Saliba language (Papua New Guinea)

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Native toPapua New Guinea
RegionMilne Bay Province
Native speakers
2,500 (2007)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3sbe

Saliba is an Oceanic language spoken on the islets off the southeastern tip of Papua New Guinea. There are approximately 2,500 speakers of Saliba. Significant documentation of the language was undertaken by the Saliba-Logea documentation project, and hundreds of audio-video resources can be found in the project archive.[2]


The most common occupation for the Saliba people is fishing.[2] The four major villages are Sidudu, Sawasawaga, Logeakai and Logeapwata.[3]


The Saliba language is currently endangered. Currently there are only elders that speak it and a few young children who have learned in the early years of their life. Most of the people speak English instead. This only further makes Saliba the minority language in the land.[2]


The consonants of Saliba are /b/, /bw/, /p/, /pw/, /d/, /t/, /g/, /k/, /gw/, /kw/, /m/, /n/, /(w)/, /(j)/, / ' / and /r/.[4] The vowels of Saliba are /i/, /e/, /a/, /u/ and /o/. The /w/ and /j/ are debatable if they are different phonemes because they are in complementary distribution with the sounds /u/ and /i/ respectively.[4]

Consonants Bilabial Labiolabial Alveolar Velar Labiovelar Glottal
Plosive p, b pʷ, bʷ t, d k, g kʷ, gʷ ʔ
Nasal m n
Fricative s h
Approximant l (j) (w)


Front Central Back
High i u
Mid e o
Low a

Listed above are the consonants for Saliba in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).[3]


In its orthography, Saliba uses Latin alphabets. The letters can also be upper case or lower case. All of Saliba's orthography is in the table below.[3]

Phoneme Orthography
i i
e e
a a
o o
u u
p p
pw pw
b b
bw bw
t t
d d
k k
kw kw
g g
gw gw
ʔ '
s s
h h
l l
w w
j y


The syllables in Saliba have three possible structures. They are V, CV, or CVN(CVN being a heavy syllable). All syllables in Saliba are enunciated the same. There is occasionally a slight stress on the syllable just before the last syllable. For example, in the word la.'pu.i, meaning hear, the syllable in the middle would be slightly stressed. In Saliba, all nouns, verbs, adjectives, and some adverbs are composed of at least two light syllables or one heavy syllable. On the other hand, words used mostly for grammatical functions, such as conjunctions, pronouns, particles, etc. can be made up of only a CV or just a V.[4]



All verbs in Saliba can be classified as either transitive or intransitive verbs on formal grounds. To convert from transitive to intransitive verbs the suffix -i or a suffix that looks like -(C)ei is used, C being any consonant depending on the verb. The suffix -i can also be used to turn some nouns into transitive verbs. For example, nigwa, 'knife', becomes nigwa-i, 'cut with a knife'. Another important formational affix for verbs is the causative prefix he-, e.g. kita, 'see' becomes he-kita, 'show', or, 'cause to see'. Something special about the verbs in Saliba is that the stems of two lexical verbs can combine to form one inflected verb. For example, in the verb phrase ye-kamposi-dobi, which means 'he jumped down', the verb kamposi-dobi is made up of kamposi (jump) and dobi (go down). These two stems combined and formed one complex verb.[5]

Tense and aspect[edit]

Tense is not marked in Saliba verb phrases, but aspect is.[4] When absolute time reference is needed, Saliba uses time words like lahi, 'yesterday', malaitom, 'tomorrow', or oblique phrases like malatomtom-yena, 'in the morning'.[4]


Saliba uses reduplication for a few things. One function of reduplication is to convert certain action verbs into noun. For example, the word kuya means 'to sweep'. If kuya is reduplicated to kuyakuya it becomes 'broom'. Another example could be lau meaning 'go'. If that word is reduplicated to laulau it now means 'method' or 'way'. Another reason a verb would be reduplicated is the verb is being used as an attributive verb. An example of this would be in the sentence kai namwa-namwa-di. That sentence means 'good food'. Notice the namwa, meaning 'good', is reduplicated since it is a verb that is being used like an adjective. The last reason a verb would get reduplicated is in the imperfective aspect of an action verb. The reduplication is used to mark this occurrence in the sentence. Imperfective aspect is used to show habitual or progressive events. For example, in the sentence ...nige koya-i se pai-paisoa which means '(they) did not work in the garden'. The pai ('work') is reduplicated to mark that this is probably a habitual behavior.[4]


As far as adjectives go, in Saliba there appears to be no difference between verbs and adjectives.[4] The only rule is, with the exception of some verbs, all verbs are duplicated when they are going to be used as adjectives.[4]


Nouns in Saliba have four kinds of affixes that can be attached to them. The first one is a suffix that's used for possession. The next one is the plural suffix which is (-o, -ao, -uwo, or -wao) on nouns that refer to humans. Another affix is the locative suffix ( -i ). The last affix is called a determiner.[4]

Noun phrases[edit]

Noun phrases are everything in a sentence that is not the verb. Noun phrases can be subjects, objects, predicates and parts of prepositional and post-positional phrases. In its simplest form, a noun phrase can be made out of just a noun and a determiner. For example, mwaedo, which in Saliba means an eel, is a simple noun phrase. A noun phrase is typically broken up into two parts, the nucleus and possibly multiple modifiers. Modifiers can include things like possessors and demonstratives (words that give location), which would go before the head noun. The other types of modifiers, such as verbal modifiers and quantifiers would go after the head noun.

One of the most important modifiers is the determiner. This modifier is usually attached to the last part of the noun phrase and gives a reference to the head noun in the noun phrase with regard to the rest of the sentence. However, noun phrases used as prepositional phrases do not have determiners.

Quantifiers such as cardinal numerals can go either before or after the adjective in a sentence. Ordinal numerals on the other hand, such as first, second, etc. behave like adjectives and go after the noun in Saliba.[4]


Person/Clusivity independent subject object possessive
First person, Singular yau ya -gau -gu
Second person, Singular kowa ko, ku, 'o, 'u -go -m
Third person, Singular iya ye/i -na
First person Inclusive kita ta -da -da
First person, Exclusive kai ka -gai -ma/mai
Second person, Plural komiu kwa -gomiu -mi
Third person, Plural sia se/si -di -di

The table holds all the different pronouns in Saliba. There are different rules for using each of them though. Starting with independent pronouns, when using these pronouns in a sentence they can and will most likely form noun phrases and will have a determiner. An example of a sentence using an independent pronoun could go as follows: Kai-wa ka matausi, which means 'We were scared'. In the next column are subject pronouns, these pronouns are used as the subject in a sentence hence their name. To be more precise one could say they are the subject of verbal clauses. As far as object pronouns go, according to linguists who studied Saliba these are only put on certain objects. One example using both types of pronouns could be Wawaya-o-wa kwa hanoi-di, which means 'Wake up the children'. Notice the kwa particle marking the subject and the -di particle marking possession. Another example could be Sina-gu yo tama-gu se hanoi-gai, meaning 'My mother and my father woke us up'. Again notice the two possessive pronouns -gu to mark 'my father and my mother' and also the se and -gai used to mark the subject and object respectively. On a bit of a side note, the subject pronouns ku and u are only used mostly for imperatives or events where the verb expressing it is not realized. For example, ku lau which means 'go!'. The last column, possessions, the rules for using the suffixes in a sentence are split up into alienable possessions and inalienable possessions. For alienable possessions, the possessive pronoun goes after one of the two possessive classifiers as shown in the table below.[4]

yo- English ka- English
yogu numa my house kagu puaka my pig
yom numa your house kam puaka your pig
yona numa his/her house kana puaka his/her pig
yoda numa our house (inclusive) kada puaka our pig (inclusive)
yoma numa our house (exclusive) kama puaka our pig (exclusive)
yomi numa your house kami puaka your pig
yodi numa their house kadi puaka their pig

For inalienable possessions the possessive classifiers yo- and ka- are not used. Instead, the possessive pronoun suffix goes after the possessed noun. If the inalienable noun is plural then the plural suffix will just go directly after the possessive suffix, as shown in the table below.[4]

Singular English Plural English
natu-ga my child natu-gu-wao my children
natu-m your child natu-m-wao your children
natu-na his/her child natu-na-o his/her children
natu-da-o our child (inclusive) natu-da-o our children (inclusive)
natu-mai our child (exclusive) natu-mai-ao our children (exclusive)
natu-mi your child natu-mi-ao your children
natu-di their child natu-di-ao their children


A demonstrative is a type of pronoun that points out a noun. In Saliba demonstratives, with the exception of meta, go before the head noun. Meta is the only one that goes after a head noun and its determiner. Saliba's demonstrative pronouns are as follows:[4]

Demonstrative English
teina this (very close to speaker)
tenem that (close to the person being spoken to)
temeta, meta that
wau this (as in 'this day')

Interrogative and indefinite pronouns[edit]

In Saliba most of the interrogative pronouns also function as indefinite pronouns. Interrogative pronouns are pronouns used when asking a question. Indefinite pronouns are pronouns used to mention any sort of general person, place, or thing. The interrogative/indefinite pronouns for Saliba are listed below.[4]

Interrogative English
haedi where, anywhere
hisa how many, some
kaiteya who, somebody, anybody
kaiuyana when
saha what, something, anything
sahasaha which one
idohagi how
ye saha to why

All of the pronouns in this list except the last two are nouns. The last two happen to be verbs. An example of using one of these in a sentence would be haedi kwa lau? meaning 'where did you go?'.[4]


As mentioned previously, Saliba has different rules for possessions depending on if they are alienable possessions or inalienable possessions. If a possession is inalienable then the possessed noun is just written with the correct possessive suffix directly following it. Such as sina-gu, meaning my mother. The -gu would be the possessive suffix. On the other hand, if it is an alienable possession then the possessive suffix directly follows one of the two possessive classifiers, yo- or ka-. Such as in yo-gu numa, 'my house', or ka-gu kai, 'my food'. In a sentence the person who possesses the possessed noun is treated as the subject and possessed noun is then the head of the predicate. They are written in such a way that there is nothing separating the subject from the head of the predicate. If someone wanted to negate the predicate, such as saying the do not have something, they would add the negation particle nige before the predicate phrase like so: Yau nige natu-gu, meaning 'I don't have a child'. In the following table are the things the people of Saliba find inalienable, alienable ka- constructions, and alienable yo- constructions.[4]

Inalienable Alienable (ka-) Alienable (yo-)
body parts food that is going to be eaten something that's owned
parts of a thing clothes agent of intransitive and transitive actions
spatial relation illnesses kinship
container and content involuntary events and those affected by them
quantity and quantified items kinship
transitive actions and their patients

One thing to note is that depending on the context, almost any noun can appear as alienable or inalienable. For example, one could say pou-na, meaning 'her egg' (hen's egg), ka-na pou, meaning 'his/her egg' (egg that he/she is going to eat), or yo-na pou, meaning 'his/her egg' (egg that he/she owns). Now to clarify some of the categories a little more. Body parts are refer to things like hands, feet, etc. Parts of inanimate objects, include things such as the root of a coconut or the core of an apple. Spatial relation refers to space, such as the inside of a house. Container and content can mean things like a cup of water or a bowl of food, things like that. Quantity and quantified items are not referring to objects, but are rather more figurative. It is talking about age and time.[4]

In terms of semantics, linguists can see three different types of relationships based on these constructions. Those relationships are relationships where the possessor and the possessee can part, relationships in which the possessor and the possessee cannot part but the possessor has complete control over the possessee, and a relationship in which the possessor and the possessee cannot part but the possessee has an effect on the possessor. An example of the last relationship would be a body part. Kinship is a bit strange because it appears in all three categories. Linguists do not know why this is. They can only assume that it is because of historical reasons. As far as kinship goes, some examples of inalienable kinships and alienable kinships are in the following table.[4]

Inalienable English Alienable English
sina-na, tama-na his/her mother, father ka-gu bogao my family
lou-gu my sibling (of opposite sex) ka-gu kaha my sibling (of same sex)
tubu-gu my grandparent, grandchild yo-gu saeya my sibling (of same sex)
iha-di their brother-in-law ka-gu tubu bagu-na my ancestors
ka-gu tubu mulita my descendants
yogu badalendia my uncle
yogu golowa my nephew/niece


Saliba English
kesega 1
labui 2
haeyona 3
hasi 4
haligigi 5
haligi kesega 6
haligi labui 7
haligi haeyona 8
haligi hasi 9
saudoudoi 10
saudoudoi kesega 11
tau kesega ye mwaloi 20
tamoai labui se mwaloi 40
bagubaguna first
he-labui second
he-haeyona third

Basic sentence structure[edit]

Saliba is a subject-object-verb (SOV) language. Saliba follows the nominative-accusative pattern in its sentences. The basic clause in Saliba is composed of a verb with its subject and object with its affixes. Any noun phrases preceding or succeeding this core can be thought of as just an expansion of this clause. A simple sentence could be Kai-wa ka matausi palapa, which means 'We were really frightened'. Saliba also has nonverbal clauses such as nominal clauses, existential clauses, possessive clauses and clauses with other special predicates.

An example of a nominal clause would be Kita taulauhekata, which means 'we are teachers'. The next nonverbal clause is the existential clause. These types of clauses will have the word temenai (there) or a post-positional phrase to refer to a location. An example of this would be in the sentence: Temenai sikuli labui which means 'There are two schools'. Another nonverbal clause would be the possessive clause, which is a noun phrase that refers to a possessor and a possessee.[4]


The following table lists all the conjunctions in Saliba and when they will be used.

Conjunctions English
yo and (when connecting nouns and noun phrases)
na and (when connecting clauses)
huyana when
matawuwuna because
usina while
ena if


In Saliba, determiners are always the last part of a noun phrase. Most nouns will have a determiner after them. If a noun phrase is a predicate, then it will not have a determiner.[4]


Saliba uses many different particles to mark certain things in sentences. These particles usually go before the verb phrase but there are a couple that can go after the verb phrase.


The particle Kabo is used to mark that something new is happening. This could mean a change in the situation, a change in the weather etc. An example sentence would be Ka keno-keno na kabo nabu ye talu. This sentence means 'When we were sleeping, it started to rain'. Notice kabo is used because something changed, in this case the weather. Another instance in which kabo can be used is to indicate an event that will happen in the future. For example, if someone said, "Saha kabo ta ginauli," (meaning 'What are we going to do?') kabo is used to imply a change to the current situation. In these examples so far kabo was used to mark a change but kabo can also be used for a comparison such as Maui saliya-na ye loha na kabo Tahali, which translates to 'Maui is taller than Tahali'. In all of these sentences the particle is actually placed in many different places in the sentence. For example, in the first sentence the particle was placed before the object, while in the second sentence it was placed before the subject. As it turns out the placement of this particle varies and there do not appear to be any specific rules as to where to exactly put kabo in a sentence. All that's known is that it can sometimes go at the very beginning of a sentence before everything else, just before the subject, or after the subject but before the predicate.[4]


This particle is used to mark something that should happen or something that someone should do. The closest English word to this particle would be the word 'must' however it is not as strong as 'must'. For example, in the sentence Bena teinamona ku lau maketi which means 'You must go to the market', the particle can be directly translated as 'must'. However in the following sentence: Ya henua bena pasta yo-na pwaole ya kaiwahali, meaning 'I want to steal the pastor's rooster', the use of bena here is not as strong as something that has to be done, and is closer to 'want' in this case.[4]


Tabu is a negation particle. This particle is used when the speaker wants to express something that should not happen or should not be done. For example, in the sentence Tabu ku mode the speaker is saying 'don't worry'. Another example that tabu is used in is the sentence tabu bena kaitea i kita-gau, which means 'Don't let anybody see me'. Take note that in the previous sentence since the subject is third person, the particle tabu must be used with the particle bena like shown.[4]


Taba is another negation particle. This particle is used to express something that a person does not want to do. Unlike Tabu though, Taba can only be used in conjunction with nige, meaning 'not'. An example sentence could be Taba nige ya hedede, which means 'I don't want to tell'.[4]


Besina is a particle that is used to express something that has to be done no matter what. This particle is definitely stronger than bena and is probably more closely related to the word 'must' in English. A way this particle could be used in a sentence is Ye wowolina besina se lau mo, which means 'It was stormy but nevertheless they had to go'.[4]


Linguists could not classify this particle. They best described it as an inalienably possessed noun. This particle is used for something that someone is able to do. A simple example would be Gonoa-na u kalina Saliba? meaning 'Can you speak Saliba?'.[4]


The particle Nuana is used when the speaker is presuming something to be true. For example, the sentence Lahi nuana sina-gu ye lau maketi, which means 'Perhaps my mother went to the market yesterday'. As seen in this sentence, nuana is used to express the fact that the speaker does not know for sure if his mother went to the market, it's just a guess, an assumption.[4]


These two particles, unlike the ones previously, go after the verb phrase instead of before the verb phrase. Both of these particles are used to express something that has already been done previously before the time at which the speaker is talking about it. The only difference between yako and ko is that yako is used for transitive verb phrases and ko is used for intransitive verb phrases. An example sentence using yako would be Hewali-wa meta hasala-wa i tawasolao yako, which means 'That young man had already married the girl'. An example sentence using ko would be Yo-gu numa ye kalasi ko, meaning 'My house burnt down'. As shown in both sentences since these particles go after the verb phrase they are the last things in the sentence.[4]


This particle like yako and ko goes after the verb phrase in the sentence. Clearly this particle is derived from the word kesega meaning 'one'. Kesegai is used to mark things that happen continuously and without interruption. For example, Nabu ye talu kesegai, which means 'It kept on raining'.[4]


  1. ^ Saliba at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ a b c Saliba-Logea. The Language Archive:
  3. ^ a b c Oetzel, Sabine; Oetzel, Rainer (May 24, 2004). "Organized Phonology Data of Saliba Language". SIL. SIL.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Mosel, Ulrike. Saliba. Lincom Europa.
  5. ^ Margetts, Anna (2005). "Positional Slots In Saliba Complex Verbs". Oceanic Linguistics. doi:10.1353/ol.2005.0023.