East Papuan languages

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East Papuan
Linguistic classificationProposed language family

The East Papuan languages is a defunct proposal for a family of Papuan languages spoken on the islands to the east of New Guinea, including New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville, Solomon Islands, and the Santa Cruz Islands. There is no evidence that these languages are related to each other, and the Santa Cruz languages are no longer recognized as Papuan.

All but two of the starred languages below (Yélî Dnye and Sulka) make a gender distinction in their pronouns. Several of the heavily Papuanized Austronesian languages of New Britain do as well. This suggests a pre-Austronesian language area in the region.

History of the proposal[edit]

The East Papuan languages were proposed as a family by linguist Stephen Wurm (1975) and others. However, their work was preliminary, and there is little evidence that the East Papuan languages actually have a genetic relationship. For example, none of these fifteen languages marked with asterisks below share more than 2–3% of their basic vocabulary with any of the others. Dunn and colleagues (2005) tested the reliability of the proposed 2–3% cognates by randomizing the vocabulary lists and comparing them again. The nonsense comparisons produced the same 2–3% of "shared" vocabulary, demonstrating that the proposed cognates of the East Papuan languages, and even of proposed families within the East Papuan languages, are as likely to be due to chance as to any genealogical relationship. Thus in a conservative classification, many of the East Papuan languages would be considered language isolates.

Since the islands in question have been settled for at least 35 000 years, their considerable linguistic diversity is unsurprising. However, Malcolm Ross (2001; 2005) has presented evidence from comparing pronouns from nineteen of these languages that several of the lower-level branches of East Papuan may indeed be valid families. This is the classification adopted here. For Wurm's more inclusive classification, see the Ethnologue entry here.

Classification (Ross 2005)[edit]

Small families[edit]

Each of the first five entries in boldface is an independent language family, not known to be related to the others. Languages that are transparently related to each other are listed together on the same line. The first family is a more tentative proposal than the others and awaits confirmation.

Reconstructed pronoun sets for each of the families are given in the individual articles.

Yélî Dnye (Yele)* (Rossel Island)

 West  New Britain 

Anêm* (New Britain)

Ata (Pele-Ata, Wasi)* (New Britain)

Baining: Mali*, Qaqet, Kairak, Simbali, Ura, Makolkol

Taulil–Butam: Taulil**, Butam (extinct)**


Konua (Rapoisi)**

Rotokas: Rotokas*, Eivo



Motuna (Siwai)*


Nasioi: Koromira, Lantanai, Naasioi*, Nagovisi (Sibe)**, Oune, Simeku

Bilua* (Vella Lavella Island)

Touo (Baniata)* (southern Rendova Island, part of the New Georgia Islands)

Lavukaleve* (Russell Islands)

Savosavo* (Savo Island)

* Dunn and colleagues found no demonstrable shared vocabulary between these fifteen languages.

** Ross considered these four languages in addition to the fifteen studied by Dunn and colleagues.

True language isolates[edit]

These three languages are not thought to be demonstrably related to each other or to any language in the world.

  • Sulka isolate* – New Britain (poor data quality; the possibility remains that Sulka will be shown to be related to Kol or Baining)
  • Kol isolate* – New Britain
  • Kuot (Panaras) isolate* – New Ireland

* Dunn and colleagues found no demonstrable shared vocabulary between these fifteen languages.

Austronesian languages formerly classified as East Papuan[edit]

Wurm classified the three languages of the Santa Cruz and Reef Islands as an additional family within East Papuan. However, new data on these languages, along with advances in the reconstruction of Proto-Oceanic, has made it clear that they are in fact Austronesian:

Similarly, Wurm had classified the extinct Kazukuru language and its possible sister languages of New Georgia as a sixth branch of East Papuan. However, in a joint 2007 paper, Dunn and Ross argued that this was also Austronesian.

See also[edit]


  • Dunn, Michael; Ger Reesink; Angela Terrill (June 2002). "The East Papuan languages: a preliminary typological appraisal". Oceanic Linguistics. 41 (1): 28–62. doi:10.1353/ol.2002.0019. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0013-1ADC-1. OCLC 89720097.
  • Dunn, Michael; Angela Terrill; Ger Reesink; Robert A. Foley; Stephen C. Levinson (2005-09-23). "Structural Phylogenetics and the Reconstruction of Ancient Language History". Science. 309 (5743): 2072–75. doi:10.1126/science.1114615. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0013-1B84-E. OCLC 111923848. PMID 16179483.
  • Dunn, Michael; Malcolm Ross (2007). "Is Kazukuru really non-Austronesian?" (PDF). Oceanic Linguistics. 46: 210–231. doi:10.1353/ol.2007.0018. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0013-1EBB-9.
  • Ross, Malcolm (2001). "Is there an East Papuan phylum? Evidence from pronouns". In Andrew Pawley; Malcolm Ross; Darrell Tryon (eds.). The boy from Bundaberg: Studies in Melanesian linguistics in honour of Tom Dutton. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. pp. 301–322. ISBN 978-0-85883-445-3. OCLC 48651069.
  • 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.
  • Wurm, Stephen A. (1975). "The East Papuan phylum in general". In Stephen A. Wurm (ed.). Papuan languages and the New Guinea linguistic scene: New Guinea area languages and language study 1. Canberra: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. pp. 783–804. OCLC 37096514.