West Papuan languages

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West Papuan
Maluku Islands and West Papua
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's primary language families
West papuan family map.svg
Distribution of the West Papuan languages

The West Papuan languages are a proposed language family of about two dozen Papuan languages of the Bird's Head Peninsula (Vogelkop or Doberai Peninsula) of far western New Guinea, the island of Halmahera and its vicinity, spoken by about 220,000 people in all.

The best known West Papuan language is Ternate (50,000 native speakers) of the island of the same name, which is a regional lingua franca and which, along with neighboring Tidore, were the languages of the rival medieval Ternate and Tidore sultanates, famous for their role in the spice trade.


West Papuan


The German linguist Wilhelm Schmidt first linked the West Bird's Head and North Halmahera languages in 1900. In 1957 HKL Cowan linked them to the non-Austronesian languages of Timor as well. Stephen Wurm believed that although traces of West Papuan languages were to be found in the languages of Timor, as well as those of Aru and Great Andaman, this was due to a substratum and that these languages should be classified as Trans–New Guinea, Austronesian, and Andamanese, respectively. Indeed, most of the languages of East Nusa Tenggara and Maluku appear to have some non-Austronesian influence.[1]

In 2005, Malcolm Ross made a tentative proposal, based on the forms of their pronouns, that the West Papuan languages form one of three branches of an extended West Papuan family that also includes the Yawa languages, and a newly proposed East Bird's Head – Sentani family as a third branch.

Søren Wichmann (2013)[2] considers West Bird's Head, Abun, and Maybrat to form a unified family, but does not accept West Papuan as a coherent language family.

Timothy Usher, also somewhat tentatively, accepts Yawa and East Bird's Head, but not Sentani, as part of West Papuan itself, so the family can remain under that name.[3]

Holton and Klamer (2018) do not unequivocally accept the unity of West Papuan, but note that certain proposals linking "West Papuan" groups together may eventually turn out to be fruitful.[4]


The pronouns Ross reconstructs for proto-West Papuan are,

I *da, *di- exclusive we *mam, *mi-
inclusive we *po-
thou *ni, *na, *a- you *nan, *ni-
she *mV they *yo, *ana, *yo-

These are shared by the "core" West Papuan families. Hattam reflects only "I" and "thou", and Amberbaken only "thou", "you", and "she".

Ross's Extended West Papuan languages have forms in *d for "I" and *m for "we". (Most Yawa forms of "we" have m, such as imama, but they are too diverse for an easy reconstruction.) These are found in all branches of the family except for the Amberbaken isolate.

Ross's West Papuan proper is distinguished from Yawa and EBH-Sentani in having forms like na or ni for the second-person singular ("thou") pronoun.

family I thou we
West Papuan *da, *di- *na, *ni, *a- *mam, *mi
EBH-Sentani *da, *di *ba~wa, *bi *meme, *me
Yava *rei *wein (imama etc.)

Comparative vocabulary[edit]

Basic vocabulary of two West Bird's Head languages (WBH) (Moi and Tehit) and three language isolates (Mpur, Abun, Maibrat), quoted by Holton & Klamer (2018)[4] from Miedema & Reesink (2004: 34) and (Reesink 2005: 202):[5][6]

West Bird's Head family and Bird's Head isolates:
basic vocabulary
gloss Moi (WBH) Tehit (WBH) Mpur Abun Maibrat
arm/hand nin naa wom cim atem
leg/foot eelik deit pet wis ao
house keik mbol jan nu amah
good bok hnjo mafun ndo mof
dog oofun mqaan per ndar mtah
pig baik qorik dwaw nok fane
chicken kelem tole kokok kokor dam kukur kok
louse -jam hain im im sruom
water/river kla kla war aja
banana o ogo fa weu apit

Lexical comparisons between North Halmahera languages (NH) (Galela and Pagu) and West Bird's Head languages (WBH) (Moi and Tehit) from Voorhoeve (1988: 194), as quoted by Holton & Klamer (2018):[7][4]

Lexical comparisons between North Halmahera and
West Bird's Head families
gloss Galela (NH) Pagu (NH) Moi (WBH) Tehit (WBH)
‘head’ sahe saek sawa safakos
‘fruit’, ‘eye’ sopo sowok suwo sfuon
‘egg’ gosi esyen
‘man’ ya-nau naul ne nau
‘meat’ lake lakem kem qan
‘tree’ gota kot
‘water’ ake akel kala kla
‘drink’ oke okel ook ooqo
‘stab’ saka sakal saa sqaa


  1. ^ Arthur Capell, 'The "West Papuan Phylum", Stephen Wurm 1977 [1975], New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study, volume 1.
  2. ^ Wichmann, Søren. 2013. A classification of Papuan languages. In: Hammarström, Harald and Wilco van den Heuvel (eds.), History, contact and classification of Papuan languages (Language and Linguistics in Melanesia, Special Issue 2012), 313-386. Port Moresby: Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea.
  3. ^ [https://sites.google.com/site/newguineaworld/families/west-papuan NewGuineaWorld West Papuan
  4. ^ a b c Holton, Gary; Klamer, Marian (2018). "The Papuan languages of East Nusantara and the Bird's Head". In Palmer, Bill (ed.). The Languages and Linguistics of the New Guinea Area: A Comprehensive Guide. The World of Linguistics. 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. pp. 569–640. ISBN 978-3-11-028642-7.
  5. ^ Miedema, Jelle and Ger P. Reesink. 2004. One Head, Many Faces: New perspectives on the Bird’s Head Peninsula of New Guinea. Leiden: KITLV.
  6. ^ Reesink, Ger P. 2005. West Papuan languages: roots and development. In: Pawley et al. (eds.) 185–218.
  7. ^ Voorhoeve, Clemens L. 1988. The languages of the northern Halmaheran stock. In: Geoffrey P. Smith, Tom Dutton, Clemens L. Voorhoeve, Stephen Schooling, Janice Schooling, Robert Conrad, Ron Lewis, Stephen A. Wurm and Theo Baumann (eds.), Papers in New Guinea Linguistics 26: 181–209.
  • Ross, Malcolm (2005). "Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages". In Andrew Pawley; Robert Attenborough; Robin Hide; Jack Golson (eds.). Papuan pasts: cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. pp. 15–66. ISBN 0858835622. OCLC 67292782.
  • Voorhoeve, C. L. (1988). "The languages of the northern Halmaheran stock". Papers in New Guinea Linguistics. 26: 181–209. ISSN 0078-9135. OCLC 2729642.

See also[edit]