Hiw language

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Native toVanuatu
Native speakers
280 (2012)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3hiw
Hiw is classified as Definitely Endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger

Hiw (sometimes spelled Hiu) is an Oceanic language spoken on the island of Hiw, in the Torres Islands of Vanuatu.[2] With about 280 speakers, Hiw is considered endangered.[3][4]

Hiw is distinct from Lo-Toga, the other language of the Torres group. All Hiw speakers are bilingual in Bislama, and most also speak Lo-Toga.[5]


The language is named after the island.



Hiw has 9 phonemic vowels. These are all short monophthongs /i ɪ e ʉ ɵ ə o ɔ a/:[6][7]

Hiw vowels
Front Central
Close i ⟨i⟩ ʉ ⟨u⟩
Near-close ɪ ⟨ē⟩
Close-mid e ⟨ë⟩ ɵ ⟨ö⟩ o ⟨ō⟩
Mid ə ⟨e⟩
Open-mid ɔ ⟨o⟩
Open a ⟨a⟩

The three central vowels /ʉ/, /ɵ/, /ə/ are all rounded.[8]

/i/ becomes a glide /j/ whenever it's followed by another vowel.[9]

The high back rounded vowel [u] occurs, but only as an allophone of /ʉ/ and /ə/ after labio-velar consonants. /ʉ/ always becomes [u] after a labio-velar, while /ə/ only becomes [u] in pre-tonic syllables, and then only optionally.[10]


Hiw has 14 consonants.[9][7]

Hiw consonants
Bilabial Alveolar Dorsal Labialized
Nasal m ⟨m⟩ n ⟨n⟩ ŋ ⟨n̄⟩ ŋʷ ⟨n̄w⟩
Plosive p ⟨p⟩ t ⟨t⟩ k ⟨k⟩ ⟨q⟩
Fricative β ⟨v⟩ s ⟨s⟩ ɣ ⟨g⟩
ɡ͡ʟ ⟨r̄⟩
Glide j ⟨y⟩ w ⟨w⟩

All plosives are voiceless.

Liquid consonants[edit]

The historical phoneme *l has shifted to /j/, which is unique within the Torres–Banks languages.

Hiw is the only Austronesian language whose consonant inventory includes a prestopped velar lateral approximant /ɡ͡ʟ/; this complex segment is Hiw's only native liquid.[11] Historically, this complex segment was a voiced alveolar trill /r/ (which is why it is written as ). The voiced alveolar trill, spelt as r, appears in recent loanwords. In some other, perhaps older, loanwords, alveolar trills have been borrowed as velar laterals.


Stress is predictable in Hiw, except in the case of words which only contain /ə/.

Generally, primary stress falls on the last syllable which does not contain /ə/. For example: [mɔˈwɪ] 'moon', [ˈwɔtəjə] 'maybe'. In the case of words whose only vowel is schwa, stress is unpredictable: thus [βəˈjə] 'pandanus leaf' is oxytone and [ˈtəpjə] 'dish' is paroxytone. These are the only polysyllabic words that may have a stressed schwa.

Polysyllabic words have secondary stress, which falls on every second syllable from the primary stressed syllable, going leftwards. For example: [ˌβəɣəˈβaɣə] 'speak'.[12]


The syllable structure of Hiw is CCVC, where the only obligatory element is V:[11] e.g. /tg​͡ʟɔɣ/ 'throw (PL)'; /βti/ 'star'; /kʷg​͡ʟɪ/ 'dolphin'; /g​͡ʟɵt/ 'tie'.

Hiw allows consonant gemination, word-medially and initially. These geminated consonants can be analyzed as C1C2 consonant clusters in which both consonants happen to be identical. An example of gemination is in /tin/ 'buy' vs /ttin/ 'hot'. Consonants and vowels may also be lengthened for expressive purposes, for example: /ne maβə/ ‘it’s heavy’ becomes [ne mːaβə] ‘it’s so heavy!’.[13]

Hiw's phonology follows the Sonority Sequencing Principle, with the following language-specific sonority hierarchy:

vowels > glides > liquids > nasals > obstruents[14]

In syllable onsets, C1 may not be more sonorous than C2. Fricatives and plosives are not distinguished with regard to sonority.

Even though /w/ is always pronounced as an approximant, it is best treated as an obstruent with regards to sonority: this interpretation accounts for words like /wte/ 'small', which would otherwise constitute a sonority reversal.[15]

Phonological evidence shows that /ɡ͡ʟ/ patterns as a liquid, more sonorous than nasals but less sonorous than the glide /j/. Unlike the obstruents, /ɡ͡ʟ/ cannot be followed by a nasal. However, it can come after a nasal, as in /mɡ͡ʟe/ ‘wrath’. The only consonant found after /ɡ͡ʟ/ is /j/ - e.g. /ɡ͡ʟje/ ‘sweep’.[11]


Hiw has a similar grammatical structure to the other living Torres–Banks languages.[16]

In terms of lexical flexibility, Hiw has been assessed to be “grammatically flexible”, but “lexically rigid”.[17] The vast majority of the language's lexemes belongs to just one word class (noun, adjective, verb, adverb…); yet each of those word classes is compatible with a large number of syntactic functions.

The language presents various forms of verb serialization.[18]

Its system of personal pronouns contrasts clusivity, and distinguishes three numbers (singular, dual, plural).[19]

Together with its neighbour Lo-Toga, Hiw has developed a rich system of verbal number, whereby certain verbs alternate their root depending on the number of their main participant.[20] Hiw has 33 such pairs of suppletive verbs, which is the highest number recorded so far among the world's languages.[20]

Spatial reference in Hiw is based on a system of geocentric (absolute) directionals. That space system is largely reminiscent of the one widespread among Oceanic languages, yet also shows some innovations that make it unique.[21]



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