.

Isabelle Bril & Françoise Ozanne-Rivierre Editors. July 2004. Complex Predicates in Oceanic Languages. Berlin New York: Mouton de Gruyter, Empirical Approaches to Language Typology 29, 398 p. ISBN 3-11-018188-6. (présenté ici)

Bril Isabelle (ed.), 2010, Clause Linking and Clause Hierarchy: Syntax and pragmatics, Amsterdam/ Philadelphia, Benjamins (Studies in Language Companion Series 121), VIII-632 p.(présenté ici)

2011, Moyse-Faurie Claire & Sabel Joachim (eds), Topics in Oceanic Morphosyntax, Mouton de Gruyter (Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs 239), 344 p. (présenté ici)

Fedden Sebastian, Audring Jenny & Corbett Greville G. (eds), 2018, Non-canonical gender systems, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 304 p. (présenté ici)

​Verbal art and musicology

Oral literature

LACITO linguists regularly turn their fieldwork data into an archived linguistic corpus. The bulk of these corpora often consist in stories taken from the oral tradition; these are meaningful not only for their linguistic contents, but also for their anthropological interest, and also for their inherent worth in the eyes of the speaker communities.

Our audio archives are all to be found in the Pangloss Collection developed at LaCiTO, and released in open access. They gather hundreds of audio recordings from more than forty distinct languages. 

Music and poetry

From 2004 to 2007, Alex François set up an interdisciplinary ANR project for the documentation and description of musical forms and sung poetry of Vanuatu. For this endeavour, he teamed up with Monika Stern, ethnomusicologist (now at CREDO), and Éric Wittersheim, anthropologist (now at IRIS).

François, Alexandre & Monika Stern. 2013. Musiques du Vanuatu: Fêtes et Mystères – Music of Vanuatu: Celebrations and Mysteries. Musical recordings (Label INÉDIT). Paris: Maison des Cultures du Monde. 1 CD W 260147.CD album: 73’39”, with accompanying booklet (24 + 128 pp.).

This team work brought about a 60′ documentary film, The Poet’s Salary (2009) — followed by a 2013 CD bringing together our best fieldwork recordings. Besides the description and analysis of musical practice, the bilingual book published with the CD featured the translation, in French and English, of the poems sung in the musical pieces.


Some of our members also study social and linguistic anthropology in the Pacific.

Bensa A. & Isabelle Leblic (eds), 2000, En pays kanak. Ethnologie, linguistique, histoire, archéologie en Nouvelle-Calédonie, Paris, Mission du Patrimoine ethnologique/Éd. de la Maison des sciences de l’homme (Ethnologie de la France), 368 p. (présenté ici)

LEBLIC Isabelle (ed.), 2004, De l’adoption : des pratiques de filiation différentes, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses universitaires Blaise Pascal (Anthropologie), 336 p. (présenté ici)

Leblic Isabelle, 2008. Vivre de la mer, vivre avec la terre… en pays kanak. Savoirs et techniques des pêcheurs kanak du sud de la Nouvelle-Calédonie, Paris, Société des Océanistes (Travaux et documents océanistes 1), 288 p., bibliographie, glossaires, index, 600 ill. en n. & bl. et en coul. (présenté ici)

Leblic I. et H. Guiot (eds), 2006, “Spécial Wallis-et-Futuna’, Journal de la Société des Océanistes 122-123, 224 p. (présenté ici)

Journal de la Société des Océanistes 117, “Nouvelle-Calédonie, 150 ans après la prise de possession” (présenté ici)

Current PhD theses on anthropological matters in Melanesia include the following:

  • Raymond Tyuienon:   Social change in New Caledonia
  • Manon Capo:   Anthropology of memory and local history in New Caledonia


Archival corpus and collected data
Data to come

Knowledge dissemination and events
Data to come

(⚠️This page is still under construction)

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