An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. Papuan are the languages of New Guinea and adjacent islands which are not Austronesian. It is more a geographical than a genetic grouping because Papuan languages do not necessarily have a common origin. New Guinea is one of the more linguistically diverse areas of the world harboring not only about 700 Papuan languages but also some 300 belonging to the unrelated Austronesian family.

Papuan languages are much older than the Austronesian ones in New Guinea, having existed, perhaps, from the beginning of human colonization of the island, some 40,000 years ago. This great-time depth and the difficult terrain, segmented into mountains, tropical forests and swamps, has led to this unique linguistic fragmentation.

Distribution. Papuan languages are spread over the entire island of New Guinea, the world's second largest with 786.000 square kilometers, politically divided into Irian Jaya (belonging to Indonesia) to the west, and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to the east (an independent country). They share the island with Austronesian languages which occupy pockets in the west, north, south and southeast. Beyond New Guinea, Papuan languages extend northwesterly into the North Maluku islands (northern Halmahera and Morotai), southwesterly into Timor, Alor and Pantar islands, and easterly into New Britain, Bougainville and western Solomon islands.

Map of Papuan language families (click to enlarge it)

Internal Classification. The classification of Papuan languages is in constant flux. One of the more recent ones, groups them into 23 families plus a number of isolates. By far, the largest family is Trans New Guinea which also has the widest geographical extension spreading across all New Guinea, except for most of the Bird's Head peninsula and parts of the northern and southern coasts. A great portion of the Bird's Head is occupied by the Extended West Papuan family. Then, from west to east we have Mairasi and an arch of thirteen families nested in the northern coast: Geelvink Bay, Lakes Plain, Tor-Kwerba, Nimboran, Skou, Border, Left May-Kwomtari, Senagi, Torricelli, Sepik, Ramu-Lower Sepik, Yuat, and Piawi. On the south coast of New Guinea we find two families positioned in the central part of the island: South Central Papuan and Eastern Trans-Fly. The remaining five families prevail in the eastern islands of New Britain, Bougainville and western Solomons: West New Britain, East New Britain, North Bougainville, South Bougainville, Central Solomons.


  1. 1.Trans New Guinea. It contains about 400 languages and is spoken by close to three million people. It occupies the central cordillera that runs through New Guinea from northwest to southeast, as well as part of the southern and northern lowlands. It is also present in Timor, Alor, and Pantar islands. The family comprises many groups, among them (from west to east):

  1. Timor-Alor-Pantar. Spoken in the islands of the Nusa Tenggara archipelago, in Timor by 200,000 people, in Alor by 41,000 and in Pantar by 30,000.

  1. South Birds'Head. Includes 12 languages spoken by 12,000 people.

  1. West. With 20 members, among them the 13 Dani languages. Spoken by 630,000 people in total.

  1. Asmat-Kamoro. Located in the southwest coast of Irian Jaya, west of the Awyu-Dumut family, it has 6 languages and 40,000 speakers.

  1. Awyu-Dumut. South and west of Ok family, with 9 languages and 57,000 speakers.

  1. Ok. Includes 14 languages spoken by 50,000 people in the mountainous region between Irian Jaya and PNG.

  1. Engan. In Enga Province of PNG, with 8 languages and 400,000 speakers.

  1. Chimbu-Wahgi. Spoken in Chimbu and the Western Highlands Province in PNG, with perhaps 16 languages and 680,000 speakers.

  1. Kainantu-Goroka. With 29 languages and 250,000 speakers.

  1. Madang. In Madang Province of PNG with about 100 languages and 80,000 speakers.

  1. Finisterre-Huon. With 60 languages and 130,000 speakers.

  1. Angan. Located south of the previous, it occupies the Eastern Highlands, Morobe and Gulf Provinces of PNG. It has 12 languages and 70,000 speakers.

  1. Binandere. 14 languages with 50,000 speakers in the Oro province of PNG.

  1. South-East Papuan. 37 languages with 115,000 speakers.

  1. 2.Extended West Papuan. This extended family, which has 315,000 speakers, tentatively groups together West Papuan, East Bird’s Head-Sentani and Yava languages. West Papuan is the largest group, having 23 languages and 270,000 speakers; it spreads across West Bird's Head and in the neighboring North Maluku islands (Morotai and the northern part of Halmahera). East Bird’s Head-Sentani has 7 languages with 37,000 speakers. Yava occupies the center of Yava island, off the northern coast of New Guinea, and has 10,000 speakers.

  1. 3.Mairasi is a small family located in the 'neck' of New Guinea that includes 3 languages spoken by 4,500 people.

  1. 4.Geelvink Bay is located in the east coast of Cenderawasih Bay (formerly called Geelvink). It comprises 11 languages with, may be, 7,000-8,000 speakers in total.

  1. 5.Lakes Plain occupies the flooded plains of the basin of the Mamberamo river; it includes 20 languages with 6,000 speakers.

  1. 6.Tor-Kwerba is on the northern coast, east of Cenderawasih Bay; it has 24 members and 18,000 speakers.

  1. 7.Nimboran is a small family, situated immediately east of Tor-Kwerba; it has 5 languages and 9,000 speakers.

  1. 8.Sko or Skou belongs to the north coast around the PNG-Irian Jaya border; it includes 7 languages with 6,000 speakers.

  1. 9.Border is situated below the precedent; it has 15 languages with 18,000 speakers.

  1. 10.Left May-Kwomtari includes 10 languages with 7,000 speakers.

  1. 11.Senagi has 2 languages with 3,000 speakers.

  1. 12.Torricelli consists of about 50 languages with 120,000 speakers occupying a continuous area of the Torricelli and Prince Alexander Ranges (between the Sepik River and the north coast).

  1. 13.Sepik about 55 languages with 175,000 speakers.

  1. 14.Ramu-Lower Sepik includes the Lower Sepik group along the lower Sepik river, with 6 languages and around 15,000 speakers, and the Ramu group, along the lower Ramu river, with 9 languages and around 15,000 speakers.

  1. 15.Yuat has 6 languages and 11,000 speakers.

  1. 16.Piawi has 2 languages and 3,000 speakers.

  1. 17.South Central Papuan on the south-central coast, includes 21 languages and 17,000 speakers.

  1. 18.Eastern Trans-Fly to the east of the previous, includes 4 languages and 7,000 speakers.

  1. 19.West New-Britain includes Anem and Ata languages with 2,500 speakers.

  1. 20.East New-Britain is represented by the Baining dialect chain with 13,000 speakers.

  1. 21.North Bougainville includes Kunua (Rapoisi), Kiriaka, Rotokas, and Eivo with 10,000 speakers in total.

  1. 22.South Bougainville includes Nasioi, Nagovisi, Motuna (Siwai), and Buin with 75,000 speakers in total.

  1. 23.Central Solomons comprises Bilua, Baniata, Lavukaleve and Savosavo with 15,000 speakers in total.


Speakers. Papuan languages are spoken by close to four million people. Most of them by fewer than 3000 speakers each. The largest ones are: Enga spoken in the highlands of PNG (about 250,000 speakers), Melpa in the highlands of PNG (180,000), Western Dani in the highlands of Irian Jaya (250,000), Kuman (115,00) in the Western Highlands of PNG.

Status. Due to the great linguistic heterogeneity in the area, Tok Pisin, an English-based creole, is used as a lingua franca throughout New Guinea and is the official language of PNG. No Papuan language has national or provincial status and none is supported in any way. As many languages have few speakers their survival is in danger.


  1. Phonology

  2. - Most Papuan languages have simple phonetic systems. The one of Rotokas in Bougainville with just  eleven phonemes is the world's simplest. Some Lake Plains languages do not have nasal and liquid phonemes at all. In most languages consonants are articulated at three places only, labial, dental and velar, though others have also palatals. Fricatives are comparatively rare. Many languages have only a single liquid, the contrast between r and l being rare.

  1. - A five vowel system composed of  i, e, a, o, u , is the most common, though some languages have six, seven or eight vowels.

  1. -Some Papuan languages, like Siane, Fasu and Dadibi, have word-tone systems (one syllable of a word marked with a distinctive pitch) while others, like Awa and Mianmin, have syllable-based tones (every syllable of a word has a distinctive pitch). Many don’t make tonal contrasts.

  1. Morphology

  1. Nominal

  2. - Nouns are inflected for case and gender in many languages though in some there is little inflection.

  1. - Torricelli, Sepik, and Lower Sepik-Ramu have noun class systems which include up to 10 noun classes. Each class has specific suffixes for singular and plural nouns with which related adjectives and verbs concord (taking the noun-ending as their own suffix or prefix). The degree of concordance varies in different languages (complete, partial or null). Noun classes are also found in some Trans New Guinea, Bougainville and Central Solomons languages.

  1. Verbal

  2. - Verb morphology is agglutinative and may be quite complex. Most languages carry suffixes marking tense, aspect and mood (TAM), and some languages additional suffixes to indicate person and number of the subject. In Trans New Guinea languages the object is also incorporated in the verb, but as a prefix. Other information pertaining to the verb, like direction and place of the action, causer or beneficiary of the action, can also be incorporated into the verb.

  1. - Agreement between verb and subject is universal, common for direct object and less frequent for indirect object.

  1. - Passive verbs are unknown.

  1. - Many Papuan languages have a small inventory of verb roots, but they can produce new verbs by serial verb constructions which consist in a chain of non-inflected (dependent) verbs ending in an inflected (independent) one. If the subject of two or more consecutive verbs is not the same, independent verbs have to be used, though languages of the Trans New Guinea family can avoid this by resorting to 'switch reference' forms which indicate if the subject has changed or not.

  1. Syntax

  2. - In Papuan languages the most common word order is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) except for Torricelli family and others, which have been influenced by Austronesian languages, where SVO order is usual. SOV languages use postpositions and SVO prepositions.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Papuan Languages of New Guinea. W. Foley. Cambridge University Press (1986).

  2. -'Papuan Languages'. A. Pawley. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 836-844. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  3. -'The Languages of New Guinea'. W. Foley. Annual Review of Anthropology 29, 357-404 (2000).

  4. -'The East Papuan Languages: A Preliminary Typological Appraisal'. M. Dunn, G. Reesink & A. Terrill. Oceanic Linguistics 41, 28-62. (2002).

  5. -'West Papuan Languages: Roots and Development'. G. Reesink. In Papuan Pasts: Studies in the cultural, linguistic and biological history of the Papuan-speaking peoples, 185-218. Pawley et al (eds). Pacific Linguistics (2005).

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Papuan Languages

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