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Native toPapua New Guinea
RegionHuon Gulf, Morobe Province
Native speakers
12,000 (2011)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3buk

Bukawa (also known as Bukaua, Kawac, Bugawac, Gawac) is an Austronesian language of Papua New Guinea.


Bukawa is spoken by about 12,000 people (in 2011) on the coast of the Huon Gulf, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. The most common spelling of the name in both community and government usage is Bukawa (Eckermann 2007:1), even though it comes from the Yabem language, which served as a church and school lingua franca in the coastal areas around the Gulf for most of the 20th century. This ethnonym, which now designates Bukawa-speakers in general, derives from the name of a prominent village Bugawac (literally 'River Gawac', though no such river seems to exist) at Cape Arkona in the center of the north coast.

Ethnologue notes that 40% of Bukawa speakers are monolingual (or perhaps were in 1978). This claim is hard to credit unless one discounts both Tok Pisin, the national language of Papua New Guinea, and Yabem, the local Lutheran mission lingua franca. The anthropologist Ian Hogbin, who did fieldwork in the large Bukawa-speaking village of Busama on the south coast shortly after World War II, found that everyone was multilingual in three languages: Tok Pisin, Yabem, and their village language (Hogbin 1951).


There are four dialects.[2] Geographical coordinates are also provided for each village.[3]



Bukawa distinguishes the eight vowel qualities:[4]

Front Central Back
High i u
Lower high ɪ ʊ
Mid e ø ɔ ~ o
Low a


Bukawa has the largest consonant inventory among the Austronesian languages of mainland New Guinea.[4][5]

Glottal stop, written with a c as in Yabem, is only distinctive at the end of syllables. The only other consonants that can occur syllable-finally are labials and nasals: p, b, m, ŋ. Syllable-structure constraints are most easily explained if labialized and prenasalized consonants are considered unit phonemes rather than clusters. The distinction between voiced and voiceless laterals and approximants is unusual for Huon Gulf languages.

Bilabial Coronal Velar Glottal
plain lab. plain lab. plain lab.
Plosive voiceless/asp. p~pʰ ʔ
prenasal vl. ᵐp ᵐpʷ ⁿt ᵑk ᵑkʷ
voiced b d ɡ ɡʷ
prenasal vd. ᵐb ᵐbʷ ⁿd ᵑɡ ᵑɡʷ
Nasal m n ŋ
Fricative s h
Tap (ɾ)
Lateral voiced l
Semivowel voiced w j

Tone contrasts

Vowels are further distinguished by high or low pitch. The latter is marked orthographically by a grave accent. These distinctions in tone are thus based on register tone, not contour tone as in Mandarin Chinese. Register tone contrasts are a relatively recent innovation of the North Huon Gulf languages. While tone is somewhat predictable in Yabem, where low tone correlates with voiced obstruents and high tone with voiceless obstruents, Bukawa has lost that correlation. Nor does Bukawa tone correlate predictably with Yabem tone. Compare Yabem low-tone awê 'woman' and Bukawa high-tone awhê 'woman', both presumably from Proto-Oceanic (POc) *papine (or *tapine).

High Low
akwa 'canoe side support' akwà 'old'
atu 'offspring, baby' (POc *ñatu) atù 'big'
dinaŋ 'my mother' (POc *tina) dinàŋ 'that'
êŋgili 'stirs up' êŋgilì 'steps over'
huc 'pig net' hùc 'bear fruit'
mbac 'bird' (POc *manu) mbàc 'to rub'
ŋasi 'jaw' ŋasì 'fat'
puŋ 'press by hand' pùŋ 'make flat by adze'
siŋ 'canoe sideboard' sìŋ 'fight'
tam 'edible greens' tàm 'dew'
tuŋ 'garden fence' tùŋ 'cause pain'

Contrastive nasalization

Final syllables appear to show distinctive nasal contrasts. Anticipation of final nasal consonants causes final vowels to nasalize, even when the final nasal consonant is elided in actual speech. Anticipation of nonnasal codas on final syllables, on the other hand, has caused systematic stopping (postplosion) of syllable-initial nasals, creating a class of prenasalized voiced obstruents that correspond to simple nasals in Yabem, as in the final seven examples in the following table. (See Bradshaw 2010.)

Yabem Bukawa Gloss
iŋ ~ ĩ 'he/she/it'
gamêŋ gameŋ ~ gamẽ 'place'
ŋapaŋ ŋapaŋ ~ ŋapã 'always'
moac mboc 'snake'
nip ndip 'coconut'
ŋac ŋgac 'man'
anô andô 'true'
samob sambob 'all'
ŋa-kana ŋa-ganda 'sweet'
ŋa-têmui ŋa-dômbwi 'dirty'


Pronouns and person markers

Free pronouns

Singular Plural Dual
1st person exclusive alu yac
inclusive hêclu ~ yêclu yac
2nd person am mac ~ mwac amlu
3rd person ŋac iŋlu ~ lu

Genitive pronouns

The short, underdifferentiated genitive forms are often disambiguated by adding the free pronoun in front.

Singular Plural Dual
1st person exclusive () neŋ ~ aneŋ (yac) mba (alu) mba
inclusive (yac) neŋ (hêclu) neŋ
2nd person (am) nem (mac) nem (amlu) nem
3rd person () ndê (ŋac) si (iŋlu) si


Traditional counting practices started with the digits of one hand, then continued on the other hand, and then the feet to reach twenty, which translates as 'one person'. Higher numbers are multiples of 'one person'. Nowadays, most counting above five is done in Tok Pisin. As in other Huon Gulf languages, the short form of the numeral 'one' functions as an indefinite article.

Numeral Term Gloss
1 tigeŋ/daŋ 'one'
2 lu 'two'
3 'three'
4 hale 'four'
5 amaŋdaŋ/limdaŋ 'hand-one'
6 amaŋdaŋ ŋandô-tigeŋ 'hand-one fruit-one'
7 amaŋdaŋ ŋandô-lu 'hand-one fruit-two'
8 amaŋdaŋ ŋandô-tö 'hand-one fruit-three'
9 amaŋdaŋ ŋandô-hale 'hand-one fruit-four'
10 amaŋlu/sahuc 'hands-two / ten'
15 sahuc ŋa-lim 'ten its-five'
20 ŋgac sambuc daŋ 'man whole one'
60 ŋgac sambuc tö 'man whole three'


Like most of the languages around the Huon Gulf, Bukawa has a system of birth-order names (Holzknecht 1989: 43-45). The seventh son is called "No Name": se-mba 'name-none'. Compare Numbami.

Birth order Sons Daughters
1 Aliŋsap Gali'
2 Aliŋam Ika
3 Aŋgua' Ayap
4 Aluŋ Dam
5 Dei Hop
6 Selep Dei
7 Semba


  1. ^ Bukawa at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Eberhard, David M.; Simons, Gary F.; Fennig, Charles D., eds. (2019). "Papua New Guinea languages". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (22nd ed.). Dallas: SIL International.
  3. ^ United Nations in Papua New Guinea (2018). "Papua New Guinea Village Coordinates Lookup". Humanitarian Data Exchange. 1.31.9.
  4. ^ a b Eckermann (2007)
  5. ^ Blust, Robert (2013). The Austronesian languages. Vol. A-PL 008 (revised ed.). Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. hdl:1885/10191. ISBN 9781922185075.