The Papuan languages are those languages of the western Pacific that are neither Austronesian nor Australian. The term does not presuppose a genetic relationship. The concept of Papuan peoples as distinct from Melanesians was first suggested and named by Sidney Herbert Ray in 1892.
New Guinea is perhaps the most linguistically diverse region in the world. Besides the Austronesian languages, there are some 800 languages divided into perhaps sixty small language families, with unclear relationships to each other or to anything else, plus a large number of language isolates. The majority of the Papuan languages are spoken on the island of New Guinea, with a number spoken in the Bismarck Archipelago, Bougainville Island, and the Solomon Islands to the east, and in Halmahera, Timor, and the Alor archipelago to the west. The westernmost language, Tambora in Sumbawa, is extinct. One Papuan language, Meriam Mir, is spoken within the national borders of Australia, in the eastern Torres Strait. The only Papuan languages with official recognition are those of East Timor.
Several languages of Flores, Sumba, and other islands of eastern Indonesia are classified as Austronesian but have large numbers of non-Austronesian words in their basic vocabulary and non-Austronesian grammatical features. It has been suggested that these may have originally been non-Austronesian languages that have borrowed nearly all of their vocabulary from neighboring Austronesian languages, but no connection with the Papuan languages of Timor has been found. In general, the Central–Eastern Malayo-Polynesian languages are marked by a significant historical Papuan influence, lexically, grammatically, and phonologically, and this is responsible for much of the diversity of the Austronesian language family.
Most Papuan languages are spoken by hundreds to thousands of people; the most populous are found in the New Guinea highlands, where a few exceed a hundred thousand. These include Western Dani (180,000 in 1993) and Ekari (100,000 reported 1985) in the western (Indonesian) highlands, and Enga (230,000 in 2000), Huli (150,000 reported 2011), and Melpa (130,000 reported 1991) in the eastern (PNG) highlands. To the west of New Guinea, the largest languages are Makasai in East Timor (100,000 in 2010) and Galela in Halmahera (80,000 reported 1990). To the east, Terei (27,000 reported 2003) and Naasioi (20,000 reported 2007) are spoken on Bougainville.
Although there has been relatively little study of these languages compared with the Austronesian family, there have been three preliminary attempts at large-scale genealogical classification, by Joseph Greenberg, Stephen Wurm, and Malcolm Ross. The largest family posited for the Papuan region is the Trans–New Guinea phylum, consisting of the majority of Papuan languages and running mainly along the highlands of New Guinea. The various high-level families may represent distinct migrations into New Guinea, presumably from the west. Since perhaps only a quarter of Papuan languages have been studied in detail, linguists' understanding of the relationships between them will continue to be revised.
Statistical analyses designed to pick up signals too faint to be detected by the comparative method, though of disputed validity, suggest five major Papuan stocks (roughly Trans–New Guinea, West, North, East, and South Papuan languages); long-range comparison has also suggested connections between selected languages, but again the methodology is not orthodox in historical linguistics.
Joseph Greenberg proposed an Indo-Pacific phylum containing the (Northern) Andamanese languages, all Papuan languages, and the Tasmanian languages, but not the Australian Aboriginal languages. Very few linguists accept his grouping. It is distinct from the Trans–New Guinea phylum of the classifications below.
The most widely used classification of Papuan languages is that of Wurm, listed below with the approximate number of languages in each family in parentheses. This was the scheme used by Ethnologue prior to Ross's classification (below). It is based on very preliminary work, much of it typological, and Wurm himself has stated that he doesn't expect it to hold up well to scrutiny. Other linguists, including William Foley, have suggested that many of Wurm's phyla are based on areal features and structural similarities, and accept only the lowest levels of his classification, most of which he inherited from prior taxonomies. Foley (1986) divides Papuan languages into over sixty small language families, plus a number of isolates. However, more recently Foley has accepted the broad outline if not the details of Wurm's classification, as he and Ross have substantiated a large portion of Wurm's Trans–New Guinea phylum.
According to Ross (see below), the main problem with Wurm's classification is that he did not take contact-induced change into account. For example, several of the main branches of his Trans–New Guinea phylum have no vocabulary in common with other Trans–New Guinea languages, and were classified as Trans–New Guinea because they are similar grammatically. However, there are also many Austronesian languages that are grammatically similar to Trans–New Guinea languages due to the influence of contact and bilingualism. Similarly, several groups that do have substantial basic vocabulary in common with Trans–New Guinea languages are excluded from the phylum because they do not resemble it grammatically.
Wurm believed the Papuan languages arrived in several waves of migration with some of the earlier languages (perhaps including the Sepik–Ramu languages) being related to the Australian languages,  a later migration bringing the West Papuan, Torricelli and the East Papuan languages and a third wave bringing the most recent pre-Austronesian migration, the Trans–New Guinea family.
Papuan families proposed by Wurm (with approximate number of languages)
- Amto–Musan languages (2)
- Burmeso language (isolate)
- Busa language (isolate)
- East Bird's Head languages (3)
- East Papuan languages (36)
- Geelvink Bay languages (12)
- Yuri language (isolate)
- Porome language (isolate)
- Kwomtari–Baibai languages (6)
- Left May languages (7)
- Sepik–Ramu languages (104)
- Sko languages (7)
- Torricelli languages (48)
- Trans–New Guinea languages (598)
- West Papuan languages (26)
- Yalë language (isolate)
Two of Wurm's isolates have since been linked as the
and since Wurm's time another isolate and two languages belonging to a new family have been discovered,
Malcolm Ross re-evaluated Wurm's proposal on purely lexical grounds. That is, he looked at shared vocabulary, and especially shared idiosyncrasies analogous to English I and me vs. German ich and mich. The poor state of documentation of Papuan languages restricts this approach largely to pronouns. Nonetheless, Ross believes that he has been able to validate much of Wurm's classification, albeit with revisions to correct for Wurm's partially typological approach. (See Trans–New Guinea languages.) Ethnologue (2009) largely follows Ross.
It has been suggested that the families that appear when comparing pronouns may be due to pronoun borrowing rather than to genealogical relatedness. However, Ross argues that Papuan languages have closed-class pronoun systems, which are resistant to borrowing, and in any case that the massive number of languages with similar pronouns in a family like Trans–New Guinea preclude borrowing as an explanation. Also, he shows that the two cases of alleged pronoun borrowing in New Guinea are simple coincidence, explainable as regular developments from the protolanguages of the families in question: as earlier forms of the languages are reconstructed, their pronouns become less similar, not more. (Ross argues that open-class pronoun systems, where borrowings are common, are found in hierarchical cultures such as those of Southeast Asia and Japan, where pronouns indicate details of relationship and social status rather than simply being grammatical pro-forms as they are in the more egalitarian New Guinea societies.)
Ross has proposed 23 Papuan language families and 9–13 isolates. However, because of his more stringent criteria, he was not able to find enough data to classify all Papuan languages, especially many isolates that have no close relatives to aid in their classification.
Ross also found that the Lower Mamberamo languages (or at least the Warembori language—he had insufficient data on Pauwi) are Austronesian languages that have been heavily transformed by contact with Papuan languages, much as the Takia language has. The Reef Islands – Santa Cruz languages of Wurm's East Papuan phylum were a potential 24th family, but subsequent work has shown them to be highly divergent Austronesian languages as well.
Note that while this classification may be more reliable than past attempts, it is based on a single parameter, pronouns, and therefore must remain tentative. Although pronouns are conservative elements in a language, they are both short and utilise a reduced set of the language's phonemic inventory. Both phenomena greatly increase the possibility of chance resemblances, especially when they are not confirmed by lexical similarities.
Papuan families proposed by Ross
- Trans–New Guinea (reduced to 466–493 languages)
- ? Extended West Papuan (tentative)
- Mairasi languages (4)
- East Cenderawasih (Geelvink Bay) languages (10)
- Lakes Plain languages (19; upper Mamberamo River)
- Tor–Kwerba languages (17)
- Nimboran languages (5)
- Skou languages (8)
- Border languages (15)
- Left May – Kwomtari languages (13) (problematic)
- Senagi languages (2) (perhaps related to Sepik)
- Torricelli languages (40–50) (perhaps related to Sepik)
- Sepik languages (51)
- Ramu – Lower Sepik languages (40) (first proposed by Foley)
- Yuat languages (5)
- Piawi languages (2) (perhaps in Ramu)
- South-Central Papuan languages (22)
- Eastern Trans-Fly languages (4; one in Australia)
- ? Yele – West New Britain languages (tentative)
- Baining (East New Britain) languages (8)
- North Bougainville languages (4)
- South Bougainville languages (9)
- Central Solomons languages (4)
Proposed by Ross. Sorted by location:
- Karkar language (Yuri) – since shown to be a Pauwasi language
- Busa language
- Yalë language (Nagatman)
- Taiap language (Gapun), located on what had been an offshore island 4000 BCE
Former isolates classified by Ross:
- Burmeso language (Taurap), in the East Bird's Head – Sentani languages
- Porome language (Kibiri), in the Kiwai family of Trans–New Guinea
- Morwap language (Elseng), in the Border languages (on basic lexical resemblances)
Languages reassigned to the Austronesian family:
- Lower Mamberamo (Donohue argues this is a relexified Papuan family; Yoke may not belong)
- Kazukuru language (2007)
- Reef Islands – Santa Cruz (2007)
Unclassified due to lack of data:
- Amto–Musan languages (2)
- Kenati (isolate)
- Komyandaret (isolate)
- Maramba (Ethnologue 16 places it in Yuat)
- Massep (isolate)
- Molof (isolate)
- Momuna family: Momina, Momuna (Somahai)
- Samarokena (apparently Kwerba)
- Saponi (shares basic vocab, but not pronouns, with Lakes Plains)
- Tause (Ross placed it provisionally in East Bird's Head – Sentani to encourage research, but does not claim it's related)
- Tofamna (isolate)
- Usku (isolate)
- Bayono–Awbono languages (2)
- Pyu (isolate, has been classified as Kwomtari–Baibai)
- There is a cluster of languages in West Papua between the upper Taritatu River and the PNG border, including Molof, Usku, and Tofamna listed above but also Namla, Murkim, Lepki, and Kembra, which do not appear to be related to each other or to other languages in the area. Namla, recently discovered, may prove to be related to Tofamna once more data comes in. Murkim and Lepki show some similarities to each other, though these may not be genetic.
- Tambora (unclassified, with one lexical item possibly connecting it to languages of Timor)
Joseph Greenberg proposed that the Andamanese languages (or at least the Great Andamanese languages) off the coast of Burma are related to the Papuan or West Papuan languages. Stephen Wurm stated that the lexical similarities between Great Andamanese and the West Papuan and Timor–Alor families "are quite striking and amount to virtual formal identity [...] in a number of instances". However, he considered this not evidence of a connection between (Great) Andamanese and Trans–New Guinea, but of a substratum from an earlier migration to New Guinea from the west.
Greenberg also suggested a connection to the Tasmanian languages. However, the Tasmanian peoples were isolated for perhaps 10,000 years, genocide wiped out their languages before much was recorded of them, and few linguists expect that they will ever be linked to another language family.
William Foley (1986) noted lexical similarities between R. M. W. Dixon's 1980 reconstruction of proto-Australian and the languages of the East New Guinea Highlands. He believed that it was naïve to expect to find a single Papuan or Australian language family when New Guinea and Australia had been a single landmass for most of their human history, having been separated by the Torres Strait only 8000 years ago, and that a deep reconstruction would likely include languages from both. However, Dixon later abandoned his proto-Australian proposal, and Foley's ideas need to be re-evaluated in light of recent research. Wurm also suggested the Sepik–Ramu languages have similarities with the Australian languages, but believed this may be due to a substratum effect, but nevertheless believed that the Australian languages represent a linguistic group that existed in New Guinea before the arrival of the Papuan languages (which he believed arrived in at least two different groups).
- Wurm 1975
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- Endangered Languages of the Pacific Region