1
$\begingroup$

The title says it all but i'll go into detail for clarity. On earth the definition of continents and the line between those and just big islands is relatively clear (let's not get into the Europe, Eurasia, Afro-Eurasia discussion). But how would continents be defined on a world where all landmasses consist of islands and archipelagos none of whom exceed the size of let's say Iceland and Svalbard and most are more akin to the size of Luxembourg or even smaller?

p.s. (i have a feeling the answer to this will involve plate tectonics but to be honest if that is the case please explain like i'm an absolute fool because i still understand very little of the mechanics of those)

$\endgroup$
8
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What do you need this information for? $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2023 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ Because i have a setting like the one described above and (perhaps because of our own real world logic being applied by me) it would seem to me that islands that small would not be considered continents yet a world with landmasses above sea level but no continents also seems odd to me, hence the question. $\endgroup$
    – Blue Devil
    Nov 8, 2023 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ I may have expressed myself with an inadequate accuracy. Let me put this in other words: what is this distinction between an island and continent used for in your world? Ie. why is it important? As the definition is more or less arbitrary, the motivation for the distinction might help others come up with an answer that helps you best. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2023 at 10:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Ah i see, well in my head since most countries in this setting are either a single island or a group of islands/an archipelago i liked the idea of the inhabitants of this world having a sense of nationalism (based on national borders) but also having some cultural link between countries with comparable culture/language so i was thinking of having the people in this story define continents by way of grouping together the landmasses whose languages are related to each other. However like i explained above since most continents on earth are huge i wanted to know if this was a feasible reasoning $\endgroup$
    – Blue Devil
    Nov 8, 2023 at 11:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @BlueDevil I think this is a classic example of an XY problem: you actually want to know how your world inhabitants distinguish different 'nations', figured continents play a large role in this, so asked about the latter, while you could just ask for the former :) $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Nov 8, 2023 at 14:48

8 Answers 8

5
$\begingroup$

The definition of continent is based on convention, not on strict criteria.

For example, I remember that in primary school I was taught that a mountain is a relief higher than 800 meter, anything below that is a hill. There is no such criteria for the definition of continent.

By convention, continents "are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water". In modern schemes with five or more recognized continents, at least one pair of continents is joined by land in some fashion. The criterion "large" leads to arbitrary classification: Greenland, with a surface area of 2,166,086 square kilometres (836,330 sq mi), is only considered the world's largest island, while Australia, at 7,617,930 square kilometres (2,941,300 sq mi), is deemed the smallest continent.

If Australia wasn't there, I am pretty sure that Oceania with all its small islands would still be a continent, with the geographers scratching their heads to make a suiting definition of continent.

Same can happen on your world.

Conventions are made to suit those who use them, not to obey absolute laws.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ The most obvious example of continents being a convention is that, depending on where you went to school, you would have learned that America is one or two continents. In fact, depending on the definition being used, there are anywhere between 4 and 7 continents, with an 8th one being proposed, plus another 7 microcontinents. $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2023 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag I was actually taught two definitions. "Kontinent" that are based on geology and "Svetadiel" that are supposedly based on history and politics. While "Kontinent" recognize Eurasia as a single one, it has North and South Americas on their own. "Svetadiel" on the other hand group Americas into one, but has Europe, Asia and even Oceania as distinct entities. It is confusing and always seems so random to me. But oh my, how teachers loved to put that in the tests. $\endgroup$ Nov 10, 2023 at 8:44
3
$\begingroup$

As mentioned, the local's view of "continents" would roughly overlap the definition of "islands". It is only after a while, when the locals develop a technology which enables them to do geological surveys, they will notice that many islands, though looking isolated by sea, are actually connected to neighbouring islands via an underwater continuous landmass, while the landmasses themselves are individual plantes which move against each other, causing earthquakes and underwater volcanic eruptions.

Take this photo of tectonic plates from the Wikipedia article on Tectonic plates: The boundaries of each "continent" does not exactly match that of our definition of continents like Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America and Antarctica. Asia itself has a few landmasses that have a common link to North America, while at the same time Asia has a common link with Europe. The African plate does not include Somalia, and New Zealand is just partly a part of the Australian plate. This would sound meaningless to an early civilization. However, as that civilization develops and is able to conduct geological surveys, this will have a profound impact on developing more earthquake-proof cities for instance.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

The answer won't involve plate tectonics or any other related science. This is because the definition of a continent is a purely arbitrary term applied by humans for historical reasons to a specific number of large land masses. For example the Encyclopedia Britannica defines continents as 'a large continuous mass of land conventionally regarded as a collective region.'

The thing is 'large' is a relative term! Given that fact the scientists/citizens of your world are totally entitled to define a 'continent' as whatever they want. In all likelihood they would simply apply the term to the relatively small number of Iceland sized land masses you have referred to. True, we would simply call them islands but that's just our parochial naming convention.

The inhabitants of your world would be perfectly entitled to refer to them as continents.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

There is no strong, concrete distinction to be given, because there is no continent

You're probably stuck on this problem because you say that you're looking for continents in a world where :

A world where all landmasses consist of islands and archipelagos, none of whom exceed the size of let's say Iceland and Svalbard and most are more akin to the size of Luxembourg or even smaller.

From your question

Keep that in mind as you ponder about this : "why would you differentiate something that doesn't exist from another?". The question both applies to you as a worldbuilder, but also as one of the inhabitants of the world you're making. The reason you cannot find your answer is because you are likely thinking like a foreign entity of this world, applying your real-world principles and knowledge to this world. A more appropriate way of thinking is to take the place of its residents, with the knowledge they have of it.

And to help you do that, this linguistic principle can help : The more you need to communicate about something to others, the more (and more advanced) the words you will invent. Categorizing elements together under a common term is just part of that communication. Since no continent -using the real-world definition- exists, almost noone in your world need to find a clear distinction between that hypothetical gigantic land and their well-known islands. This "continent" would be at most a myth among the common folk, or an hypothesis among scientists. It would be worth a special name (e.g. : the "Island of the Gods", or "super-islands" for scientists), but lacking any clear evidence to study, there would be no way to statute on a clear, remarkable difference between these and actual, existing islands. Well, beyond being much bigger than anything else that exist.

In fact, this leaves some place to define more accurately their wide variety of islands. Therefore your focus should be instead to distinguish different kind of islands : volcanic islands, islands surrounded by many smaller isles, dangerous islands to navigate around, and so on and so on. Try to imagine first why you'd find helpful to distinguish two lands (for geographs, geologists, travellers, economists...), then ask yourself how you should name them so there's little effort needed to tell them apart.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Continents are defined as zones of trade

The definition of a continent is actually based on convenient zones of trade. Large bodies of water usually separate them, but this isn't a requirement. A leading theory of social evolution posits that Europe and Asia exist because those were the two largest uninterrupted zones of trade.

In an ocean environment, your islands would be divided into archipelagos and chains. You'd still have big islands like Japan and New Zealand because that's how mountains are uplifted at the edges of continental plates.

Thus, a continent would be defined by chains and groupings of islands that were close enough to sustain trade. This isn't actually far-fetched. The Mediterranean Sea was a major advantage in the development of European trade routes. So much so that most empire-building occurred around it.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

As a Pacific Islander, continents in our mindset are only important in terms of resources (when applied to Islands). This might be the case in your scenario as well.

Polynesia is almost all volcanic islands, so the rocks are volcanic and all fauna and flora evolved elsewhere before it arrived on a sterile volcanic outcrop in mid ocean. Micronesia is the same. Nothing evolved from scratch on these.

But Melanesia is mostly ex continental, so it has rocks and flora and fauna which are much more diverse and useful in a myriad of ways and trade voyages of hundreds of miles were made to obtain some of these resources.

However prior to our current knowledge of geography people knew where resources were located but didn't have a concept of 'continental'. It just wasn't important. Only the resources were. Some hardwoods for excellent weapons were only available on certain islands, no one cared why, it's just how things were.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Maybe this is a frame challenge:

It's possible that the people don't care about continents as such at all. They probably are more interested in what happens on the surface: where they build their homes and cities, where they can grow food, hunt, fish, where they get resources (wood, coal, metals etc.), and how they can interact with each other, be it friendly visits or trade, or defending against rival or hostile civilizations.

Whatever happens underneath is of importance only if it causes something on the surface, eg. volcanoes erupt, earthquakes destroy their houses, and tsunamis drown their coastal cities. And, even then, plate tectonics and such could be secondary, unless the volcanoes and earthquakes are so common that the people have to understand why they happen and how to predict them.

That said, the borders probably evolve over time as tribes work together, wage wars and form alliances; and alliances become nations, and nations work together, wage wars and form even bigger alliances and so on. Geographical factors drive this evolution as trade routes bring them together and competition about resources put them against each other. Distances, practicality and such factors probably matter more than anything else.

When there are many islands, sailing and navies and navigation play a big role. Those who can build better ships fare better, as do those who can get their ships intact from port to port. Nonetheless, this is all evolution, and its course cannot be predicted, so in the end, it's up to you to figure out how it has affected the nations and their borders.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

A continental crust, and an oceanic crust are very well defined by their physical and chemical properties.

By definition, a continent is a mass of a continental crust, surrounded by oceanic crust. Water and size are secondary. Continents can exist in a totally waterless world, and could be very small.

The people inhabiting such world will need some understanding of geology to figure out what exactly their continents are.

$\endgroup$

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .