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Trans–New Guinea languages

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Title: Trans–New Guinea languages  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Goilalan languages, Teberan languages, List of language families, Bosavi languages, Dem language
Collection: Languages of Indonesia, Languages of Papua New Guinea, Proposed Language Families, Trans–new Guinea Languages
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Trans–New Guinea languages

Trans–New Guinea
New Guinea, Nusa Tenggara, Maluku Islands
Linguistic classification: One of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-5: ngf
Glottolog: None
nucl1709  (Nuclear Trans–New Guinea)[3]
The extent of various proposals for Trans–New Guinea.
  Core TNG: Families accepted by Glottolog[1]
  Other Trans–New Guinea families proposed by Ross (2005)
  Other Papuan languages
  Austronesian languages

The various families constituting Ross' conception of Trans–New Guinea. The greatest TNG diversity is in the eastern highlands. (After Ross 2005.)   * Mor, Tanah Merah, Dem, Uhunduni, Oksapmin, Wiru, Pawaia, Kamula, Moraori, Mombum

Trans–New Guinea (TNG) is an extensive family of Papuan languages spoken in New Guinea and neighboring islands, perhaps the third largest language family in the world. The core of the family is considered to be established, but its boundaries and overall membership are uncertain. There have been three main proposals.


  • History of the proposal 1
  • The languages 2
  • Classification 3
    • Wurm 3.1
    • Foley 3.2
    • Ross 3.3
      • Unclassified Wurmian languages 3.3.1
      • Reclassified Wurmian languages 3.3.2
    • Ethnologue 3.4
    • Glottolog 3.5
  • Phonology 4
  • Pronouns 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Bibliography 8

History of the proposal

Although Papuan languages for the most part are poorly documented, several of the branches of Trans–New Guinea have been recognized for some time. The Eleman languages were first proposed by S. Ray in 1907, parts of Marind were recognized by Ray and JHP Murray in 1918, and the Rai Coast languages in 1919, again by Ray.

The precursor of the Trans–New Guinea family was Stephen Wurm's 1960 proposal of an East New Guinea Highlands family. Although broken up as a unit (though retained within TNG) by Malcolm Ross in 2005, it united different branches of TNG for the first time, linking Engan, Chimbu–Wahgi, Goroka, and Kainantu. (Duna and Kalam were added in 1971.) Then in 1970 Clemens Voorhoeve and Kenneth McElhanon noted 91 lexical resemblances between the Central and South New Guinea (CSNG) and Finisterre–Huon families, which they had respectively established a few years earlier. Although they did not work out regular sound correspondences, and so could not distinguish between cognates due to genealogical relationship, cognates due to borrowing, and chance resemblances, their research was taken seriously. They chose the name Trans–New Guinea because this new family was the first to span New Guinea, from the Bomberai Peninsula of western West Irian to the Huon Peninsula of eastern PNG. They also noted possible cognates in other families Wurm would later add to TNG: Wurm's East New Guinea Highlands, Binandere in the 'Bird's Tail' of PNG, and two families that John Z'graggen would later (1971, 1975) unite in his 100-language Madang–Adelbert Range family.

In 1975 Wurm accepted Voorhoeve and McElhanon's suspicions about further connections, as well as Z'graggen's work, and postualed additional links to, among others, the languages of the island of Timor to the west of New Guinea, Angan, Goilalan, Koiarian, Dagan, Eleman, Wissel Lakes, the erstwhile Dani-Kwerba family, and the erstwhile Trans-Fly–Bulaka River family (which he had established in 1970), expanding TNG into an enormous language phylum that covered most of the island of New Guinea, as well as Timor and neighboring islands, and included over 500 languages spoken by some 2 300 000 people. However, part of the evidence for this was typological, and Wurm stated that he did not expect it to stand up well to scrutiny. Although he based the phylum on characteristic personal pronouns, several of the branches had no pronouns in common with the rest of the family, or even had pronouns related to non-TNG families, but were included because they were grammatically similar to TNG. Other families that had typical TNG pronouns were excluded because they did not resemble other TNG families in their grammatical structure.

Because grammatical typology is readily borrowed—many of the Austronesian languages in New Guinea have grammatical structures similar to their Papuan neighbors, for example, and conversely many Papuan languages resemble typical Austronesian languages typologically—other linguists were skeptical. William A. Foley rejected Wurm's and even some of Voorhoeve's results, and broke much of TNG into its constituent parts: several dozen small but clearly valid families, plus a number of apparent isolates.

In 2005 Malcolm Ross published a draft proposal re-evaluating Trans–New Guinea, and found what he believed to be overwhelming evidence for a reduced version of the phylum, based solely on lexical resemblances, which retained as much as 85% of Wurm's hypothesis, though some of it tentatively.

The strongest lexical evidence for any language family is shared morphological paradigms, especially highly irregular or suppletive paradigms with bound morphology, because these are extremely resistant to borrowing. For example, if the only recorded German words were gut "good" and besser "better", that alone would be enough to demonstrate that in all probability German was related to English. However, because of the great morphological complexity of many Papuan languages, and the poor state of documentation of nearly all, in New Guinea this approach is essentially restricted to comparing pronouns. Ross reconstructed pronouns sets for Foley's basic families and compared these reconstructions, rather than using a direct mass comparison of all Papuan languages; attempted to then reconstruct the ancestral pronouns of the proto-Trans–New Guinea language, such as *ni "we", *ŋgi "you", *i "they"; and then compared poorly supported branches directly to this reconstruction. Families required two apparent cognates to be included. However, if any language in a family was a match, the family was considered a match, greatly increasing the likelihood of coincidental resemblances, and because the plural forms are related to the singular forms, a match of 1sg and 1pl, although satisfying Ross's requirement of two matches, is not actually two independent matches, again increasing the likelihood of spurious matches. In addition, Ross counted forms like *a as a match to 2sg *ga, so that /ɡV, kV, ŋɡV, V/ all counted as matches to *ga. And although /n/ and /ɡ/ occur in Papuan pronouns at twice the level expected by their occurrence in pronouns elsewhere in the world, they do not correlate with each other as they would if they reflected a language family. That is, it is argued that Ross's pronouns do not support the validity of Trans–New Guinea, and do not reveal which families might belong to it.[4]

Ross also included in his proposal several better-attested families for non-pronominal evidence, despite a lack of pronouns common to other branches of TNG, and he suggested that there may be other families that would have been included if they had been better attested. Several additional families are only tentatively linked to TNG. Note also that because the boundaries of Ross's proposal are based primarily on a single parameter, the pronouns, all internal structure remains tentative.

The languages

TNG is strongly associated with the New Guinea Highlands (red), and may have spread with the spread of highland agriculture starting ca. 10,000 BP, probably in the east, and only more recently south of the highlands.

Most TNG languages are spoken by only a few thousand people, with only four (Melpa, Enga, Western Dani, and Ekari) being spoken by more than 100,000. The most populous language outside of mainland New Guinea is Makasai on Timor, with 70,000.

The greatest linguistic diversity in Ross's Trans–New Guinea proposal, and therefore perhaps the location of the proto-Trans–New Guinea homeland, is in the interior highlands of Papua New Guinea, in the central-to-eastern New Guinea cordillera where Wurm first posited his East New Guinea Highlands family. Indonesian Papua and the Papuan Peninsula of Papua New Guinea (the "bird's tail") have fewer and more widely extended branches of TNG, and were therefore likely settled by TNG speakers after the protolanguage broke up. Ross speculates that the TNG family may have spread with the high population densities that resulted from the domestication of taro, settling quickly in the highland valleys along the length of the cordillera but spreading much more slowly into the malarial lowlands, and not at all into areas such as the Sepik River valley where the people already had yam agriculture and thus supported high population densities. Ross suggests that TNG may have arrived at its western limit, the islands near Timor, perhaps four to 4.5 thousand years ago, before the expansion of Austronesian into this area.



An updated version of Wurm's 1975 classification can be found at MultiTree and in modified form at 15Ethnologue (largely abandoned by Ethnologue 16). Wurm identifies the subdivisions of his Papuan classification as families (on the order of relatedness of the Germanic languages), stocks (on the order of the Indo-European languages), and phyla (on the order of the Afroasiatic languages). Trans–New Guinea is a phylum in this terminology. A language that is not related to any other at a family level or below is called a Trans–New Guinea isolate in this scheme.


As of 2003, William A. Foley accepted the core of TNG: "The fact, for example, that a great swath of languages in New Guinea from the Huon Peninsula to the highlands of Irian Jaya mark the object of a transitive verb with a set of verbal prefixes, a first person singular in /n/ and second person singular in a velar stop, is overwhelming evidence that these languages are all genetically related; the likelihood of such a system being borrowed vanishingly small."[5] He considered the relationship between the Finisterre–Huon, Eastern Highlands (Kainantu–Gorokan), and Irian Highlands (Dani – Paniai Lakes) families (and presumably some other smaller ones) to be established, and said that it is "highly likely" that the Madang family belongs as well. He considered it possible but not yet demonstrated that the Enga, Chimbu, Binandere, Angan, Ok, Awyu, Asmat (perhaps closest to Ok and Awyu), Mek, and the small language families of the tail of Papua New Guinea (Koiarian, Goilalan, etc., which he maintains have not been shown to be closely related to each other) may belong to TNG as well.


Ross does not use specialized terms for different levels of classification as Laycock and Wurm did. In the list given here, the uncontroversial families that are accepted by Foley and other Papuanists and that are the building blocks of Ross's TNG are printed in boldface. Language isolates are printed in italics.

Ross removed about 100 languages from Wurm's proposal, and only tentatively retained a few dozen more, but in one instance he added a language, the erstwhile isolate Porome.

Ross did not have sufficient evidence to classify all Papuan groups.

Trans–New Guinea phylum (Ross 2005)
  • Mek family (13)
  • ? Kaure–Kapori (4) [Inclusion in TNG tentative. No pronouns can be reconstructed from the available data.]
  • ? Pauwasi family (4) [Inclusion in TNG tentative. No pronouns can be reconstructed from the available data. Since linked to Karkar, which is well attested and not TNG]
  • ? Kiwai–Porome (8) [TNG identity of pronouns suspect]
  • Oksapmin isolate [now linked to the Ok family]
  • ? Teberan family [inclusion in TNG tentative] (2)
  • ? Pawaia isolate [has proto-TNG vocabulary, but inclusion questionable]
  • ? Fasu (West Kutubuan) family (1–3) [has proto-TNG vocabulary, but inclusion somewhat questionable]
  • ? East Kutubuan family (2) [has proto-TNG vocabulary, but inclusion somewhat questionable]
  • Wiru isolate (lexical similarities with Engan)
  • Kainantu–Goroka (22) [also known as East Highlands; first noticed by Capell 1948]
  • Finisterre–Huon (62) [part of the original TNG proposal. Has verbs that are suppletive per the person and number of the object.]
  • ? Goilalan family (6) [inclusion in TNG tentative]
  • Southeast Papuan (Bird's Tail) ? [these families have not been demonstrated to be related to each other, but have in common ya for 'you[plural]' instead of proto-TNG *gi]

Unclassified Wurmian languages

Although Ross based his classification on pronoun systems, many languages in New Guinea are too poorly documented for even this to work. Thus there are several isolates that were placed in TNG by Wurm but that cannot be addressed by Ross's classification. A few of them (Komyandaret, Samarokena, and maybe Kenati) have since been assigned to existing branches (or ex-branches) of TNG, whereas others (Massep, Momuna) continue to defy classification.

Reclassified Wurmian languages

Ross removed 95 languages from TNG. These are small families with no pronouns in common with TNG languages, but that are typologically similar, perhaps due to long periods of contact with TNG languages.

  • Border and Morwap (Elseng), as an independent Border family (15 languages)
  • Isirawa (Saberi), as a language isolate (though classified as Kwerba by Donahue 2002)
  • Lakes Plain, as an independent Lakes Plain family (19)
  • Mairasi, as an independent Mairasi family (4)
  • Nimboran, as an independent Nimboran family (5)
  • Piawi, as an independent Piawi family (2)
  • Senagi, as an independent Senagi family (2)
  • Sentani (4 languages), within an East Bird's Head – Sentani family
  • Tor and Kwerba, joined as a Tor–Kwerba family (17)
  • Trans-Fly – Bulaka River is broken into five groups: three remaining (tentatively) in TNG (Kiwaian, Moraori, Tirio), plus the independent South-Central Papuan and Eastern Trans-Fly families (22 and 4 languages).


Ethnologue 16 (2009) largely follows Ross, but excludes the tentative Kaure–Kapori and Pauwasi branches, listing them as independent families. They also break up the Central and South New Guinea (Asmat–Ok) within TNG, though they maintain both Southeast Papuan (including Goilalan) and West Trans–New Guinea as units. Ethnologue 17 (2013) retains this classification, with the single change of splitting off the East Timor languages within West Trans–New Guinea.


Hammarström (2012) argued that Ross's pronouns appear to be a spurious signal and are not indicative of a language family.[4] Glottolog consequently takes a much more conservative view of the proposal, which it calls "Nuclear Trans–New Guinea". These are families that have been shown to be related by more than a few possibly chance resemblances in their pronouns:[1]

Note that even this scaled-down version of the family spans New Guinea and includes over 300 languages.


Proto-Trans–New Guinea is reconstructed with a typical simple Papuan inventory: five vowels, /i e a o u/, three phonations of stops at three places, /p t k, b d ɡ, m n ŋ/ (Andrew Pawley reconstructs the voiced series as prenasalized /mb nd ŋɡ/), plus a palatal affricate /dʒ ~ ndʒ/, the fricative /s/, and the approximants /l j w/. Syllables are typically (C)V, with CVC possible at the ends of words. Many of the languages have word tone.


Ross reconstructs the following pronominal paradigm for Trans–New Guinea, with *a~*i ablaut for singular~non-singular:

I *na we *ni
thou *ga you *gi
s/he *(y)a, *ua they *i

There is a related but less commonly attested form for 'we', *nu, as well as a *ja for 'you', which Ross speculates may have been a polite form. In addition, there were dual suffixes *-li and *-t, and a plural suffix *-nV, (i.e. n plus a vowel) as well collective number suffixes *-pi- (dual) and *-m- (plural) that functioned as inclusive we when used in the first person. (Reflexes of the collective suffixes, however, are limited geographically to the central and eastern highlands, and so might not be as old as proto-Trans–New Guinea.)

Lexical words, such as *niman 'louse', may also be reconstructed:

Reflexes of *niman 'louse', which attest to an intermediate *iman in the east:
Chimbu: Middle Wahgi numan
Engan: Enga & Kewa lema
Finisterre–Huon: Kâte imeŋ, Selepet imen
Gogodala mi
Kainantu–Goroka: Awa nu, Tairora nume, Fore numaa, Gende (tu)nima
S. Kiwai nimo
Koiarian: Managalasi uma
Kolopom: Kimaghana & Riantana nome
Kwale nomone
Madang: Kalam yman, Dumpu (Rai Coast) im, Sirva (Adelbert) iima
Mek: Kosarek ami
Moraori nemeŋk
Paniai Lakes: Ekari yame (metathesis?)
Timor–Alor–Pantar: West Pantar (h)amiŋ, Oirata amin (metathesis?)
Wiru nomo
Questionable braches:
Pauwasi: Yafi yemar
C. Sentani mi

See also


  1. ^ a b c Glottolog: Nuclear Trans–New Guinea
  2. ^ Doubtful according to Ross (2005)
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Nuclear Trans–New Guinea".  
  4. ^ a b Harald Hammarström (2012) "Pronouns and the (Preliminary) Classification of Papuan languages", Journal of the Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea
  5. ^ [2]


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