Identification. The name "Tuvalu" is apparently traditional and refers to the original "cluster of eight" islands. It was adopted as the national name when the group achieved self-governing status in 1975, after breaking away from the Gilbert Islands with which it had been administered by Britain since 1892. The name "Ellice Islands" was initially given only to Funafuti in 1819 by Captain de Peyster of the Rebecca in honor of the owner of his cargo, Edward Ellice, an English member of Parliament.
Location. Tuvalu is an archipelago of nine small islands lying in a northwest-southeast chain stretching over 640 kilometers of ocean between 176° and 180° E and between 5° and 11° S. Closest to the equator is Nanumea, followed southwards by Niutao, Nanumaga, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti, Nukulaelae, and Niulakita. The first three constitute the northern geographical subgroup proper, with Nui occupying an ambiguous position between them and the more widely scattered southern grouping. The environment is tropical maritime (with the average daily maximum temperature ranging from about 24° to 30° C) and there is no distinct dry season, though December, January, and February are normally the wettest (and stormiest) months. Strong westerlies are a common occurrence at this time but for most of the year easterly trade winds predominate. Rainfall is generally adequate (about 300 to 350 centimeters per year) though limited water storage capacity means that rationing may be imposed after a relatively short dry spell. The northern islands tend to be the driest.
Demography. It is now generally acknowledged that early estimates of a precontact Tuvaluan population of 20,000 were grossly in error and that the total actually fluctuated around 3,000 people. After European contact, Tuvalu generally escaped the depredations wrought by epidemic diseases in other parts of the Pacific, but two of the islands (Nukulaelae and Funafuti) suffered huge population losses in 1863 when blackbirders (Peruvians operating a form of labor trade akin to slavery) kidnapped hundreds of people. The population has more than recovered since then. The 1979 census enumerated 7,349 persons but the total population of Tuvaluans was estimated at about 10,000, including all those living in Kiribati, Nauru, Fiji, New Zealand, and other parts of the Pacific. A 1989 estimate of the de facto population in the group itself was 8,619, and no doubt considerable numbers of Tuvaluans continue to dwell outside the home group. The population is presently growing at a rate of 1.9 percent per year and has an average density of 332 persons per square kilometer, though the latter varies greatly from Funafuti (highest) to Vaitupu (lowest). The absolute size of each community also shows considerable range, from the 50 persons or so on Niulakita to the more than 2,000 on Funafuti, the capital and main communication center. The vast majority of this population is of Tuvaluan ethnic origin, though some inhabitants belong to other Pacific ethnic groups and there is a sizable cadre of expatriate (mainly White) advisers, officials, development workers, and volunteers, especially on Funafuti.
Linguistic Affiliation. The majority of people speak Tuvaluan, a Polynesian language, although the inhabitants of one island, Nui, speak a mainly Gilbertese (Micronesian) dialect. Although all varieties of Tuvaluan are mutually intelligible, a clear dialectal difference exists between the northern and southern clusters of islands, and within those groupings each island has its own distinctive communalect. Tuvaluan is one language of the relatively nonhomogeneous Samoic-Outlier Subgroup of Nuclear Polynesian languages; the subgroup's other major component is Eastern Polynesian. Samoan used to be the dominant language of literacy but has since been supplanted by Tuvaluan for Christian scriptures, church and government publications, and personal letter writing. Samoan is being replaced by English as the main second language.