Native toPapua New Guinea
RegionSandaun Province
Native speakers
7,500 (2008 census)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3aau

Abau is a Papuan language spoken in southern Sandaun Province of Papua New Guinea, primarily along the border with Indonesia.

In 2002, there were estimated to be between 4,500 and 5,000 speakers, and this number does not appear to have declined since the first accurate count in the 1970s.

Abau is reported to have whistled speech.


Abau has the simplest phonemic inventory in the Sepik language family.[2]

Front Back
Close i u
Close-mid e o
Open ɑ
Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive p k
Fricative s h
Flap ɾ
Semivowel j w


Pronouns are:[3]

sg du pl
1 ha ~ han hror hrom
2 hwon ~ hun hoh hom
3m hiy ~ hi
3f hok

The dual and plural numbers only distinguish between first person and non-first person. Also, the third-person gender distinction exists only for the singular, but not the dual or plural forms.

Noun classes

Abau noun classes are:[3]

Abau noun classes
class formal marker semantics
class 1 pru human, spirits
class 2 k(a)- animals and default
class 3 na small objects with some volume
class 4 s(i)- flat surface objects
class 5 pi long thin objects
class 6 u geographical locations
class 7 i flat objects with little volume
class 8 ri certain types of trees
class 9 ein(d)- bundles of long uncut items
class 10 reik temporal
class 11 hnaw bundles of long cut items
class 12 houk- part of a long object

Nouns can take on different class affixes depending on the physical characteristics being emphasized. Examples:[3]

su ‘coconut’
pey ‘sugarcane’

Like most other Sepik languages, Abau overtly marks grammatical gender (see Sepik languages#Gender). The same object can be classified as either masculine or feminine, depending on the physical characteristics intended for emphasis. Example:[3]

youk ‘paddle’


The following basic vocabulary words are from Foley (2005)[4] and Laycock (1968),[5] as cited in the Trans-New Guinea database:[6]

gloss Abau
head makwe
ear nwek
eye nane; nanɛ
nose kasan
tooth nas
tongue sane; sanɛ
leg sune; sunɛ
louse mapru
dog nwɔf; nwɔhɔ
pig fwok
bird ahnɛ
egg ne
blood nyoh
bone ayo; i
skin ohi
breast mu
tree no; nɔw
man lu; or; ur
woman sa
sun e; ey
moon yen; yeny
water fu; hu
fire ya
stone məny
name uru
eat ra
one mun; rin
two pris


  1. ^ Abau at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  2. ^ a b c Steven Moran and Daniel McCloy and Richard Wright. 2019. Abau sound inventory (PH). In: Moran, Steven & McCloy, Daniel (eds.) PHOIBLE 2.0. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. (Available online at http://phoible.org/inventories/view/1160, Accessed on 2019-04-23.)
  3. ^ a b c d Foley, William A. (2018). "The Languages of the Sepik-Ramu Basin and Environs". In Palmer, Bill (ed.). The Languages and Linguistics of the New Guinea Area: A Comprehensive Guide. The World of Linguistics. Vol. 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. pp. 197–432. ISBN 978-3-11-028642-7.
  4. ^ Foley, W.A. "Linguistic prehistory in the Sepik-Ramu basin". In Pawley, A., Attenborough, R., Golson, J. and Hide, R. editors, Papuan Pasts: Cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples. PL-572:109-144. Pacific Linguistics, The Australian National University, 2005.
  5. ^ Laycock, Donald C. 1968. Languages of the Lumi Subdistrict (West Sepik District), New Guinea. Oceanic Linguistics, 7 (1): 36-66.
  6. ^ Greenhill, Simon (2016). "TransNewGuinea.org - database of the languages of New Guinea". Retrieved 2020-11-05.