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Yimas language

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Title: Yimas language  
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Subject: Ramu–Lower Sepik languages, William Foley (linguist), Nor–Pondo languages
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Yimas language

Native to Papua New Guinea
Region East Sepik Province
Native speakers
300  (2000)[1]
Ramu–Lower Sepik
Language codes
ISO 639-3 yee
Glottolog yima1243[2]

The Yimas language is spoken by the Yimas people of Papua New Guinea. It is a polysynthetic language with (somewhat) free word order. It is an ergative-absolutive language morphologically but not syntactically, although it has several other case-like relations encoded on its verbs. It has 10 or 11 noun classes (genders), and a unique number system. Four of the noun classes are semantically determined (male humans, female humans, higher animals, plants and plantmaterial) whereas the rest are assigned on phonological bases.

It is an endangered language, being widely replaced by Tok Pisin, and to a lesser extent, English, and it is unclear if any children are native Yimas speakers. However, a Yimas pidgin was once used as a contact language with speakers of Alamblak and Arafundi.

Yimas Pidgin
Native speakers
Yimas-based pidgin
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Glottolog yima1235  (Yimas-Alamblak Pidgin)[3]
yima1244  (Yimas-Arafundi Pidgin)[4]



The phoneme inventory of Yimas is typical for the languages of Papua New Guinea. Like many languages of the region, Yimas has no fricative phonemes, although fricatives do sometimes appear in pronunciation as variants of plosives. The following table contains the phonemes of the language.

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar
Stop p t c k
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Liquid ɾ ʎ
Glide w j

The phonemic status of the palatal consonants /c/, /ɲ/ and /ʎ/ (the latter is written as l in the examples) is not entirely clear. In general their appearance is predictable; they arise primarily through palatization of the alveolar consonants /t/, /n/, and /r/. However, there are a few words in which these consonants must be regarded as underlyingly palatal. Examples include akulɨm (wrist), ɨɲcɨt (urine), and other words, though these historically go back to alveolar consonants, as can be seen in their cognates in Karawari (awkurim (wrist) and ndi (urine)).

Adjacent nasals and plosives are usually homorganic. Other combinations such as mt, mk, np, ŋt, etc., are rare or unattested; an example is pamki (legs). The same is true when plosives appear before nasals at the ends of words or syllables. In this case, the nasal is syllabic, for example watn [ˈwatn̩] (a hardwood tree species).

Plosives are generally voiced after nasals, with /p/ becoming voiced also before u. At word onsets and before stressed vowels, they are aspirated and voiceless. For example: ɲct [ˈɪɲɟɪt] (urine), pamki [ˈpʰamgi] (legs), tkay [tʰəˈkʰaɪ̯] (nose), kput [kʰɞˈbut] (rain). /p/ and /w/ weaken to a voiceless fricative: ipwa [iˈβa]. When /k/ appears before two vowels, if the second vowel is unstressed, then the /k/ is realized as a voiced fricative: amanakn [ʌmʌˈnaɣɨn] (mine). Intervocally /c/ has age-based allophony, with older speakers preferring the stop realisation and younger ones the dental sibilant [s], as in acak [ˈasʌk] (to send). After another consonant, /c/ is always realised as a palatal stop.[5]

ʎ is in free variation between [ʎ] and []. r varies in pronunciation between [l] and [ɾ].


Front Central Back
High i ɨ u
Low a

The most frequent vowels by far are /a/ and /ɨ/. ɨ also appears as an epenthetic vowel to break up otherwise illicit consonant clusters. In the vicinity of u and also occasionally in other contexts, an u is sometimes inserted instead: mml [məmɪʎ] (a kind of snake), ŋmkŋn [ŋəmgəŋɨn] (underneath), maŋkuml [maŋgɯmuʎ] (two veins). The appearance of /ɨ/ is often predictable from the surrounding consonant environment and as a result it can typically be treated as an epenthetic vowel even within lexical roots. Adopting this analysis results in whole words with no underlying vowels.

The vowel phonemes are involved in numerous phonological changes. [6]


The primary accent lines in general on the first syllable of a word. If the first syllable contains an epenthetic vowel but the second does not, then the second syllable is stressed. When the first as well as the second syllable contain epenthetic vowels, then the stress lies on the first syllable. In words with more than three syllables, the third syllable carries secondary stress.


Word Pronunciation Translation Notes
ŋarwa [ˈŋaɾwʌ] penis
kcakk [kʰɪˈsaɣək] to cut first syllable has an epenthetic vowel → second syllable stressed
mɲŋ [ˈmɪɲɪŋ] tongue first two syllables have epenthetic vowels → first syllable stressed
yamparan [ˈjambʌɾʌn] to stand up
malcakwa [ˈmaʎcɔkwʌ] lower back
yacɨrɨm [ˈjɛsəɾəm] an accessory for chewing betelnuts
yawkawpunumprum [ˈjawkʌwˌpʰunɯmbɾɯm] yellow opossum Secondary stress on the third syllable

The genitive suffix -na, which is used on personal pronouns, takes primary stress: ama-na-kn [ʌmʌˈnaɣɨn] (mine).


  1. ^ Yimas at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Yimas". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Yimas-Alamblak Pidgin". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Yimas-Arafundi Pidgin". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  5. ^ Foley, William. 1991. The Yimas Language of New Guinea. Stanford University Press.
  6. ^ See Foley 1991, page 45.
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