Papuan Languages

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Papuan Languages


a conventional designation for a number of language groups and isolated languages in New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands that do not belong to the Malayo-Polynesian (Austronesian) family. There are more than 2 million speakers of Papuan languages (1970, estimate). Various estimates place the number of Papuan languages at between 300 and 700, with no reliable data on genetic relations between the languages. According to the preliminary data of the Australian scholar S. Wurm, the languages may be classified as follows: Trans-New Guinea phylum (approximately 1.4 million speakers), Sepik Ramu (approximately 100,000), Western Papuan phylum (fewer than 100,000), Wapei-Palei phylum (approximately 65,000), Toaripi phylum (approximately 30,000), the Bougainville phylum on the island of Bougainville (approximately 40,000), and a number of smaller genetic groupings. The major Papuan languages, in numbers of speakers, are Enga (110,000), Hagen (60,000), Chimbu (60,000), Huli (54,000), Kamano (40,000), Wahgi (40,000), and Kewa (40,000). Bilingualism and multilingualism are common. In eastern New Guinea a number of regional languages are spoken in addition to Neo-Melanesian, a Pidgin English used by more than 0.5 million people in New Guinea and the neighboring islands. In western New Guinea (Irian Jaya), Indonesian is widely used as a common language.

The Papuan languages are typelogically diverse. They are distinguished by rich consonant systems that include preglottal-ized and prenasalized consonants and by a specific set of allo-phonic alternations, in which, for example, [t] and [p] are frequently allophones of a single phoneme. Verbal affixes with single grammatical functions form an extremely complex inflectional system. There are complex morphophonemic alternations at affix junctures. Many Papuan languages have grammatical classes, unusual counting systems, and forms known as medials (types of adverbial participles).

N. N. Miklukho-Maklai was the first to provide a scholarly description of Bongu and other Papuan languages. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Papuan languages were studied by the British scholar S. Ray. Most research in the mid-20th century has been done by Dutch, Australian, and American linguists, including S. Wurm, A. Capell, C. Voorhoeve, and H. K. J. Cowan. The Papuan languages have not been fully described.

The languages generally do not have writing systems and are not used for instruction in schools. Literature is practically nonexistent.


Puchkov, P. I. Naselenie Okeanii. Moscow, 1967.
Butinov, N. A. Papuasy Novoi Gvinei. Moscow, 1968.
Leont’ev, A. A. Papuasskie iazyki. Moscow, 1974.
Capell, A. A Linguistic Survey of the South-Western Pacific, 2nd ed. Nouméa, 1962.
Capell, A. A Survey of New Guinea Languages. [Sydney, 1969.]
Linguistics in Oceania. The Hague-Paris, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
As in many other Papuan languages spoken in mountainous terrain, TAP languages have elaborate coding of elevation deictics.
Crucially, the volume gives a much-needed new balance to the overall study of Papuan languages.
In this section we examine the encoding of 'give' events in the four Papuan languages of Timor.
Furthermore, given new evidence of a more western extent for this Papuan substrate (Donohue 2007b) than has previously been assumed (Capell 1975), the border of the so-called Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian languages matches exactly the past distribution of Papuan languages, providing strong support for the idea that there was, until relatively recently, a significant seafaring Papuan presence across eastern Indonesia.
Wurm's Papuan Languages and the New Guinea Language Scene lists only J.
Revisiting earlier work of Stephen Wurm, 'Papuan languages and the New Guinea linguistic scene', New Guinea Languages and Language Study, vol.
Wurm, Stephen, 1982, The Papuan Languages of Oceania, Narr, Tubingen.
As a result of his researches, he established that the easterners spoke a Papuan language (today called Meriam Mir) and the westerners, an Australian language (now called Kala Lagaw Ya on Mabuiag and Badu and Kalaw Kawaw Ya on Saibai, Boigu and Dauan).
Lastly, Reesink considers the westernmost Papuan languages of Cenderawasih Bay and the Bird's Head, North Halmahera and Timor-Alor-Pantar, which fall into five small families and four isolates, but show evidence of contact-induced structural changes.
According to Ross (2003:312) the East Papuan languages are survivals from the Pre- Austronesian period, which were largely displaced by the Austronesian languages, but it is unknown whether the East Papuan languages are descended from the initial settlers 40,000 or 50,000 years ago or from later migrations.
The Papuan languages of Timor, Alor, and Pantar are one of the best described non-Austronesian language families of Melanesia, but published descriptions still only address a small number of languages and do not reflect the full extent of diversity within the family.
(ed.), Papuan Languages and the New Guinea Linguistic Scene, Volume 1.