Native toPapua New Guinea
RegionSandaun Province, Telefomin District
EthnicityTelefol people
Native speakers
(5,400 cited 1994)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3tlf
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Telefol is a language spoken by the Telefol people in Papua New Guinea, notable for possessing a base-27 numeral system.


The Iligimin people also spoke Telefol, but they were defeated by the Telefol proper.[2]


Telefol alphabet[3]
Phonemic ɑ ɑɑ e ee i ii o oo u uu b ɸ k l m ŋ w j
Lowercase a aa e e i ii o o u uu b, p d, g f k, g kw l m n ng s t w y
Uppercase A Aa E I Ii O U Uu B D F K Kw M N S T W Y

Single ⟨e⟩ and ⟨o⟩ represent both their single and long vowels, since they rarely contrast.

/b/ is written ⟨p⟩ pre-consonantally and word-finally.

Single /k/ is written ⟨g⟩ intervocalically, and /kk/ is written ⟨k⟩ intervocalically.

/kd/ and /ŋd/ are written ⟨kg⟩ and ⟨ngg⟩ (since they're pronounced [ɡ] and [ŋɡ] respectively).

Initial /ɡ/ is also written with ⟨g⟩ in loan words, e.g. Got 'God'.



Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar (Glottal)
Nasal m ŋ
Plosive (p) b k (ɡ) (ʔ)
Fricative f (h)
Lateral l
Semivowel w j

/ʔ/ and /h/ only appear in a few particles and some exclamations. /p/ and /ɡ/ only appear in a few loans.

Phoneme(s) Condition Allophone
/b/ intervocalic [b~β]
syllable-final [pʰ]
/f/ free-variation [f~ɸ]
/k/ intervocalic [ɣ]
/l/ intervocalic [ɾ]
/kd/ (everywhere) [ɡ]
/ŋd/ (everywhere) [ŋɡ]


Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open ɑ ɑː

There are two contrastive phonemic tones in Telefol, high and low. For example, ùlín 'club' vs. úlìn 'planted'.

/e/ and /eː/, /o/ and /oː/, are nearly in complementary distribution. Also, single /e/ and /o/ don't occur in one-syllable words or in terminal syllables.

Vowel length only contrasts in initial syllables. However, in initial syllables single /u/ and /o/, and /i/ and /e/, don't contrast.


Syllable structure is (C)V(ː)(C).

/l/ does not occur word-initially.

/ŋ/ is allowed in medial, but not word-initial, onsets.[6]


Telefol is a subject–object–verb language.

Verbal aspect

Telefol has a rich aspectual system.[7] Telefol verbs have "punctiliar" (momentary/completed) and "continuative" stems.[8]

Counting system

Telefol uses a base-27 counting system. This is mapped onto the body by counting each of the following: the left pinky to the left thumb (1-5); the wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm, and shoulder (6-10); the side of the neck, ear, and left eye (11-13); the nose (14); and similarly on the right side in reverse order, from the right eye to the right pinky (15-27).[9][10]


Telefol has dyadic kinship terms (terms referring to the relationship two or more people have to each other), which are uncommon in the world's languages and not prevalent in Papua New Guinea. However, they are a salient feature of the Ok languages. Related terms are found in Oksapmin, Mian, and Tifal.[11]


See also: Ok languages § Evolution

Below are some reflexes of proto-Trans-New Guinea proposed by Pawley (2012):[12]

proto-Trans-New Guinea Telefol
*m(o,u)k ‘milk, sap, breast’ müük, mɔk ‘spittle’
*maŋgat[a] ‘teeth, mouth’ (Faiwol makat-kalim ‘whiskers’)
*maŋgV ‘compact round object’ magap ‘round object, fruit, seed, etc’’
*m(i,u)ndu ‘nose’ mutu ‘nose’
*k(o,u)ma(n,ŋ)[V] ‘neck, nape’ kum ‘left side of neck’
*kumut, *tumuk ‘thunder’ tumuun ‘thunder’
*niman ‘louse’ tim ‘louse’
*kal(a,i)m ‘moon’ kaliim ‘moon’
*k(i,u)tuma ‘night, morning’ kutim ‘morning’
*na ‘1SG’ na-
*ni, *nu ‘1PL’ nu
*mbena ‘arm’ ban ‘forearm’
*[w]ani ‘who?’ wan(tap), waan(ta) ‘who?’
*pVnum ‘wind’ inim
*kinV ‘shoulder’ tiŋ (Faiwal kiiŋ)
*mbilaŋ ‘tongue’ fɔŋ (cf. Faiwol falaŋ, Tifal filaŋ)
*mbena ‘arm’ ban ‘forearm’
*amba ‘sibling’ baab
*(kambu)-sumbu ‘ashes’ (ku)-tab
*mbilaŋ ‘tongue’ foŋ (Tifal filaŋ)
*(mb,p)ututu- ‘to fly’ (?) fúlúluú (+ V.)
*pVnum ‘wind’ (?) inim
*m(i,u)ndu ‘nose’ mutuum
*kumut, *tumuk ‘thunder’ tumuun
*k(i,u)tuma ‘night, morning’ kutim
*ŋgatu(k,n) ‘knee’ katuun
*k(a,e)(nd,t)ak ‘neck’ ditak (Faiwal getak)
*saŋ ‘story, song’ saŋ ‘myth, story’
*sumbu ‘ashes’ (ku-)tab
*maŋgV ‘compact round object’ (úún) makáb ‘egg’
*maŋgat[a] ‘teeth, mouth’ (Faiwal makat-kalim ‘whiskers (lit. chin-hair)’)
*kal(a,i)m ‘moon’ kaliim
*k(o,u)ma(n,ŋ)[V] ‘neck, nape’ kum ‘left side of neck’
*k(o,u)ndVC ‘bone’ kun
*kutV(mb,p)(a,u)[C] ‘long’ (Kati M. kudub)
*kinV ‘shoulder’ tiŋ-
*m(o,u)k ‘milk, sap, breast’ múúk
*ok[V] ‘water’ óók
*(ŋg,k)a(nd,t)apu ‘skin, bark’ káál
*kal(a,i)m ‘moon’ *kaliim

See also


  1. ^ Telefol at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Golub, Alex (2007). "Ironies of Organization: Landowners, Land Registration, and Papua New Guinea's Mining and Petroleum Industry". Human Organization.
  3. ^ a b Telefol Organised Phonology Data, p. 1.
  4. ^ Telefol Organized Phonology Data, p. 3.
  5. ^ Healey (1964), p. 12
  6. ^ "Phonotactic restrictions across prosodic domains" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-09-05., p. 2.
  7. ^ "Aspectual stem distinctions in the Mian verb".[permanent dead link], p. 1.
  8. ^ Foley 1986, p. 146.
  9. ^ Telefol counting
  10. ^ Laycock, Donald (1975). "Observations on Number Systems and Semantics". In Wurm, Stephen (ed.). New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study, I: Papuan Languages and the New Guinea Linguistic Scene. Pacific Linguistics C-38. Canberra: Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. p. 223.
  11. ^ The Oksapmin Kinship System Archived 2009-09-20 at the Wayback Machine, retrieved May 21, 2009.
  12. ^ Pawley, Andrew (2012). Hammarström, Harald; van den Heuvel, Wilco (eds.). "How reconstructable is proto Trans New Guinea? Problems, progress, prospects". History, Contact and Classification of Papuan Languages. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea: Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea (Language & Linguistics in Melanesia Special Issue 2012: Part I): 88–164. hdl:1885/38602. ISSN 0023-1959.