West Papuan
Halmahera (North Maluku) and Bird's Head Peninsula (West Papua and Southwest Papua)
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's primary language families
Distribution of the West Papuan languages

The West Papuan languages are a proposed language family of about two dozen non-Austronesian languages of the Bird's Head Peninsula (Vogelkop or Doberai Peninsula) of far western New Guinea, the island of Halmahera and its vicinity, spoken by about 220,000 people in all. It is not established if they constitute a proper linguistic family or an areal network of genetically unrelated families.

The best known "West Papuan" language is Ternate (50,000 native speakers) of the island of the same name, which is a regional lingua franca. Along with neighboring Tidore, they were the languages of the rival medieval Ternate and Tidore sultanates, famous for their role in the spice trade.

Origins and contact

The North Halmahera (NH) languages, spoken in the Maluku Islands, share some structural similarities with certain Papuan families in Melanesia, which was noted as far back as 1900.[1]: 193  In addition, there is a number of lexical and morphemic correspondences between NH and West Bird’s Head (WBH).[2]: 78  These are not easily explainable as chance resemblance. The question then is whether they are due to language contact (i.e., borrowing) or to common descent (i.e., genealogical inheritance). On the other hand, there is little evidence linking the individual families of the Vogelkop Peninsula to each other, with the relationship perhaps better considered areal (i.e., a Sprachbund).[3]: 626  In spite of the shared morpho-syntactic features, many of these languages exhibit little in the way of lexical resemblance.[4]

It is not clear if East Bird’s Head (Mantion–Meyah and Hatam–Mansim), Maybrat, Mpur, and Abun are related to any of the remaining groups.[3] However, a connection between WBH/NH and the Yawa languages appears to be relatively likely.[3]: 626  The South Bird’s Head and Timor–Alor–Pantar families, while included in older formulations of the proposal, are no longer thought of as part of West Papuan.[5]

All of these languages show traces of old Austronesian influence.[4] Much of the basic vocabulary in NH (~30%) can be linked with various Austronesian sources, suggesting a long period of contact.[1]: 194–195  The languages of the Bird’s Head have undergone extensive contact with the Cenderawasih Bay languages, such as Biak.[3]: 625 

The term "West Papuan" has also been used in an areal sense, encompassing most of the non-Austronesian languages of Halmahera and Bird's Head.[5]



The German linguist Wilhelm Schmidt first linked the West Bird's Head and North Halmahera languages in 1900. In 1957 H.K.J. Cowan linked them to the non-Austronesian languages of Timor as well. Stephen Wurm believed that although traces of West Papuan languages were to be found in the languages of Timor, as well as those of Aru and Great Andaman, this was due to a substratum and that these languages should be classified as Trans–New Guinea, Austronesian, and Andamanese, respectively. Indeed, most of the languages of East Nusa Tenggara and Maluku appear to have some non-Austronesian influence.[6]

In 2005, Malcolm Ross made a tentative proposal, based on the forms of their pronouns, that the West Papuan languages form one of three branches of an extended West Papuan family that also includes the Yawa languages, and a newly proposed East Bird's Head – Sentani family as a third branch.

Søren Wichmann (2013)[7] considers West Bird's Head, Abun, and Maybrat to form a unified family, but does not accept West Papuan as a coherent language family.

Timothy Usher, also somewhat tentatively, accepts Yawa and East Bird's Head, but not Sentani, as part of West Papuan itself, so the family can remain under that name.[8]

Holton and Klamer (2018) do not unequivocally accept the unity of West Papuan, but note that certain proposals linking "West Papuan" groups together may eventually turn out to be fruitful.[3] Ger Reesink suggests that the West Papuan family should be considered an areal network of unrelated linguistic families, noting the lack of adequate evidence for genetic relatedness.[9]


The pronouns Ross reconstructs for proto-West Papuan are,

I *da, *di- exclusive we *mam, *mi-
inclusive we *po-
thou *ni, *na, *a- you *nan, *ni-
she *mV they *yo, *ana, *yo-

These are shared by the "core" West Papuan families. Hattam reflects only "I" and "thou", and Amberbaken only "thou", "you", and "she".

Ross's Extended West Papuan languages have forms in *d for "I" and *m for "we". (Most Yawa forms of "we" have m, such as imama, but they are too diverse for an easy reconstruction.) These are found in all branches of the family except for the Amberbaken isolate.

Ross's West Papuan proper is distinguished from Yawa and EBH-Sentani in having forms like na or ni for the second-person singular ("thou") pronoun.

family I thou we
West Papuan *da, *di- *na, *ni, *a- *mam, *mi
EBH-Sentani *da, *di *ba~wa, *bi *meme, *me
Yava *rei *wein (imama etc.)

Word order

Word order is SVO in the West Bird's Head family and in western North Halmahera languages (Ternate, Tidore, West Makian, and Sahu; due to Austronesian influence). SVO word order is also present in the isolates Abun, Mpur, and Maibrat.[3]

The South Bird's Head family generally has SOV word order, although SVO word order is also permitted in transitive clauses. The Timor-Alor-Pantar languages also have verb-final word order.[3]


All Papuan languages of East Nusantara have five or more vowels.[3]

Abun and Mpur are fully tonal languages, with Mpur having 4 lexical tones, and Abun having 3 lexical tones. Meyah and Sougb are pitch-accent languages. All other languages of the Bird's Head Peninsula are non-tonal.[10]: 134–135 

Of all the Papuan languages spoken in the Bird's Head Peninsula, Abun has the largest consonant inventory with 20 consonants, while neighboring Maybrat has the smallest with 11 consonants. Large consonant inventories similar to that of Abun are also found in the North Halmahera languages, such as Tobelo, Tidore, and Sahu.[3]: 583 

Lexical comparison

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Basic vocabulary of two West Bird's Head languages (WBH) (Moi and Tehit) and three language isolates (Mpur, Abun, Maibrat), quoted by Holton & Klamer (2018)[3] from Miedema & Reesink (2004: 34) and (Reesink 2005: 202); these show diverse non-cognate forms among Papuan languages of the Bird's Head Peninsula:[11][12]

West Bird's Head family and Bird's Head isolates:
basic vocabulary
gloss Moi (WBH) Tehit (WBH) Mpur Abun Maibrat
arm/hand nin naa wom cim atem
leg/foot eelik deit pet wis ao
house keik mbol jan nu amah
good bok hnjo mafun ndo mof
dog oofun mqaan per ndar mtah
pig baik qorik dwaw nok fane
chicken kelem tole kokok kokor dam kukur kok
louse -jam hain im im sruom
water/river kla kla war aja
banana o ogo fa weu apit

Lexical lookalikes between North Halmahera languages (NH) (Galela and Pagu) and West Bird's Head languages (WBH) (Moi and Tehit) from Voorhoeve (1988: 194), as quoted by Holton & Klamer (2018):[1][3]

Lexical comparisons between North Halmahera and
West Bird's Head families
gloss Galela (NH) Pagu (NH) Moi (WBH) Tehit (WBH)
‘head’ sahe saek sawa safakos
‘fruit’, ‘eye’ sopo sowok suwo sfuon
‘egg’ gosi esyen
‘man’ ya-nau naul ne nau
‘meat’ lake lakem kem qan
‘tree’ gota kot
‘water’ ake akel kala kla
‘drink’ oke okel ook ooqo
‘stab’ saka sakal saa sqaa

The lexical data below is from the Trans-New Guinea database[13] and Usher (2020),[14] unless noted otherwise.

Body parts
family language head hair ear eye nose tooth tongue leg blood bone skin breast
Trans-New Guinea Proto-Trans-New Guinea *kobutu; *kV(mb,p)utu; *mUtUna; *mVtVna *iti; *(nd,s)umu(n,t)[V]; *zumun *ka(nd,t)(i,e)C; *kat(i,e)C; *tVmV(d) *g(a,u)mu; *ŋg(a,u)mu; *(ŋg,k)iti [maŋgV]; *nVpV *mundu; *mutu *magata; *maŋgat[a]; *titi *balaŋ; *mbilaŋ; *me(l,n)e; *me(n,l)e *kani(n); *k(a,o)ond(a,o)C; *kitu *ke(ñj,s)a; *kesa *kondaC; *kwata(l,n) *gatapu; *(ŋg,k)a(nd,t)apu *amu
Timor-Alor-Pantar Proto-Timor-Alor-Pantar (Schapper)[15] *-waRi *-mVN *-wasin *-lebuR *buta *waj *se(r, R) *hami
Timor-Alor-Pantar Proto-Timor-Alor-Pantar (Usher)[14] *ˈwali[k] *ina *muni[k] *ˈwasin *iˈdi *waⁱ[s] *pasu *ami
Tambora Tambora[16] kokóre búlu saing'óre saing kóme sóntong maimpo kiro
North Halmahera Proto-North Halmahera[3] *sahek *hutu *ŋauk *lako *ŋunuŋ *iŋir *akir *ḋohu *aun *koboŋ *kahi
West Bird's Head Moi sawa sagin suo efek telek sayam ofun baik kelem
Abun Abun (Karon Pantai dialect) məsu go ŋgro sios kwes nde dini da
Mpur Mpur (Kebar dialect) èbuam buambor yam bir èipèt far ip fièk
Maibrat Mai Brat ana amawian nasu bait taa mes tai arak
Konda-Yahadian Konda wesi sinamu nuburu unamu be ua toroni giri
Inanwatan-Duriankere Duriankere akaporo asari kabu epo kepo aru atoko agino
South Bird's Head Proto-East SBH[14] *karar *qer[aw] *mitob *resin *nun *sor *a[m/p]as *toq *did
East Bird's Head Meyah ibirfa feji itec bufon maki mugufu mofora mofos
East Bird's Head Manikion mogt mokodi ma-i resi mokta mohoti-muʔ mokuhi mori mos
East Bird's Head Hatam boŋwak ŋta iai kway mij ŋgrom injun ŋkek
Yapen Yawa akari bwin nami atu najo madi pae kea
family language louse dog pig bird egg tree sun moon water fire stone path
Trans-New Guinea Proto-Trans-New Guinea *niman *n(e,i); *n(e)i; *n[e]i; *yak; *yaka[i]; *yanem *maŋgV; *munaka; *mun(a,u)ka *ida; *inda ~ *iñja *kamali; *kamuli; *ketana *kal(a,i)m; *kamali; *takVn; *takVn[V] *nok; *(n)ok; *ok(u); *ok[V] *inda; *k(a,e)dap; *k(a,e)(n,d)ap; *kambu; *k(a,o)nd(a,u)p *kamb(a,u)na; *(na)muna; *[na]muna
Timor-Alor-Pantar Proto-Timor-Alor-Pantar (Schapper) *baj *(h)adul *hate *wad(i, u) *hur(u) *jira *hada *war *jega
Timor-Alor-Pantar Proto-Timor-Alor-Pantar (Usher) *amin *ˈj[a]bar *ˈadz[o]l *ˈudu *at[eⁱ] *ˈwadu *ˈira *aˈda *war *ˈ[ja]gal
Tambora Tambora kíwu kilaíngkong andik naino maing'aing
North Halmahera Proto-North Halmahera *gani *kaso *boro *gota *ŋoosa *aker *uku *teto
West Bird's Head Moi tolok sdam kodus -kesik ouk (ne) dala dewe kala yak
Abun Abun (Karon Pantai dialect) mim ndar yot namgau bem kew kam sur bot jok
Mpur Mpur (Kebar dialect) èyim pir duaw if bua perau put war yèt bit
Maibrat Mai Brat xate matax fane ru mauf ara ayo aya tafox fra
Konda-Yahadian Konda ano ajia ba boro wu oxot-moro ci abia ucua patyo
Inanwatan-Duriankere Duriankere kono meymo bi dorimo aguo a tigi sa weyko medapo
South Bird's Head Proto-East SBH *kon *kanen *wuk *qemin *teg[ed] *mo[k/q] *sai *aum
East Bird's Head Meyah mec mes mek mem ofou merga mowa mei mowoxo mamu
East Bird's Head Manikion kuta mehi hweij ba moʔwuʔ sako idesi; igda tohu smow idahabu
East Bird's Head Hatam mem msien naba ha tuŋwei bie-incem mpau (mi)ney sum tiy
Yapen Yawa eme make bugwe insane kami nyo uma karu (?) tanam oram
family language man woman name eat one two
Trans-New Guinea Proto-Trans-New Guinea *abV; *ambi *panV; *pan(V) *ibi; *imbi; *wani *na; *na- *ta(l,t)(a,e)
Timor-Alor-Pantar Proto-Timor-Alor-Pantar (Schapper) *nVa *nukV
Timor-Alor-Pantar Proto-Timor-Alor-Pantar (Usher) *nami *tubur *naⁱ *nawa *uˈkani
Tambora Tambora sia-in óna-yit mákan kálae
North Halmahera Proto-North Halmahera *naur *ŋopeḋeka *roŋa *oḋom *moi *sinoto
West Bird's Head Moi kwak kedi wak mele ali
Abun Abun (Karon Pantai dialect) bris gum git dik we
Mpur Mpur (Kebar dialect) mamir emuk barièt tu dukir
Maibrat Mai Brat sme asom ait sau ewok; eyok
Konda-Yahadian Konda riobo erunu no- mutyu rak
Inanwatan-Duriankere Duriankere kwemo nye ni- motoni eiri
South Bird's Head Proto-East SBH *rabin *onat *[ou]g
East Bird's Head Meyah nuna mofoka etmar ergens ergek
East Bird's Head Manikion giji moxo eth hom huay
East Bird's Head Hatam pənain ineŋa jem kom can
Yapen Yawa ana tam rais utabo jiru

See also


  1. ^ a b c Voorhoeve, Clemens L. 1988. The languages of the northern Halmaheran stock. In: Geoffrey P. Smith, Tom Dutton, Clemens L. Voorhoeve, Stephen Schooling, Janice Schooling, Robert Conrad, Ron Lewis, Stephen A. Wurm and Theo Baumann (eds.), Papers in New Guinea Linguistics 26: 181–209.
  2. ^ Voorhoeve, Clemens L. (1984–1994), "Comparative Linguistics and the West Papuan Phylum", in Masinambow, E.K.M. (ed.), Maluku dan Irian Jaya, Buletin LEKNAS 3.1, Jakarta: LEKNAS-LIPI, pp. 65–90
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Holton, Gary; Klamer, Marian (2018). "The Papuan languages of East Nusantara and the Bird's Head". In Palmer, Bill (ed.). The Languages and Linguistics of the New Guinea Area: A Comprehensive Guide. The World of Linguistics. Vol. 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. pp. 569–640. ISBN 978-3-11-028642-7.
  4. ^ a b Reesink, Ger P. (1998). "The Bird's Head as Sprachbund". In Miedema, Jelle; Odé, Cecilia; Dam, Rien A.C. (eds.). Perspectives on the Bird's Head of Irian Jaya, Indonesia; Proceedings of the Conference, Leiden, 13–17 October 1997. Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi. pp. 603–642. ISBN 9789042006447.
  5. ^ a b Reesink, G. (2009), "West Papuan languages", in Brown, E.K.; Ogilvie, Sarah (eds.), Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 1176–1178, ISBN 978-0-08-087774-7, retrieved 2023-07-05
  6. ^ Arthur Capell, 'The "West Papuan Phylum", Stephen Wurm 1977 [1975], New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study, volume 1.
  7. ^ Wichmann, Søren. 2013. A classification of Papuan languages Archived 2020-11-25 at the Wayback Machine. In: Hammarström, Harald and Wilco van den Heuvel (eds.), History, contact and classification of Papuan languages (Language and Linguistics in Melanesia, Special Issue 2012), 313-386. Port Moresby: Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea.
  8. ^ NewGuineaWorld - West Papuan
  9. ^ Reesink, Ger (2010), "West Papuan languages", Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, Elsevier, ISBN 978-0-08-087775-4
  10. ^ Klamer, Marian; Ger Reesink; and Miriam van Staden. 2008. East Nusantara as a Linguistic Area. In Pieter Muysken (ed.), From linguistic areas to areal linguistics, 95-149. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  11. ^ Miedema, Jelle and Ger P. Reesink. 2004. One Head, Many Faces: New perspectives on the Bird's Head Peninsula of New Guinea. Leiden: KITLV.
  12. ^ Reesink, Ger P. 2005. West Papuan languages: roots and development. In: Pawley et al. (eds.) 185–218.
  13. ^ Greenhill, Simon (2016). "TransNewGuinea.org - database of the languages of New Guinea". Retrieved 2020-11-05.
  14. ^ a b c Usher, Timothy (2020). "New Guinea World". Archived from the original on 2022-12-16. Retrieved 2020-12-31.
  15. ^ Antoinette Schapper, Juliette Huber & Aone van Engelenhoven. 2017. The relatedness of Timor-Kisar and Alor-Pantar languages: A preliminary demonstration. In Marian Klamer (ed.), The Alor-Pantar languages, 91–147. Berlin: Language Science Press. doi:10.5281/zenodo.569389
  16. ^ Donohue, Mark (2008-01-03). "The Papuan Language of Tambora". Oceanic Linguistics. 46 (2): 520–537. doi:10.1353/ol.2008.0014. ISSN 1527-9421. S2CID 26310439.
  • Ross, Malcolm (2005). "Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages". In Andrew Pawley; Robert Attenborough; Robin Hide; Jack Golson (eds.). Papuan pasts: cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. pp. 15–66. ISBN 0858835622. OCLC 67292782.
  • Voorhoeve, C. L. (1988). "The languages of the northern Halmaheran stock". Papers in New Guinea Linguistics. 26: 181–209. ISSN 0078-9135. OCLC 2729642.