West Tanna
Native toVanuatu
RegionTanna Island
Native speakers
12,000 (2001)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3tnl

Lenakel, or West Tanna, is a dialect chain spoken on the western coast of Tanna Island in Vanuatu.

Lenakel is one of five languages spoken on Tanna. The native name for the language is Netvaar, and speakers refer to their language as Nakaraan taha Lenakel "the language of Lenakel".[2] Lenakel has been extensively researched and documented by John Lynch, and both a dictionary and a detailed linguistic description of the language have been published.


Lenakel is an Austronesian language of southern Vanuatu. Its closest relatives are the other four Tanna languages spoken on the island of Tanna. It is particularly closely related to the Whitesands language and North Tanna, the two languages closest in geographic space to the Lenakel language area. Although none of the languages of Tanna are strictly mutually intelligible, there is a high degree of lexical overlap, and the grammars of Lenakel, Whitesands, and North Tanna are nearly identical.[3] Based on Swadesh list data, Lenakel was found to be 73-80% lexically identical to North Tanna and 75-81% lexically identical to Whitesands.[4] Linguist D.T. Tryon has referred to the linguistic situation in Vanuatu as one of "language-chaining," a reference to Dialect continuum, the idea within linguistics that dialects exist along a continuum or chain within a language area.[5]

Geographic distribution

Lenakel is spoken on Tanna, an island in the southern part of the 82-island chain comprising Vanuatu. It is spoken by between 8,500 and 11,500 people and is concentrated in the central west part of the island.[6] Isangel, the administrative capital of Tafea Province, exists within the Lenakel language area, as does Lenakel, the largest city on the island of Tanna.[7] There are significant Lenakel-speaking communities in other areas of Vanuatu, such as New Caledonia[clarification needed] and Port Vila on the island of Efate.[8]


The dialect situation within Lenakel is complicated by the fact that native speakers of the language have differing opinions on whether or not closely related languages such as Whitesands and North Tanna are actually separate languages or whether they are dialects of Lenakel.[9] Linguists such as John Lynch and Terry Crowley have suggested that further research is needed in order to more firmly establish dialect and language boundaries on Tanna.[10]

The most reliable information to date suggests that there are up to ten dialects of Lenakel, including Loanatit, Nerauya, Itonga, and Ikyoo.[11]

Lenakel is considered the most prestigious language spoken on Tanna,[12] partially because it has been in use as a church language for over a century.[13]


The phonemic inventory is as follows:[14][15]


Labio-velar Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal ⟨m̃⟩ m ⟨m⟩ n ⟨n⟩ ŋ ⟨ŋ⟩
Plosive ⟨p̃⟩ p ⟨p⟩ t ⟨t⟩ k ⟨k⟩
Fricative f ⟨f⟩ s ⟨s⟩ h ⟨h⟩
Tap ɾ ⟨r⟩
Approximant w ⟨w⟩ l ⟨l⟩ ⟨v⟩


Front Central Back
Close i ⟨i⟩ u ⟨u⟩
Mid e ⟨e⟩ ə ⟨ə⟩ o ⟨o⟩
Open a ⟨a⟩


  1. ^ Lenakel at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Lynch & Crowley (2001), p. 128
  3. ^ Lynch (1978), p. 1
  4. ^ Lynch (1978), p. 1
  5. ^ Tryon, D. T. (1976). New Hebrides Languages: an internal classification (PDF). Pacific Linguistics Series C - No. 50. Canberra: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University. p. 79. doi:10.15144/pl-c50. hdl:1885/145139. ISBN 0-858-83-152-X.
  6. ^ Lynch & Crowley (2001), p. 126
  7. ^ Lynch (1978)
  8. ^ Lynch & Crowley (2001), p. 126
  9. ^ Lynch & Crowley (2001), p. 126
  10. ^ Lynch & Crowley (2001), p. 126
  11. ^ Wurm, S.A. & Hattori, S. (1981). Language Atlas of the Pacific Area. Pacific Linguistics Series C (66-67). Wurm, S.A. (ed.). Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities in collaboration with the Japanese Academy.
  12. ^ Lynch & Crowley (2001), p. 128
  13. ^ Lynch, John (2001). The Linguistic History of Southern Vanuatu (PDF). Pacific Linguistics 509. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. p. 5. doi:10.15144/pl-509. hdl:1885/146106.
  14. ^ Lynch, John (1996). "Liquid Palatalization in Southern Vanuatu". Oceanic Linguistics. 35 (1): 77–95. doi:10.2307/3623031. JSTOR 3623031.
  15. ^ Lynch (1978).