Apma language

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Native to Vanuatu
Region Pentecost Island
Native speakers
7,800 (2001)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 app
Glottolog apma1240[2]

Apma (or Abma) is the language of central Pentecost island in Vanuatu. Apma is an Oceanic language (a branch of the Austronesian language family). Within Vanuatu it sits between North Vanuatu and Central Vanuatu languages, and combines features of both groups.

With an estimated 7,800 native speakers (in the year 2000), Apma is the most widely spoken of Pentecost's native languages, and the fifth largest vernacular in Vanuatu as a whole. In recent times Apma has spread at the expense of other indigenous languages such as Sowa and Ske. Apma is increasingly mixed with words and expressions from Bislama, Vanuatu's national language.

Name of the language[edit]

Like Pentecost's other languages, Apma is named after the local word for "what" or "something". Locally it is usually referred to simply as dalekte "language" or daleda "our language". Many people from other areas of Vanuatu recognise the language by the catchphrase te gabis meaning "good" or "OK", or refer informally to its speakers as wakin, an Apma term of address for brothers or friends.

Some linguists treat the Apma sound p as an allophone of b, and thus write the language's name as Abma. However, this interpretation of the language's phonology is disputed, and locally Apma is the preferred spelling.[3]

Dialects and range[edit]

Modern Apma has three well-defined dialects:

  • Suru Mwerani, the southernmost dialect, is the most widely spoken and well-documented dialect. It is spoken in Melsisi, Tansip, Vanrasini and surrounding villages, and in the former Sowa area between Melsisi and Ranmawot.
  • Suru Rabwanga (or Suru Bo), the central dialect, is spoken in the mountainous area between Bwatnapni and Namaram. It is very similar to Suru Mwerani, and the two dialects are mixed in villages such as Bwatnapni, Enaa, Wutsunmwel and Naruwa.
  • Suru Kavian is a small, endangered and very distinctive dialect, spoken in the area to the north and east of Namaram. It is hard for speakers of the other two dialects to understand.

Mwerani and rabwanga are the words for "today" in their respective dialects, while bo and kavi are the words for "pig".

Two other probable Apma dialects, Asuk (or Asa) in the south-west and Wolwolan (or Volvoluana) in the north, are now extinct.


The consonant phonemes of Apma are b, d, g, h, k, l, m, n, ng (as in English "singer"), r, s, t, ts (or j), bilabial v, w, and labiovelar bw and mw. The consonants b, bw, v and w are realised as p where they occur at the end of a syllable; b may also be devoiced to p when next to an unvoiced consonant, as in -tpo "lie down".

Clusters of consonants cannot occur within a syllable. Unlike in closely related Raga language, word roots in Apma can end with a consonant.

In archaic and northern varieties of Apma, prenasalization of consonants occurs in some environments, so that b becomes mb, d becomes nd, and g becomes ngg. This feature has been lost in modern Suru Mwerani dialect.

Apma's five vowels come in short forms (a, e, i, o and u) and long forms (aa, ee, ii, oo and uu). Long vowels typically occur where a consonant (most commonly r) has historically been lost. Vowels can occur alone or in various combinations. A few words (e.g. miu "wild cane") contain a distinctive rounded high-front vowel, generally written as iu although perceived by speakers simply as a variant of u.

Stress is normally on the penultimate syllable of a word. However, syllables that end with a consonant or a long vowel take stress in precedence to other syllables.


Basic word order in Apma is subject–verb–object. Occasionally, a subject may occur out of its usual position, in which case it is marked with na:

Bo mwe gani bwarus = The pig is eating papaya
Mwe gani bwarus, na bo = It's eating papaya, the pig


Personal pronouns are distinguished by person and number. They are not distinguished by gender. The basic pronouns differ substantially between dialects:

Person Apma
(Suru Mwerani dialect)
(Suru Rabwanga dialect)
(Suru Kavian dialect)
1st person singular nana nana ina "me"
2nd person singular kik nggi (ku)nggu "you" (singular)
3rd person singular ni ni ini "him / her / it"
1st person dual (inclusive) kuduru kunduru kindiri "us" (you and me, two of us)
1st person dual (exclusive) gemaru nggemaru inggari "us" (me and another)
2nd person dual gumru nggimiru nggumiri "you (two)"
3rd person dual nuuru nuuru iniiri "them (two)"
1st person plural (inclusive) kidi kindi kindi "us" (you and me)
1st person plural (exclusive) gema nggema ingga "us" (me and others)
2nd person plural gimi nggimi nggumi "you" (plural)
3rd person plural nii nii inii "them"

The dual or plural form of "you" is occasionally used in place of the singular form to show extreme respect.


Nouns in Apma are generally not preceded by articles. Plurality is indicated by placing the pronoun nii ("them") or a number after the noun:

bwihil = [the] bird
bwihil nii = [the] birds
bwihil katsil = three birds

Nouns may be either free, or directly possessed. Directly possessed nouns are suffixed to indicate whom an item belongs to. For example:

dalek = my voice
dalem = your voice
dalen = his/her voice
dalen subu = the chief's voice
dalekte = voice (generic)

Possession may also be indicated by the use of possessive classifiers, separate words that occur before or after the noun and take possessive suffixes. These classifiers are:

  • no- for general possessions (nok watang, "my basket")
  • bila- for things that are cared for, such as crops and livestock (bilada bo, "our pig")
  • ka- for things to be eaten (kam tsi, "your sugarcane")
  • ma- for things to be drunk (maa sileng, "their water")
  • na- for associations, over which the possessor has no control (vini nak, "my home island")

The possessive suffixes are as follows:

Person Apma
(Suru Mwerani dialect)
(Suru Rabwanga dialect)
(Suru Kavian dialect)
1st person singular -k -ngg + vowel -ngg + vowel "of mine"
2nd person singular -m -m -m "of yours" (singular)
3rd person singular -n -n -n "of his/hers/its"
1st person dual (inclusive) -daru -nd + vowel + ru -nd + vowel + ri "of ours" (yours and mine, two of us)
1st person dual (exclusive) -maru -maru -mari "of ours" (mine and another's)
2nd person dual -mru -muru -miri "of yours" (two of you)
3rd person dual lengthened vowel + -ru lengthened vowel + -ru lengthened vowel + -ri "of theirs" (two of them)
1st person plural (inclusive) -da -nd + vowel -nd + vowel "of ours" (yours and mine)
1st person plural (exclusive) -ma -ma -ma "of ours" (mine and others')
2nd person plural -mi -mi -mi "of yours" (plural)
3rd person plural lengthened vowel lengthened vowel lengthened vowel "of theirs"
Generic -kte -k -k -

In Suru Kavian dialect, vowels in certain directly possessed nouns and possessive classifiers change according to the pattern illustrated below. This does not occur in other dialects:

1st person singular nonggo bu "my knife" vilunggu "my hair"
2nd person singular nom bu "your knife" vilum "your hair"
3rd person singular nen bu "his/her knife" vilin "his/her hair"
1st person plural (inclusive) nende bu "our knife" vilindi "our hair"
1st person plural (exclusive) noma bu "our knife" viluma "our hair"
2nd person singular nomi bu "your knife" vilumi "your hair"
3rd person singular nee bu "their knife" vilii "their hair"

A verb may be transformed into a noun by the addition of a nominalising suffix -an:

wel = to dance (verb)
welan = a dance (noun)

Modifiers generally come after a noun, although those derived from nouns may come before:

vet = stone
vet kavet = four stones
vet kau = big stone
biri vet = small stone (biri "small" comes from the noun "seed")


Verbs in Apma are usually preceded by a subject pronoun and by a marker indicating the tense, aspect and mood of the action.

The subject pronouns are as follows:

Person Apma English
1st person singular na- "I"
2nd person singular ko- "you" (singular)
3rd person singular - "he" / "she" / "it"
1st person plural (inclusive) ta- "we" (you and I)
1st person plural (exclusive) kaa(ma)- "we" (others and I)
2nd person plural ka-
(ko...i in Suru Kavian dialect)
"you" (plural)
3rd person plural ra- "they"

Apma has the following tense/aspect/mood markers:

Tense / Aspect / Mood Used for Marker (full form) Marker (short form)
Imperfective Actions in the present tense
Temporary or changing states
A 'default' marker when the tense/aspect/mood has already been set
mwa-, mwe-, mwi-, mwo-, mu- -m
Perfective Actions in the past tense
Fixed states
Negative phrases in either past or present tense
te- -t
Potential Things that may happen in the future mwan(e)-
(northern dialects: nee-)
(northern dialects: lengthened vowel)
Prospective Things that are about to happen nema-
(northern dialects: nene-)
(northern dialects: lengthened vowel + -na)
Hypothetical Things that have not happened and probably won't bat(e)- -bat
Imperative Direct instructions
Other actions that the speaker would like to initiate
ne- (none)
Apprehensive Bad things that might happen ba- ba-

The full forms of these markers are used in the 3rd person singular (where there is no subject pronoun):

mwe leli = he does it
te leli = he did it
mwan leli = he will do it
nema leli = he's going to do it
bat leli = he should do it
ne leli = let him do it
ba leli = he's in danger of doing it

Elsewhere, short forms of these markers are suffixed to the subject pronoun:

nam leli = I do it
nat leli = I did it
nan leli = I will do it
nama leli = I'm going to do it
nabat leli = I should do it
na leli = let me do it
naba leli = I'm in danger of doing it

The imperfective marker alters to some extent to match the sound of the verb it is attached to. It is usually absent altogether when the verb begins with b or bw. (In Suru Kavian dialect, it is absent when the verb begins with any consonant other than r.) For example, in Suru Mwerani:

mwi sip = he goes down
mwo rop = he runs
mu rus = he moves
--- ban = he goes

Dual (two-person) forms consist of the plural forms with ru (or ri in Suru Kavian) inserted after the tense/aspect/mood marker:

ram leli = they do it
ramru leli = the two of them do it

There is a pattern of verb-consonant mutation whereby v at the start of a verb changes to b, and w changes to bw, in certain aspects/moods:

nat van = I went
na ban = I am going
nan ban or nan van = I will go

In northern and archaic varieties of Apma, there is also mutation of k to g, and of t to d.

Negative phrases are indicated with the two-part marker ba...nga "not", or a variant, which encloses the verb and any direct object:

natba leli nga = I don't do it / I didn't do it
nanba leli nga = I won't do it

The passive voice can be formed by attaching the suffix -an to the verb:

te lelian = it was done

When giving instructions, verbs are preceded simply by the 2nd person subject pronoun ko or karu "you":

Ko leli! = Do it! (to one person)
Karu leli! = Do it! (to two people, or politely to a group)
Ka leli! = Do it! (plural, considered impolite and usually heard only with children)

The prohibitive is marked with ba… an:

Ko[n]ba lelian! = Don't do it!

Other particles that can occur in a verb phrase include:

  • a minimizing marker ga(m), "just"
  • a partitive marker te, "partly" or "at all"
  • an additive marker m(u), "furthermore"
  • a completive marker, also te, "already"

The direct object, if one is present, immediately follows the verb. When the object is inanimate and already known, it need not be stated explicitly:

nat gita kik = I saw you
nat gita = I saw [it]

Many verbs in Apma have distinct transitive and intransitive forms. (These distinctions have been lost to some extent in Suru Kavian dialect.) For example, in Suru Mwerani:

Intransitive Transitive
gan "to eat" gani "to eat something"
min "to drink" -mni "to drink something"
solsol "to do the sewing" -slo "to sew something"
lehlehvik "to do the washing" lehvi "to wash something"
diptsipmik "to perform a burial" dipmi "to bury something"

In Suru Mwerani dialect, and to a lesser extent Suru Rabwanga, vowels have been lost from a number of verb roots, producing 'bound verbs' which begin with a pair of consonants (such as -mni and -slo above). Since clusters of consonants within a syllable are prohibited in Apma, speakers usually cite these verbs with a prefix such as mwa- attached (mwamni, mwaslo), and do not identify them as words when unprefixed.

In addition to verbs denoting actions, Apma has a large number of stative verbs that describe an item. For example, there is a verb "to be red" (meme) and a verb "to be good" (gabis). Apma uses stative verbs in many of the situations where adjectives would be used in English.

Unlike neighbouring Raga language, Apma has a copular verb, (v)i or bi. The phrase tei... meaning "it was..." (tevi... in Suru Kavian) is commonly used to focus attention on something or to set the scene.

Verbs in Apma can be linked together in a variety of serial verb constructions.

Sample phrases[edit]

English Apma
(Suru Mwerani dialect)
(Suru Rabwanga dialect)
(Suru Kavian dialect)
Where are you going? Ko ban ibeh? Ko ban imbeh? Ko ban al beh?
I'm going to... Na ban... Na mban... Na mban...
Where have you come from? Ko tepma ibeh? Ko tepma imbeh? Kot vama al beh?
I've come from... Na tepma... Na tepma... Nat vama...
Where is it? Mwidi ibeh? Mwindi ibeh? Si al beh?
It's here Mwidi dokah Mwindi dokah Si inda
What's your name? Ham ah itan? Ham ah idan? Am ah idan?
My name is... Hak ah... Hangga ah... Angga ah...
Where are you from? Kik atsi at ibeh? ngGi atsi at ibeh? ngGu asi at beh?
I am from... Nana atsi at... Nana atsi at... Ina asi at...
How much? / How many? Kavih? Kavih? Kaivih?
one bwaleh bwaleh bwaleh
two karu karu kairi
three katsil katsil kaitil
four kavet kavet kaivas
five kalim kalim kailim
Thank you Ko biah Ko bivah Ko mudak
It's just fine Te gabis nge Te kabis nge Te kabis nga


Notes on the grammar and vocabulary of Apma language were first made by Catholic missionaries at Melsisii in the early 20th century.

Cindy Schneider of the University of New England completed a grammar and short dictionary of the Suru Mwerani dialect of Apma language in the late 2000s. Building on Schneider's work, Pascal Temwakon and Andrew Gray produced Bongmehee, an illustrated dictionary of the language.

The other two dialects of Apma remain poorly documented.

Notable Apma words[edit]

Boroguu, the name of a popular kava variety, comes from Apma language.


  1. ^ Apma at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Apma". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ The details in the phonology section below are based on Gray (2013), who does not treat p as a straightforward allophone of b.
  • Crowley, Terry. 2000. The language situation in Vanuatu. Current Issues in Language Planning. Vol 1, No 1.
  • Gray, Andrew. 2013. The Languages of Pentecost Island. British Friends of Vanuatu Society.
  • Lynch, John and Crowley, Terry. 2001. Languages of Vanuatu: A New Survey and Bibliography. Pacific Linguistics. Canberra: Australian National University.
  • Schneider, Cynthia. 2010. A grammar of Abma: a language of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu. Pacific Linguistics. Canberra: Australian National University.
  • Temwakon, Pascal and Gray, Andrew. 2008. Bongmehee. Copy in Vanuatu National Library.
  • Tryon, Darrell (1976). New Hebrides Languages: An Internal Classification. Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. 

External links[edit]