Wahgi language

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Native to Papua New Guinea
Region Western Highlands Province
Native speakers
86,000 (1999)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
wgi – Mid-Wahgi
whg – North Wahgi
Glottolog nucl1620  (Nuclear Wahgi)[2]
nort2921  (North Wahgi)[3]

Wahgi is a Trans–New Guinea language of the Chimbu–Wahgi branch spoken by approximately 100,000 people in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Like other Chimbu languages, Wahgi has some unusual lateral consonants.



Wahgi consonants[4]
Bilabial (palatalized)
Alveolar Palatal Velar
Nasal m n̪~n̪ʲ n ŋ
Obstruent oral p s̪~ɕ̪ t k
prenasalised mb n̪d̪z̪~n̪d̪ʑ̪ nd ŋɡ
Lateral ɬ̪~ɬ̪ʲ ɺ
Semivowel w j

The dental consonants are "distributed", with closure along a considerable distance of the vocal tract. This presumably means that they are laminal, and that the alveolar consonants are apical. The dental consonants have palatalized allophones in free variation.

The description of the (palatalized) dentals suggest they may be alveolo-palatal or something similar. This is further suggested by transitional vowels triggered by /ɬ̪/, apparently even by its non-palatalized allophone: /oɬ̪/ [oɪ̯ɬ̪] 'moon', /ˈéɬ̪é/ [ˈéɬ̪ɪ̯è] [sic] 'here'.

The nasal element of the prenasalized consonants is syllabic when not preceded by a vowel, but takes a noncontrastive low tone and is never stressed: /ˈmbà/ [m̩̀ˈba] 'but', /ˈpɪ̀ɬ̪mbé/ [ˈpɪ̀ɬ̪m̩̄bé] 'we know'. Prenasalized consonants are perceived as single segments word-initially, but as nasal + stop word-medially.[6]

Nasals and semivowels have no notable allophony, apart from the optional palatalization of /n̪/. The other consonants vary markedly, with most variants being positional:

Consonantal allophones[4]
word-initial word-medial word-final word-initial,
/p/ p~b
p~b pʰ~ɸ pʰ~ɸ~pᵊ[8]
/mb/ ᵐp~ᵐb mp~mb mpʰ~mɸ mpʰ~mɸ~mpᵊ[8]
/s/ t̪~t̪s̪~s̪~t̪ɕ~ɕ
t̪s̪~s̪~t̪ɕ~ɕ [10]
/nz/ ⁿd̪~ⁿd̪z̪~ⁿd̪ʑ~ⁿt̪~ⁿt̪s̪~ⁿt̪ɕ n̪d̪~n̪d̪z̪~n̪d̪ʑ~n̪t̪~n̪t̪s̪~n̪t̪ɕ n̪t̪~n̪t̪s̪~n̪t̪ɕ~n̪s̪~n̪ɕ
/t/ t~d
ɾ~r t~d[11]
/nd/ ⁿt~ⁿd nt~nd ntʰ ntʰ~ntᵊ
/k/ k~ɡ
ŋ (?)[15]
/ng/ ᵑk~ᵑɡ
ŋk~ŋɡ (does not occur)
ɬ̪ (do not occur) ɬ̪ˢ̪[16]~ɬ̪~ɮ̪ ɬ̪ˢ̪~ɬ̪
/ɺ/ ɺ̥~̥~̥tʰ~̥tr̥~̥r̥~ɺ~d ɺ̥~̥~̥tʰ~̥tr̥~̥r̥
// ~k~ʟ̝~ɢ̆[17] ~k

The southern Kuma dialect has these three laterals, though the alveolar is rather uncommon. (The northern Danga dialect has two laterals, dental fricative and alveolar flap.) The dental and velar laterals assimilate to [ɬ] or [ɬ̪] before dental and alveolar consonants; the alveolar only to [ɬ] before alveolar consonants. In locational forms with a suffix beginning with /t/, the /t/ is elided following the lateral, so that on the surface Wahgi distinguishes dental vs alveolar lateral fricatives and alveolar lateral fricatives vs flaps.


Wahgi vowels[4]
Front Back
Close i u
Mid ɪ ɔ
Open e ä
/a/ appears as [ä] in all positions except before /k/ and /p/, where it is [ɐ]. In medial position it is in occasional free variation with [æ].
/ɔ/ appears as [ɔ] in all positions except before nasals, where it is [ɒ]. Word-finally it is in free variation with [o].
/u/ is reduced to labialization ([ʷ]) between /p t s k ng/ and stressed /i/ or /ɪ/.

All vowels neutralize to [ɪ̈] in final unstressed closed syllables (disregarding subsequent "clitics").

In rapid speech, unstressed /u, ɪ, e/ elide between stressed syllables. For example, in rapid speech /ˈpetepˈka/ is pronounced [ˈpeɾpˈka].

Tone and stress[edit]

Wahgi appears to have three word tones rather than phonemic tone on each syllable. At least one syllable will have a phonetic high tone, with the resulting patterns of high, rising and falling on words of one or two syllables, and peaking, rising and falling on words of three to five syllables. Stress also appears to be contrastive, but analysis is difficult.

On both monosyllabic and disyllabic words, the three tones are realized as high, rising and falling: [HH], [LH] and [HL]. An analysis of two phonemic syllable tones, HIGH and LOW, is complicated by the appearance of all three word tones on monosyllables with final occlusive codas (and phonetically short vowels).[18]

In polysyllabic words,

  • HIGH (H) is phonetically high, optionally extra high on stressed syllables.
  • LOW (L) is phonetically falling on unstressed syllables at the end of a prosodic phrase. It is phonetically mid between a high tone and another low tone (i.e. the sequence /HLL/ is [HML] and /LLH/ is [LMH]). It is phonetically low elsewhere.

On trisyllables, the patterns LHL, HLL, and LLH are attested. On tetrasyllables are LLHL, LLLH, and LHHL (that is, LMHL, LLMH, LHHL). On pentasyllables, only two patterns have been found, LLHHH and LLHHL (that is, LMHHH and LMHHL).

Words with six to nine syllables are only attested with a single pattern, a peaking tone (LHL) on the first three syllables followed by a falling tone (LH) stretched out over the remaining syllables. For words of six syllables, this is realized as LHLHLL (phonetically LHLHML); for seven, LHLHLLL; for eight, LHLHHLLL; for nine LHLHHLLLL. In each case, the second syllable (the first high tone) is also stressed, and it is not clear if these are actually double-peaking tones or single peaking tones with preceding stress. Regardless, there does not appear to be any phonemic distinction.


The maximal syllable in Wahgi is CVCC; the minimal syllable is V, which may be any vowel but /ɪ/. Any consonant may occur in the onset except the three laterals. Any consonant may occur in the coda except the semivowels and /ng/. With a coda consonant cluster, the first consonant may only be /p, t, k, l̪, ʟ/ (the two common laterals) and the second may only be /m, s/.

A word may be anywhere from one to nine syllables long. A monosyllabic word may be any type of syllable but V and maybe CV. (Phonetic length and perhaps tone distribution suggests that words transcribed as CV monosyllables may actually be CVV with identical vowels.) Beside the syllable-onset and -coda restrictions, /i, ɪ/ may not occur word-initially and /ɪ/ may not occur word-finally.

Observed vowel clusters within words are /i.a, i.o, i.u; ɪ.i, ɪ.o; e.i, e.o, e.u; a.i, a.ɪ, a.e, a.a, a.u; o.i, o.o; u.i, u.ɪ, u.a, u.o, u.u/. In some cases (such as /ɪ.i/) these sequences reduce across morpheme boundaries, and stress seems to play a role in vowel reduction. It may be that some of the difficulties in analyzing stress may be a conflation of vowel sequences across syllables with sequences in single heavy (bimoraic CVV) syllables.

Observed consonant clusters within words are those allowed as syllable codas, /ps, pm, tm, ks, km, l̪s, l̪m, ʟm/, plus /p.p, p.t, p.nz; mb.p, mb.t, mb.m; t.p, t.mb, t.nd, t.n̪, t.n, t.ŋ; nd.p, nd.m; k.p; s.p, s.mb, s.nd, s.k, s.nz, s.m, s.n; nz.p, nz.m; m.p, m.nz, m.m, m.ŋ; n̪.p, n̪.m; n.p, n.m, n.ŋ; ŋ.p, ŋ.mb, ŋ.s, ŋ.nz, ŋ.m, ŋ.n; l̪.p, l̪.mb, l̪.t, l̪.k, l̪ [sic], l̪.w; l.mb, l.nd; ʟ.p, ʟ.mb, ʟ.t, ʟ.nz, ʟ.n, ʟ.ŋ, ʟ.w/.

In rapid speech, the following additional combinations are known: /ks.mp, ks.n, ks.m, ps.nd, lm.ŋ, tm.ŋ/.


  • Phillips, Donald (1976) Wahgi phonology and morphology. Pacific linguistics B, issue 36
  1. ^ Mid-Wahgi at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    North Wahgi at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Nuclear Wahgi". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "North Wahgi". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ a b c Phillips 1976
  5. ^ Presumed readings of palatalized allophones tš̪ š̪ ň̪ etc.
  6. ^ Phillips 1976: 54
  7. ^ a b c d Realized as labial before a vowel sequence /uˈi/ or /uˈɪ/ (with stress on the /i/ or /ɪ/): /puˈi/ = [ˈpʷi~ˈbʷi], /suˈi/ = [ˈs̪ʷi], etc.
  8. ^ a b [(m)pᵊ] an option before an obstruent
  9. ^ [t̪] only appears word-medially as the second member of a consonant cluster
  10. ^ Final [s̪] appears before a following [ɾ, r]
  11. ^ Following alveolars, velars, nasals (except /nz/) and laterals
  12. ^ Following vowels, bilabials and sibilants (including /nz/)
  13. ^ before [n]
  14. ^ /k/ is labialized not just before /ui/ and /uɪ/, but before /o/ when that /o/ is followed by /n/ or /n̪/ (unless the nasal is then followed by /e/), or by /nd/ or /nz/ regardless of the next vowel, as in /kon/ 'bag' and /konze/ 'ball' but not /kone/ 'place'.
  15. ^ The text says "/k/ occurs in free variation with /ŋ/ following word-initial vowel." It is unclear what this is supposed to mean. The illustrative examples show [k~ɡ] in /ˈpàkám/ [ˈpàkám, ˈpàɡám] 'forked branch' but only [ŋ] in /ˈmòkínè/ [ˈmòŋínè] 'food', neither of which match the wording for free variation with /ŋ/.
  16. ^ a "voiceless dental fricative lateral with voiceless grooved dental fricative release"
  17. ^ A velar lateral flap [ʟ̆] occurs in Kanite and Melpa, so perhaps the flap here is also lateral.
  18. ^ Monosyllables with falling tone are transcribed with low tone in Phillips 1976.