Morehead River
Morehead River watershed, New Guinea
Linguistic classificationA primary language family
  • Yam
Map: The Yam languages of New Guinea
  Yam languages
  Trans–New Guinea languages
  Other Papuan languages
  Austronesian languages
  Australian languages

The Yam languages, also known as the Morehead River languages, are a family of Papuan languages. They include many of the languages south and west of the Fly River in Papua New Guinea and Indonesian West Papua.


The name Morehead and Upper Maro River, or Morehead–Maro, refers to the area around the Morehead and Maro rivers. Most of the languages are found between these rivers, but the Nambu subgroup are spoken east of the Morehead. Evans (2012) refers to the family instead with the more compact name Yam. This name is motivated by a number of linguistic and cultural items of significance: yam (and cognates) means "custom, tradition"; yəm (and cognates) means "is"; and yam tubers are the local staple and of central cultural importance.

External relationships

Ross (2005) tentatively includes the Yam languages in the proposed Trans-Fly – Bulaka River family. More recently (Evans 2012) has argued that this is not justified and more data has to be gathered. Evans (2018) classifies the Pahoturi River languages as an independent language family.[1]

Yam languages have also been in intensive contact with Marind and Suki speakers, who had historically expanded into Yam-speaking territories via headhunting raids and other expansionary migrations.[1]


Internal classification of the Yam languages:[2]

Wichmann (2013) did not find a connection between the branches in his automated comparison.[3]


Yam languages are spoken by up to 3,000 people on both sides of the border in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. In Papua New Guinea, Yam languages are spoken in Morehead Rural LLG, Western Province. In Papua, Indonesia, Yam languages are spoken in Merauke Regency.[1]

Yam languages and respective demographic information listed by Evans (2018) are provided below.[1] Geographical coordinates are also provided for some villages.[4]

List of Yam languages
Language Alternative names Subgroup Speakers Villages or hamlets
Anta Tokwe, Upper Morehead, Thamnga Tonda 150 Ufarua (8°38′08″S 141°38′00″E / 8.635484°S 141.633236°E / -8.635484; 141.633236 (Uparua)), Forzitho, Thamgakar (8°37′34″S 141°36′40″E / 8.626232°S 141.611057°E / -8.626232; 141.611057 (Damgar)) in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Komnzo Kamundjo, Upper Morehead, (Mema, Ranzér), Zókwasi, Farem Tonda 200 Rouku (8°42′06″S 141°35′55″E / 8.701793°S 141.598485°E / -8.701793; 141.598485 (Rouku)), Gunana, Morehead (8°42′32″S 141°38′05″E / 8.708915°S 141.634593°E / -8.708915; 141.634593 (Morehead Station)), Firra, Masu, Kanathér in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Wára Tjokwe, Upper Morehead, Wära, Mät Tonda 350 Yokwa (8°42′02″S 141°31′23″E / 8.700472°S 141.523053°E / -8.700472; 141.523053 (Iokwa)), (Mäwsa, Kwaikér, Zäzér Ménz) in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Wérè Tokwe, Upper Morehead, Wórä Tonda 100 Tokwa (8°38′36″S 141°26′10″E / 8.643291°S 141.436129°E / -8.643291; 141.436129 (Tokwa)), Kanfok in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Kémä Upper Morehead Tonda 130 Wämnefér (8°44′29″S 141°24′57″E / 8.74137°S 141.415826°E / -8.74137; 141.415826 (Wemnevere)) in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Kánchá Kunja, Lower Morehead, Peremka, Kénzä Tonda 350* Bondobol (8°55′46″S 141°20′18″E / 8.929521°S 141.338469°E / -8.929521; 141.338469 (Bondobol)), Bula (9°07′42″S 141°20′26″E / 9.128337°S 141.340513°E / -9.128337; 141.340513 (Bula)), Jarai (9°11′49″S 141°35′04″E / 9.196839°S 141.584426°E / -9.196839; 141.584426 (Jarai)) in southeast Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Ránmo Tonda, Renmo, Blafe Tonda 200* Yéndorodoro (8°35′31″S 141°17′48″E / 8.59196°S 141.29677°E / -8.59196; 141.29677 (Indorodoro)), Mengete (8°39′25″S 141°17′03″E / 8.657045°S 141.284029°E / -8.657045; 141.284029 (Mengete)) in west Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Mblafe Blafe, Blafe Wonana, Tonda Tonda 350* Weam (8°37′08″S 141°08′05″E / 8.618919°S 141.134728°E / -8.618919; 141.134728 (Weam Village)), Kandarisa (8°37′17″S 141°13′10″E / 8.621418°S 141.2194°E / -8.621418; 141.2194 (Kandarisa)), Wereaver (8°35′48″S 141°07′25″E / 8.596603°S 141.123567°E / -8.596603; 141.123567 (Wereavere)) (only recently in Wereaver) in west Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Warta Thuntai Guntai, Kan Tonda 430 Wando (8°53′09″S 141°15′31″E / 8.885893°S 141.258528°E / -8.885893; 141.258528 (Wando)), Bensbach (8°50′57″S 141°14′59″E / 8.8493°S 141.249855°E / -8.8493; 141.249855 (Bensbach Lodge)), Balamuk, Korombo 1, Korombo 2 (8°45′15″S 141°15′56″E / 8.754213°S 141.265672°E / -8.754213; 141.265672 (Korombo)) in mid southwest Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Arammba None Tonda 750 Fwasam, Gowi, Kiriwa (8°26′15″S 141°30′57″E / 8.437511°S 141.515843°E / -8.437511; 141.515843 (Kiriwo)), Meru (8°28′19″S 141°27′59″E / 8.471963°S 141.466349°E / -8.471963; 141.466349 (Merru)), Sedefi (8°30′53″S 141°36′38″E / 8.514592°S 141.610694°E / -8.514592; 141.610694 (Setavi)), Serki (8°15′02″S 141°45′58″E / 8.250688°S 141.766022°E / -8.250688; 141.766022 (Serki)) in north central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Nggarna Ngar, Kanum, Sota Tonda unknown Vicinity of Sota in west Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Rema Tonda 10? (moribund or extinct) Wereaver (8°35′48″S 141°07′25″E / 8.596603°S 141.123567°E / -8.596603; 141.123567 (Wereavere)) in west Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Smerki Smärki, Kanum, Barkari Tonda 150 Rawu Biru, Tomer, Tomerau, Yakiw in southeast Merauke Regency, Indonesia
Tamer Smerki, Smärki, Kanum Tonda 120 Yanggandur (recently moved there) in southeast Merauke Regency, Indonesia
Ngkontar Ngkontar, Ngkolmpu Tonda 100 Yanggandur in southeast Merauke Regency, Indonesia and into PNG
Ngkolmpu Kiki, Ngkntra Kiki, Kanum, Enkelembu, Kenume, Knwne Tonda east Merauke Regency, Indonesia and into PNG
Bedi Ngkolmpu Kanum, Enkelembu, Kenume, Knwne Tonda 5 (moribund or extinct) Onggaya in south central Merauke Regency, Indonesia
Yei Yei 1278 Po, Torai, Bupul, Tanas, Kwel in east Merauke Regency, Indonesia
Nen Nambu 350 Bimadeben (8°42′06″S 141°35′55″E / 8.701793°S 141.598485°E / -8.701793; 141.598485 (Bimadeben Vill/ Comm. Sch)) in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Nama Nambu 1200 Daraia (8°36′59″S 141°44′01″E / 8.61637°S 141.733576°E / -8.61637; 141.733576 (Darava)), Mata (8°40′28″S 141°44′35″E / 8.674546°S 141.743133°E / -8.674546; 141.743133 (Mata)), Ngaraita (8°35′58″S 141°42′54″E / 8.599511°S 141.714869°E / -8.599511; 141.714869 (Garaita)) in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Namat Mibini Nambu 170* Mibini (8°50′20″S 141°38′17″E / 8.838849°S 141.637931°E / -8.838849; 141.637931 (Mibini)) in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Nambo Nmbo, Keraki; Namna, Yarne Nambu 710 Nambo variety: Gubam (8°37′10″S 141°55′21″E / 8.619428°S 141.922509°E / -8.619428; 141.922509 (Gubam)), Bebdeben (8°40′04″S 141°55′33″E / 8.667668°S 141.925772°E / -8.667668; 141.925772 (Bebdeben)), Arufi (8°45′38″S 141°54′49″E / 8.760576°S 141.913707°E / -8.760576; 141.913707 (Arufi)) in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG; Namna variety: Pongarki (8°39′51″S 141°49′37″E / 8.664295°S 141.827064°E / -8.664295; 141.827064 (Pongariki)), Derideri (8°41′13″S 141°51′22″E / 8.686837°S 141.85624°E / -8.686837; 141.85624 (Derideri)) in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Neme Nambu 200 Keru (8°29′02″S 141°47′18″E / 8.483752°S 141.788348°E / -8.483752; 141.788348 (Keru)), Mitere in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Dre Ndre Nambu 1 Ramar in central Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Namo Nambu 374* Tais (9°10′03″S 141°54′21″E / 9.167526°S 141.905733°E / -9.167526; 141.905733 (Tais)), Mari (9°11′37″S 141°42′09″E / 9.193532°S 141.70247°E / -9.193532; 141.70247 (Mari)) in south Morehead Rural LLG, PNG
Len Nambu 8–10 Now living in Tais (9°10′03″S 141°54′21″E / 9.167526°S 141.905733°E / -9.167526; 141.905733 (Tais)), original village was Yaoga in south Morehead Rural LLG, PNG

See also: Districts of Papua (Indonesian Wikipedia)


The pronouns Ross (2005) reconstructs for the family are,

Proto-Yam (Proto–Morehead – Upper Maro)
I/we *ni
you *bu
s/he/they *be


Many Yam languages display vowel harmony, including in Nambu and Tonda languages.[1]

Vocabulary comparison

Basic vocabulary

The following basic vocabulary words are from McElhanon & Voorhoeve (1970)[5] and Voorhoeve (1975),[6] as cited in the Trans-New Guinea database:[7]

gloss Kanum Yei
head mel kilpel
hair mel-kata peab
eye si cur
tooth tor ter
leg tegu cere
louse neːmpin nim
dog krar jeu
pig kwer becek
bird sento yarmaker
egg bel mekur
blood mbel gul
bone mbaːr gor
skin keikei paːr
tree per per
man ire el-lu
sun koŋko mir
water ataka kao
fire mens benj
stone melle mejer
name iu ore
eat anaŋ cenye
one namper nampei
two yempoka yetapae

Fauna names

Below are some turtle names in Yam languages, along with names in Suki:[8]: 378 

Turtle species Arammba (Serki) Neme (Keru) Nama Wat (Daraia) Nama Was (Mibini) Guntai (Wando) Blafe (Wereave) Rema (Metafa) Suki (Suki, Puka-duka)
Elseya branderhorsti M’bay Fisor Fisor Fifi Rawk Rawk Sutafnarr Chelba Nthelon Forr Medepka
Elseya novaeguineae Fisor
Emydura subglobosa Maro Kani Ngani Fisor Mani Fisor Mare Sutafnarr Mare Chelba Ntharase; Mari Nthelon Mari Forr Tegma; i Anki Kan
Chelodina parkeri Kunkakta Kunkakta
Chelodina rugosa Tomba Kofe Fisor Mbuirr Weya Sutafnarr Mbroyer Fisuwar Tanfer Marr Forr
Chelodina novaeguineae Fasar Kani Mboro arr Mbro arr Magipinini
Carettochelys insculpta Budu Susa Garr Budu Susa
Pelochelys bibroni Sokrere Kiye Eise
Emydura sp. aff. worrelli Riskap Kani

All species are consumed by humans except for Chelodina novaeguineae, which is avoided due to its pungent odor. Carettochelys insculpta and Elseya branderhorsti are prized for their large sizes, with E. branderhorsti particularly valued for its plastron.[8]

See also: Turama–Kikorian languages § Fauna names

Further reading


  1. ^ a b c d e Evans, Nicholas (2018). "The languages of Southern New Guinea". 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. 641–774. ISBN 978-3-11-028642-7.
  2. ^ Timothy Usher, New Guinea World, Morehead River
  3. ^ Wichmann, Søren. 2013. A classification of Papuan languages. 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.
  4. ^ United Nations in Papua New Guinea (2018). "Papua New Guinea Village Coordinates Lookup". Humanitarian Data Exchange. 1.31.9.
  5. ^ McElhanon, K.A. and Voorhoeve, C.L. The Trans-New Guinea Phylum: Explorations in deep-level genetic relationships. B-16, vi + 112 pages. Pacific Linguistics, The Australian National University, 1970. doi:10.15144/PL-B16
  6. ^ Voorhoeve, C.L. Languages of Irian Jaya: Checklist. Preliminary classification, language maps, wordlists. B-31, iv + 133 pages. Pacific Linguistics, The Australian National University, 1975. doi:10.15144/PL-B31
  7. ^ Greenhill, Simon (2016). "TransNewGuinea.org - database of the languages of New Guinea". Retrieved 2020-11-05.
  8. ^ a b Georges, A., Guarino, F., & Bito, B. (2006). Freshwater turtles of the TransFly region of Papua New Guinea – notes on diversity, distribution, reproduction, harvest and trade. Wildlife Research, 33(5), 373. doi:10.1071/wr05087