West Papuan languages

West Papuan languages
West Papuan
Maluku and West Papua
Linguistic classification: Extended West Papuan ?
  • West Papuan
? Hattam
West Bird's Head
? Abun
? Maybrat

The West Papuan languages are a hypothetical language family of about two dozen Papuan languages of the Bird's Head Peninsula (Vogelkop or Doberai Peninsula) of far western New Guinea and the island of Halmahera, spoken by about 220 000 people in all.

The best known West Papuan 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 kingdoms of the spice trade.

The German linguist Wilhelm Schmidt first linked the Bird's Head and Halmahera languages in 1900. In 1957 HKL 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.



In 2005 Malcolm Ross made a tentative proposal that the West Papuan languages form one of three branches of an extended West Papuan family that also includes the Yawa language isolate (or small family), previously placed in the hypothetical Geelvink Bay family, and a newly proposed East Bird's Head – Sentani family as a third branch. West Papuan proper is distinguished from these other extended West Papuan families in having forms like na or ni for the second-person singular ("thou") pronoun.

The classification used here is based on Wurm, modified to reflect the North Halmaheran classification of Voorhoeve 1988. He identifies the subdivisions of his Papuan classification as families (on the order of the Germanic languages), stocks (on the order of the Indo-European languages), and phyla (on the order of the Afroasiatic languages). West Papuan is a phylum in this terminology.

Wurm's family-level nodes are bold in the cladogram below:

West Papuan 

Mpur (Amberbaken)

Hattam (Borai)

 Core  West Papuan 
 Bird's Head 

West Bird's Head


Mai Brat (Central Bird's Head)


Ethnologue (2009) removed Mpur, Hattam, Abun, and Mai Brat, as families of their own, and added the Yawa languages.

Most of the languages of East Nusa Tenggara and Maluku appear to have some non-Austronesian influence.[1]


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".


  1. ^ Arthur Capell, 'The "West Papuan Phylum", Stephen Wurm 1977 [1975], New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study, volume 1.
  • 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. 

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