North Ambrym
Native toVanuatu
RegionAmbrym Island
Native speakers
5,300 (2001)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3mmg
ELPNorth Ambrym

North Ambrym is a language of Ambrym Island, Vanuatu.


Today there are two main dialects of North Ambrym, levelled from a previous five or six due to population movements towards the coast. The Western dialect (spoken in Lonhali district) is better documented than the North-Eastern dialect (spoken in Wowan district).[2]



Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Post-alv./
Velar Glottal
plain lab. pal. plain lab. pal. plain pal.
Plosive b t k
Nasal m n ŋ
Rhotic trill r
tap ɾ
Fricative β βʲ f s ɣ h
Approximant w l j


Front Back
Close i u
Near-close ʊ
Mid e o
Near-open æ
Open a


Noun Phrases

There are two classes of nouns – free nouns that occur independently or bound nouns that require a possessor, either a pronominal suffix or a possessor noun phrase. Some nouns alternate between free and bound classes.[2]

Nouns can also be derived from verbs using two clitics: instruments are derived with a= and abstract nouns are derived with =an.[2]

Free pronouns distinguish between singular, dual, paucal and plural numbers, and distinguish inclusive and exclusive first person.[2]

Singular Dual Paucal Plural
1st person inclusive ni kerong kesul, kensul ken
exclusive gemaro gemasul gema
2nd person neng gomoro gomosul gimi
3rd person nge nyero nyesul nyer

Non-singular pronouns in third person pronouns can be used to quantify nominals, and paucal and plural third person pronouns can be used to quantify over proper names, signifying a group containing that person.[2]

Nominal modifiers (such as adjectives, possessor nominals, quantifiers, numerals, relative clauses) generally follow the head nominal. There are four deictic demonstratives (two proximal, one medial and one distal) which must be introduced by either the subordinate clause marker ge or the topic marker nge. The numeral hu 'one' can appear directly after the head nominal to indicate as specific indefinite, and non-specific indefinites are marked te hu and only occur in negative or irrealis clauses. Te hu can also function as a pronominal meaning 'no-one'.[2]

Noun phrases can be coordinated with the verb kirine 'be with' or the third person dual free pronoun nyero, or with disjunctive o which is also used to coordinate clauses.[2]

Verb phrases

The verbal complex can contain the following elements, with optional elements in brackets:[2]

(potential) subject indexing particle (tense/mood/negation) (aspect) verb (compound) (-valence increasing suffix)

In addition the subject indexing particle can take tense prefixes and tense or mood suffixes.[2]

Verbs can be transitive or intransitive.

Dynamic intransitive verbs can take preposition phrases as oblique arguments and a subset can have their valency changed by the applicative suffix Ci-. Stative/inchoative intransitive verbs select a patient subject, and are interpreted as stative or inchoative depending on the aspect marking. When marked with the non-recent past tense marker, these are interpreted as perfective stative verbs, while the recent past marker is interpreted as imperfective and inchoative. A subset of stative/inchoative verbs can be transitivised with the transitive suffix -ne, which also makes the subject the agent. m-initial stative/inchoative verbs begin with /m/ and are derived from the Proto-Oceanic stative verb prefix *ma-, though only one has a non-stative equivalent remaining.[2]

While there is a small group of morphologically simple transitive verbs, a large group are derived from semitransitive verbs with the transitive suffix -ne. Semitransitive verbs have a transitive meaning and a derived transitive form but only allow restricted objects.[2]

Non-verbal predicates are also possible in topic-comment constructions, and have to include the topic marker nge.[2]


In North Ambrym there are two main possessive constructions – direct and indirect possession. Direct possession patterns predominantly with inalienable possession where the relationship between possessor and possessed is more permanent, such as kinship terms, body parts and parts of wholes. Indirect possession patterns predominantly with alienable possession where the relationship between possessor and possessed is less permanent, and more easily removed from the possessor.

Direct Possession

Direct possessive constructions are so called as a pronominal possessor can be directly suffixed to the possessed noun: [2]:219






‘my mother’

When the possessor is a personal noun, such as a proper name, the possessor is juxtaposed to the directly possessed noun: [2]:219






rahe John

mother john

‘John’s mother’

When the possessor is a common noun, the possessed noun is suffixed by a linking morpheme known as a construct suffix, which is then followed by the possessor noun: [3]:102






ye-n vanten

leg-CST person

‘the person’s leg’

Direct possessive constructions cover the following semantic relationships: [2]:225-231

Indirect Possession

In indirect possessive constructions a pronominal possessor is not able to suffix directly to the possessed noun, but instead attaches to one of a set of possessive classifiers: [2]:232






a-n to

POSS.CL-3SG chicken

‘his/her chicken’

When the possessor is a lexical noun phrase, there is a word order change, with the possessed noun occurring before the possessive classifier. When the possessor is a personal noun, such as a proper name, the possessor phrase follows the possessive classifier, with no intervening morphology: [2]:232








barrbarr a Massing

pig POSS.CL Massing

‘Massing’s pig’

When the possessor is a common noun, the possessive classifier noun is suffixed by the linking construct suffix, which is then followed by the possessor noun: [3]:96








meyee a-n vanten

food POSS.CL-CST person

‘a/the person’s food’

There are five different possessive classifiers in North Ambrym that are used with different types of possessions: [2]:239-243; [4]:97


Overlap or fluidity is when a possessed noun can occur in different possessive constructions.[5] [6] Lichtenberk, Frantisek (2009). In many Oceanic languages, nouns that are directly possessed can be indirectly possessed, and nouns that are indirectly possessed by one classifier can occur with different classifiers, depending upon the interaction between the possessor and possessed. [6] However in North Ambrym, directly possessed nouns are unable to occur in indirect possessive constructions. Furthermore, there is a lack of overlap or fluidity between nouns that occur in indirect possession.[4] [7]For example, the noun we ‘water’ only occurs with the classifier for liquids, mwe-/ma-, and never with the general or residual classifier, mwene-/mwena-:[4]:95







mwe-ng we

POSS.CL-1SG water

‘my water (for drinking, washing etc.)’







*Mwene-ng we

POSS.CL-1SG water

Intendend: ‘my water’

This more rigid collocatation between noun and classifier has been described as non-canonical grammatical gender, as rigid assignment between a noun and a gender marker is a feature of grammatical gender rather than of classifiers.[7] The North Ambrym classifier system is a potential emergent stage towards the development of a grammatical gender system.


  1. ^ North Ambrym at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Franjieh, Michael (2012) Possessive Classifiers in North Ambrym, a Language of Vanuatu: Explorations in Semantic Classification. PhD thesis. University of London: School of Oriental and African Studies.
  3. ^ a b Franjieh, Michael (2015) The construct suffix in North Ambrym. In A. François; S. Lacrampe, M. Franjieh, S. Schnell (eds.) The Languages of Vanuatu: Unity and Diversity. Studies in the Languages of Island Melanesia, 5. Canberra: Asia-Pacific Linguistics Open Access. Pp.91-116.
  4. ^ a b c Franjieh, Michael (2016) Indirect Possessive Hosts in North Ambrym: Evidence for Gender. Oceanic Linguistics 55:87-115
  5. ^ Lynch, John (1973) Verbal aspects of possession in Melanesian languages. Oceanic Linguistics 12:69-102
  6. ^ a b Lichtenberk, Frantisek (2009) Attributive possessive constructions in Oceanic. In William B. McGregor (ed.) The expression of possession, 249–92. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter
  7. ^ a b Franjieh, Michael (2017) North Ambrym possessive classifiers from the perspective of canonical gender. In S. Fedden, J. Audring and G. Corbett (eds.) Non-canonical gender systems. Oxford: OUP.