North Halmahera
Maluku Islands, Indonesia
Linguistic classificationWest Papuan or independent language family
  • North Halmahera
Map of the North Halmahera languages.

The North Halmahera (NH) languages are a family of languages spoken in the northern and eastern parts of the island of Halmahera and some neighboring islands in Indonesia. The southwestern part of the island is occupied by the unrelated South Halmahera languages, which are a subgroup of Austronesian. They may be most closely related to the languages of the Bird's Head region of West Papua, but this is not well-established.[1]

The best known North Halmaheran language is Ternate (50,000 native speakers), which is a regional lingua franca and which, along with Tidore, were the languages of the rival medieval Ternate and Tidore sultanates, famous for their role in the spice trade.

Most of these languages are very closely related to each other, and their family status is well-demonstrated. West Makian stands out as an isolate.[2][3] Their external links remain unclear. While genealogically distinct from most languages of Indonesia, they all show evidence of extensive contact with the dominant Austronesian language family.[4]

Some of the North Halmahera languages are characterized by their elaborate morphological structures.[4] Others exhibit deep external influence, having shifted to a more Austronesian-type grammar as a consequence of prolonged contact.[5][6]

Genetic and areal relations

Spoken in the Maluku Islands, the North Halmahera languages are some of the westernmost Papuan languages (the only other such outlier family in eastern Indonesia being Timor–Alor–Pantar).[7][8] Located within Southeast Asia, the two families are arguably the only non-Melanesian linguistic groups that can be linked to the Papuan families of Oceania.[9]: 151  The languages are thought to have been brought to the region as a result of migration from New Guinea, likely predating the arrival of Austronesian languages.[2]: 136 [3]: 216 

These languages are classified by some to be part of a larger West Papuan family, along with the languages of the Bird's Head region of Western New Guinea,[2] while others consider NH to form a distinct language family, with no demonstrable relationship outside the region.[10]: 269  The languages of North Halmahera appear to have the closest affinity with the languages of the Bird's Head, which suggests a migration from the western Bird's Head to northern Halmahera.[11]: 364  However, Ger Reesink notes that the evidence for genetic relatedness between the different "West Papuan" groupings is too skimpy to form a firm conclusion,[1] suggesting that they be considered an areal network of unrelated linguistic families. Moreover, many speakers of NH languages, such as the Ternate [ru], Tidore, and Galela [ru] peoples, are physically distinct from New Guineans, while Papuan traits are more prevalent among the Austronesian-speaking peoples of South Halmahera.[12] Robert Blust (2013) considers this paradox to be a result of historical language replacement.[12] The ethnic groups of the north Halmahera area share civilizational links with the Islamic world and the populations of western Indonesia, betraying a mismatch between cultural and linguistic affiliation.[2]

At the turn of the 19th century, the NH languages had already been recognized as a highly divergent (but perhaps Austronesian) group. Their non-Austronesian character was finally demonstrated by Hendrik van der Veen in 1915.[6]: 190  The structural similarities between NH and certain Papuan families in Melanesia were noted as far back as 1900, and an early version of the West Papuan family was proposed by H.K.J. Cowan (1957–1965), linking NH with the Bird's Head languages, among others (based on lexical and morphemic evidence).[6]: 193  Holton and Klamer (2018: 626) do not unequivocally accept the genealogical unity of West Papuan, but note that the more restricted "West Papuan" proposal, linking NH with West Bird's Head in particular (and also the Yapen/Yawa languages), appears to be particularly convincing.[4]

The family has a demonstrable Austronesian stratum,[13]: 41  with the ancestral language having received lexical influence from an unnamed Philippine language (or languages).[5]: 652  There are also borrowings of probable Central Maluku origin, as well as Oceanic ones;[6]: 195  in particular, Voorhoeve (1982) has noted a set of lexical similarities between NH and the Central Papuan languages of the south coast of Papua New Guinea.[3][14] In addition, Ternate, Tidore, West Makian, and Sahu have adopted many elements of Austronesian grammar;[2][3] however, other languages of the family are rather conservative, having preserved the SOV word order, the use of postpositions, as well as the use of object and subject prefixes.[5][6]: 192  The presence of archaic typological features sharply distinguishes these languages from other West Papuan languages, which generally have a left-headed syntactic structure.[11]: 364 

Internal classification

The family is dialectally heterogeneous, with blurry lines between different languages. While different authors tend to disagree on the number of distinct languages identified,[15] there is general accord regarding the internal subgrouping of the family.[4]: 577 

The classification used here is that of Voorhoeve 1988.[6]

 Core Halmaheran 


Sahu: Sahu, Waioli, Gamkonora

Galela–Tobelo (Northeast Halmaheran): Tobelo, GalelaLoloda, Modole, PaguKao, Tabaru

West Makian

West Makian is divergent due to heavy Austronesian influence. It was once classified as an Austronesian language.[16] It should be distinguished from East Makian (Taba), an unrelated Austronesian language.[4]: 577 

There is a degree of mutual intelligibility between the Galela–Tobelo languages, and Voorhoeve 1988 considered them dialects of a language he called Northeast Halmaheran, though most speakers consider them to be distinct languages. They are probably best considered separate languages, as mutual intelligibility testing appears to be skewed by the cultural practice of multilingualism.[17]

Ternate and Tidore are generally treated as separate languages, though there is little Abstand involved, and the separation appears to be based on sociopolitical grounds.[15] Voorhoeve groups these idioms together as varieties of a unitary "Ternate-Tidore" language, while Miriam van Staden classifies them as distinct languages.[4]: 577  Other North Halmahera languages, such as Galela and Tobelo, have received significant influence from Ternate, a historical legacy of the dominance of the Ternate Sultanate in the Moluccas.[18] Many Ternate loanwords can be found in Sahu.[4]

Vocabulary comparison

The following basic vocabulary words are from the Trans-New Guinea database:[19]

gloss Sahu[20] Tidore[21] West Makian[22]
head sae'e dofolo apota; tabia
hair utu hutu gigo; onga
ear kocowo'o; ngau'u; 'oki; sidete ngau kameu
eye la'o lao afe; sado
nose cu'dumu; ngunungu; payáha ngun mudefete
tooth ngi'di ing wi
tongue yai'i aki belo
leg tarotaro
louse gane gan bene
dog nunu'u kaso aso
bird namo namo haywan
egg gosi; tounu gosi esi
blood ngaunu au uni
bone 'bero; 'obongo goka subebi
skin eno'o ahi fi
breast susu isu susu
man nau'u nau-nau at
woman weré'a faya papa; songa
sky diwanga sorga tupam
moon ngara ora odo
water 'banyo ake be
fire ci'du; naoto; u'u uku ipi
stone ma'di mafu may
road, path ngo'omo; tapaka linga gopao
name lomanga ronga aym
eat 'doroga; kou; oromo; tabu oyo; talesa am; fajow; fiam
one maténgo; moi rimoi gominye; maminye; meminye; minye
two 'di'di; romo'dí'di malofo dimaede; edeng; je; maedeng; medeng


Proto-North Halmahera
Reconstruction ofNorth Halmahera languages
Proto-West Papuan (or language isolate)

Proto-North Halmahera consonants are (after Voorhoeve 1994: 68, cited in Holton and Klamer 2018: 584):[4]

Labial Dental Velar Guttural
Plain Retroflex
Plosive Unvoiced p t k q
Voiced b d ɖ <ḋ> g
Fricative f s h
Nasal m n ŋ
Approximant w l (r)

Proto-North Halmahera is notable for having the voiced retroflex stop *ɖ, as retroflex consonants are often not found in Papuan languages.

The following proto-North Halmahera reconstructions are listed in Holton and Klamer (2018: 620–621).[4] Most of the forms in Holton and Klamer are derived from Wada (1980).[23]

proto-North Halmahera reconstructions (Holton & Klamer 2018)
gloss proto-North Halmahera
‘back’ *ḋuḋun
‘bad’ *torou
‘bark’ *kahi
‘big’ *lamok
‘bite’ *goli
‘black’ *tarom
‘blood’ *aun
‘blow’ *hoa
‘blue’ *bisi
‘boil’ *sakahi
‘bone’ *koboŋ
‘brother’ *hiraŋ
‘burn’ *so(ŋa)ra
‘child’ *ŋopak
‘cloud’ *lobi
‘cold’ (1) *alo
‘cold’ (2) *malat
‘come’ *bola
‘count’ *etoŋ
‘cry’ *ores
‘cut’ *luit
‘dance’ *selo
‘die’ *soneŋ
‘dig’ *puait
‘dirty’ *pepeke
‘dog’ *kaso
‘dull’ *boŋo
‘ear’ *ŋauk
‘earth’ *tonak
‘eat’ *oḋom
‘egg’ *boro
‘eight’ *tupaaŋe
‘eye’ *lako
‘fall’ *ḋota
‘far’ *kurut
‘fat, grease’ *saki
‘father’ *baba
‘fear’ *moḋoŋ
‘feather’ *gogo
‘female’ *ŋopeḋeka
‘few’ *ucu
‘fight’ *kuḋubu
‘fire’ *uku
‘fish’ *nawok
‘five’ *motoha
‘float’ *bawo
‘flow’ *uhis
‘flower’ *leru
‘fly’ *sosor
‘fog’ *rasa
‘four’ *ihat
‘fruit’ *sopok
‘give’ *hike
‘good’ *loha
‘grass’ *ŋaŋaru
‘green’ *ijo
‘guts’ *toto
‘hair’ *hutu
‘hand’ *giam
‘head’ *sahek
‘hear’ *isen
‘heart’ *siniŋa
‘heavy’ *tubuso
‘hit’ *ŋapo
‘horn’ *taḋu
‘hot’ *sahuk
‘husband’ *rokat
‘kill’ *tooma
‘knee’ *puku
‘know’ *nako
‘lake’ *talaga
‘laugh’ *ḋohe
‘leaf’ *soka
‘left’ *gubali
‘leg/foot’ *ḋohu
‘lie’ *ḋaḋu
‘live’ *oho
‘liver’ *gate
‘long’ (1) *kurut
‘long’ (2) *teka
‘louse/flea’ *gani
‘male’ *naur
‘many’ *ḋala
‘meat’ *lake
‘moon’ *ŋoosa
‘mother’ *awa
‘mountain’ *tala
‘mouth’ *uru
‘nail’ *gitipir
‘name’ *roŋa
‘narrow’ *peneto
‘near’ *ḋumu
‘neck’ *toko
‘new’ *momuane
‘night’ *putu
‘nine’ *siwo
‘nose’ *ŋunuŋ
‘old’ *ŋowo
‘one’ *moi
‘person’ *ɲawa
‘pierce’ *topok
‘pull’ *lia
‘push’ *hito(si)
‘rain’ *muura
‘red’ *sawala
‘right’ *girinak
‘river’ *selera
‘roast’ *tupu
‘root’ *ŋutuk
‘rope’ *gumin
‘rotten’ *baka
‘round’ *pululun
‘rub’ *ese
‘salt’ *gasi
‘sand’ *ḋowoŋi
‘say’ *temo
‘scratch’ *rago
‘sea’ *ŋolot
‘see’ *kelelo
‘seed’ *gisisi
‘seven’ *tumuḋiŋi
‘sew’ *urit
‘sharp’ *ḋoto
‘shoot’ *ḋupu
‘short’ *timisi
‘sing’ *ɲaɲi
‘sister’ *biraŋ
‘sit’ *tamie
‘six’ *butaŋa
‘skin’ *kahi
‘sky’ *ḋipaŋ
‘sleep’ *kiolok
‘small’ *ece
‘smell’ *hame
‘smoke’ *ḋopo
‘smooth’ *maahi
‘snake’ *ŋihia
‘speak’ *bicara
‘spear’ *kamanu
‘spit’ *hobir
‘split’ *raca
‘stand’ *oko
‘star’ *ŋoma
‘stone’ *teto
‘straight’ *bolowo
‘suck’ *suyu
‘swell’ *ḋobo
‘swim’ *toboŋ
‘tail’ *pego
‘take, hold’ *aho
‘ten’ *mogiowok
‘thick’ *kipirin
‘thin’ *hina
‘think’ *fikiri < Arabic
‘three’ *saaŋe
‘throw’ *sariwi
‘tie’ *piriku
‘to dry’ *ḋuḋuŋ
‘tongue’ *akir
‘tooth’ *iŋir
‘tree’ *gota
‘true’ *tero
‘twenty’ *monohalok
‘two’ *sinoto
‘vomit’ *ŋunaŋ
‘walk’ *tagi
‘warm’ *sakuk
‘wash’ *boka
‘water’ *aker
‘way’ *ŋekom
‘wet’ *pesa
‘white’ *ares
‘wide’ *ŋohat
‘wife’ *peḋakat
‘wind’ *paro
‘wing’ *golipupu
‘wipe’ *piki
‘woods’ *poŋan
‘worm’ *kalubati
‘young’ *kiau


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