Identification. Hearing the word beluu, "village Homeland", early British explorers of the western Pacific mistakenly referred to the Belau Islands as "Pelew"; the spelling "Palau" became standardized in nineteenth-century German Scientific writings. The form "Belau" more accurately reflects Contemporary pronunciation and has become a symbol of national unity.
Location. Belau, an archipelago in the western Pacific Ocean, is located between 6° and 8° N and 134° and 135° E. The islands form the westernmost group of the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. Belau includes over 200 geologically and ecologically diverse islands; the largest, Babeldaob, is a volcanic island of 362 square kilometers. Other island types include high limestone and platform limestone islands, small reef islands, and one true atoll. A coral reef encircling most of the archipelago creates lagoons rich in marine resources and permits relatively smooth intervillage sailing. The climate is tropical, with constantly high humidity, a mean temperature of 27° C, and rainfall ranging from 320 centimeters per year in the south to 425 centimeters per year on Babeldaob. A yearly wind shift from westerly monsoons in the summer to easterly trades in the winter is interrupted only by typhoons, which periodically destroy homes, harbors, and farms.
Demography. The population in 1988 was approximately 14,000, about half of whom live on the island of Koror. Estimates of precontact population range from 20,000 to 40,000. From the late eighteenth century on Belauans were subject to decimation by introduced diseases and by the intensification of warfare caused by imported firearms. The Japanese began a massive colonial resettlement program in the 1930s, resulting in a foreign population of over 24,000 in Koror by 1940. Since World War II the local population has risen dramatically, and many Belauans have moved to Guam, Hawaii, and California.
Linguistic Affiliation. Belauan, an Austronesian Language, is spoken uniformly throughout the archipelago; only minor differences in accent and idiomatic expressions indicate a speaker's home village. Most Belauans over the age of fifty are also fluent in Japanese, and those younger than fifty speak English. Belauan is referred to as a Nonnuclear Micronesian language, since it has closer genetic affinity with Languages spoken in eastern Indonesia, Taiwan, and the Philippines than with those spoken in the rest of Micronesia. The language is noted for its complex system of verbal inflections, the presence of a phonemic glottal stop, and an archaic set of lexical items found in chants and myths.