Tobelo language

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Native toIndonesia
RegionNorth Halmahera
Native speakers
30,000 (2000)[1]
West Papuan
Language codes
ISO 639-3Either:
tlb – Tobelo
tuj – Tugutil
Halmahera tobelo.png
The Tobelo speaking region (grey) on Halmahera

Tobelo (Indonesian: bahasa Tobelo) is a North Halmahera language spoken on the eastern Indonesian island of Halmahera and on parts of several neighboring islands. The Tobelo-speaking heartland is in the district (Indonesian: kecamatan) of Tobelo, located on the western shore of Kao Bay. The district capital, also known as Tobelo, serves as a regional commercial and administrative center and is the largest settlement on Halmahera.


Six principal dialects are generally recognized (Voorhoeve 1988):

  • Heleworuru
  • Boeng
  • Dodinga
  • Lake Paca
  • Kukumutuk
  • Popon

The Tugutil or "Forest Tobelo" may constitute an additional dialectal variant, but this has not been satisfactorily documented. Intelligibility is not great.

In addition, based on cognition percentages in a basic vocabulary list, Voorhoeve 1988 identifies five other North Halmaheran language varieties as dialects of the putative Northeast Halmaheran language. Together with Tobelo, these varieties are Galela, Loloda, Modole, Pagu and Tabaru. Most speakers consider these to be distinct languages from Tobelo, although they do acknowledge a certain degree of mutual intelligibility.



Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p b t d k ɡ
Fricative (f) ɕ h
Affricate (tʃ) dʒ
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Lateral l ʎ
Rhotic r
Approximant w (j)

Consonant sounds in parentheses only occur in loan words or in other Tobelo dialects.


Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e~ɛ o
Open a

Mid front vowels can range from /e/ to /ɛ/.[3]


Most all of the 50 languages of Maluku have some sort of directional system. At the least the up/down distinction seems to be an areal feature. But this brings up the chicken and the egg phenomenon. Is this directional system of AN or NAN origin? Or is it a mixture?

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Tobelo are the most widespread ethnic group in Maluku, with sizable emigrant population throughout the province. We can a least be sure that the Malay directionals are the "egg", because Malay as spoken in Western Indonesia does not use these directionals whereas Moluccan Malay uses direct calques of the Tobelo terms:

bawah, atas, darat, laut.

Tobelo directionals are described in Taylor (1984). Tobelo directional adverbs occur:

  1. on motion verbs to specify direction of motion
  2. on nouns to specify motion away from or toward an object

Thus, interpretation of directional adverbs is entirely context-dependent. For example,

 o tau t-oiki
 NM house 1AGT-go
 'I'm going to the house'

If I meet you landwards of the house, this means that I'm headed inland from my house. If I meet you seawards of the house, then it means I'm headed inland to the house.

Some Tobelo directionals
Deictic Adverb
land dina -iha
sea dai -oko
up daku -ilye
down dau -uku
over doka -ika

Tobelo directionals.gif


  1. ^ Tobelo at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Tugutil at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tobelo–Tugutil". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Holton, Gary (2003). Tobelo.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Holton, Gary. 2003. Tobelo. (Languages of the World/Materials 328). Munich: LINCOM Europa. ISBN 3-89586-706-3
  • Hueting, Anton. 1908. Tobeloreesch-Hollandsch woordenboek met Hollandsch-Tobeloreesch inhoudsopgave. 's-Gravenhage: Nijhoff.
  • Hueting, Anton. 1908. O Tobelohoka manga totoade: verhalen en vertellingen in de Tobeloreesche taal. Bijdragen tot de Taal, Land en Volkenkunde 61.1-318.
  • Hueting, Anton. 1936. Iets over de spaakkunst van de Tobeloreesche taal. Bijdragen tot de Taal, Land en Volkenkunde 94.295-407.
  • Taylor, Paul Michael. 1984. Tobelorese deixis. Anthropological Linguistics 26.102-22.
  • Taylor, Paul Michael (1990). The Folk Biology of the Tobelo People: A Study in Folk Classification. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. doi:10.5479/si.00810223.34.1.
  • Voorhoeve, C. L. 1988. The languages of the northern Halmaheran stock. Papers in New Guinea Linguistics, no. 26., 181-209. (Pacific Linguistics A-76). Canberra: Australian National University.