Nafsan language

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South Efate
Fate, Erakor
Native toNortheast Vanuatu
RegionEfate Island
Native speakers
6,000 (2001)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3erk

The Nafsan language, also known as South Efate, is a Southern Oceanic language spoken on the island of Efate in central Vanuatu. As of 2005, there are approximately 6,000 speakers who live in coastal villages from Pango to Eton. The language's grammar has been studied by Nick Thieberger, who is working on a book of stories and a dictionary of the language.[3]

Nafsan is closely related to Nguna and to Lelepa. Based on shared features with southern Vanuatu languages (including echo–subject marking, and the free and preposed 1st-singular-possessive morphemes), Lynch (2001) suggests it could form part of a southern Vanuatu subgroup that includes New Caledonia.


Nafsan has a total of 20 phonemes consisting of 15 consonant and 5 vowel sounds.[GSE 1]

Consonants[GSE 2]

Labiovelar Labiodental Labial Palatal Alveolar Velar
Stop k͡͡p (p̃) p t k
Fricative f s
Nasal ŋ͡m (m̃) m n ŋ (g)
Lateral l
Trill r
Pre-nasalized trill ndr (nr)
Semivowel w j(y)

Vowels[GSE 2]

Front Central Back
High i u
Mid e o
Low a

As seen in the above chart, Nafsan's vowel phoneme inventory is that of a five-vowel system; this is one of the most commonly seen vowel inventories in any given language in the world and also especially evident in many Oceanic languages. There is a distinction between short and long vowels but it is currently in a process of change that makes its status unclear.[GSE 3]


The system of numerals in Nafsan is base-5 (quinary). Numbers two through five are distinct numerals that are then seen repeated in slight variation for the numbers seven to ten. The pattern of the numerals can be seen in the table below.[GSE 4]

Cardinal English
i-skei one
i-nru; nran; nru two
i-tol three
i-pat four
i-lim five
i-lates six
i-laru seven
i-latol eight
i-lfot nine
ralim iskei ten

Ralim iskei can be used as an example to see the method for displaying numbers ten and above in South Efate; the numeral for ten ralim is followed by its multiplier, which in this case is iskei for one. The term for and atmat is added after the multiplier with an additional numeral to form a number such as thirty seven: [GSE 4]

     ralim + itol + atmat + ilaru
     ten     +   three  +    and    +   seven


Adnominal possession[edit]

There are two ways of marking adnominal possession in Nafsan: through the use of a possessive pronoun (indirect possession), or directly on the noun (direct possession). Indirect possession is used for general possession, while direct possession is used for nouns that are closely associated items (e.g., body parts or products, kinship terms, etc.). [GSE 5]

Indirect/general possession[edit]

Indirect possession is morphosyntactically represented through the use of the possessive markers ni (of) or knen (of it), or of the presence of a possessive pronoun such as nakte (my/mine).[GSE 5]

When possession is marked by a possessive pronoun, the pronouns follow the possessed NP:

     Nasum̃tap   p̃ur   nigmam      nen   i=tarp̃ek.
     church     big   1p.exPOS    REL   3sg.RS=fall down
     It was our church that fell down.[GSE 6]

ni possession: the preposition ni only occurs when the possessum is a noun. The NP follows the form of ‘possessed ni possessor’.

     I=pi      nawesien  ni   Atua.
     3sgRS=be  work      of   God
     It is God’s work.[GSE 6]

knen possession: This form is used as an inanimate referent, and often indicates a previously mentioned participant in the discourse. It is positioned following the referent noun.

     Natrauswen   karu   i=pitlak     nalag   knen.
     story        next   3sgRS=have   song
     The next story, it has its song.[GSE 7]

Direct possession[edit]

Direct possession is used for inalienably possessed nouns. This is similar to other languages of Vanuatu that denote inalienable nouns as those that refer to relationships of part-whole association such as kinship terms, body parts or products, and associated parts (such as leaf/stem).[4] These nouns take directly suffixed possession markers, however they can also occur without possessive marking when the possessor is encoded by a noun. The directly possessed (DP) suffix only attaches to the class of directly possessed nouns. For sg and 3p forms, an unpredictable vowel (V) may be inserted to aid DP suffixation.[GSE 7]

     Go   ra=paos-ki-n        ki,     “Gag     tm-a-m          go     rait-o-m         wa?"
     and  3d.RS=ask-TR-3sgO   PREP    2sgPOS   father-V-2sgDP  and    mother-V-3sgDP   where
     And they asked, “Where are your father and mother?”[GSE 8]

If the directly possessed noun has no possessive suffix, the referent is presumed unknown or disembodied. Lack of possession also occurs when possession is encoded by the possessed noun preceding the possessor. As in the following example, the directly possessed noun rait (mother) is preceded by the noun tesa (child).

     Go    rait    tesa    ke=fo           tae    toleg      preg     tete   namrun   ses.
     and   mother  child   3sgIRR=PSP:IR   able   stand.up   make     some   thing    small
     And the child’s mother can stand up and do some small things.[GSE 9]

Pronoun and person marker[edit]

There are mainly two classes of pronoun in Nafsan. The free pronoun and the bound pronoun. (Thieberger, 2006, p. 103)

Free pronoun[edit]

The free pronouns incorporate three area, demonstrative pronouns, focal pronouns(function as both subject and object) and the oblique free pronoun(in either possessive or benefactive form).

Focal pronoun[edit]

The focal pronoun (Lynch, 2000), also known as an independent pronoun (Crowley, 1998), functions as both the subject and object in an argument. It allows the pronoun itself to be the NP on their own unlike the bound pronouns which have to be attached to a verb. Focal pronouns express singular and plural but do not distinguish dual number.

1a) subject role

     Me kineu  a=tap             nrogtesa-wes  mau.
     but 1sg     1sgRS=NEG  fell.bad-3sgO  NEG2
      But I don't/feel bad about it. (Thieberger, 2006, p.104)

1b) object role

   Ruk=fo             wat  kineu.
   3p.RS=PSP:IR hit   1sg
 They will hit me. (Thieberger, 2006, p.104)

The examples (1a)& (1b) show the 1st person singular pronoun kineu performed as the subject and object correspondingly. And the following is a list of the focal pronouns in Nafsan.

Focal Pronoun
1sg kineu/neu
2sg ag
3sg ga
1p. (in) akit
1p. (ex) komam
2p. akam
3p. gar

Table.1. Focal pronouns

Oblique free pronoun[edit]

Oblique free pronoun function in possessive also benefactive case. For the possessive pronoun, it follows the possessed NP, generally made up of the preposition -nig ‘from’/ ‘of’.

2) Possessive pronouns follow the possessed NP

Nasum̃tap p̃ur nigmam nen i=tarp̃ek.

church big 1p.ex POS REL 3sgRS=fall.down

It was our church that fell down. (Thieberger, 2006, p.128)

There are variation forms of the suffix -nig , when it combines with an unstressed syllable, the high vowel will become lower. E.g. (niger → neger)


In the benefactive, the argument shares the same possessive morphology, yet the possessive morpheme is used in the pre-verbal position to express the beneficiary. The following example shows how beneficiary expressed by a pre-verbal position.

3a) Mlapuas kin i=min nalkis nl sokfal.

   owl sp.     COMP 3sgRS=drink herbs of   owl sp.
  Mlapuas who drank sokfal 's herbs. (Thieberger, 2006, p.279)

3b) Ki=ni sokfal ut nai.

    3sglRR=of  owl sp.  pour water
  He poured water for sokfal. (Thieberger, 2006, p.279)

Bound Pronoun[edit]

Bound pronoun comprises subject proclitics, object suffix for direct object and direct possessive. For the subject proclitics, there is neither separate set of dual object, nor oblique form. The obligatory subject proclitic pronouns are being seen as the arguments of the verb. For the pronominal suffixes of bound pronouns, the plural form is used to express any number that is greater than one.

Bound subject pronouns[edit]

The proclitic subject pronoun cannot stand alone without attaching to the first element of the Verb compound. They are considered to be clitics since they can attach to any part of the Verb compound. Subject proclitics happened in three archetypes, realis, irrealis and perfect. The subject proclitic represents the subject argument since it is the only obligatory element in the sentence except for the verb.

Realis/irrealis pronominal[edit]

Proclitic subjects distinguish realis and irrealis situation. The realis is unmarked, and the irrealis being marked in the subject to show the action is yet to be realised, including most of the future events but not all, all the imperatives and hortatives. There is a strong preference for the subject of desideratives, achievement and predicates to be using irrealis form.

4)realis and irrealis paradigm

A=nrik-i-n ki na ''He a=muri-n

1sgRS=tell-TS-3sgO PREP COMP hey 1sgRS=want-TS-3sgO

na p̃a=mai ni Kaltog preg nalkis,

COMP 2sglRR=come BEN make medicine

i=wel ku=f tae preg-i-Ø."

3sgRS=thus 2sgRS=CND know make-TS-3sgO

I said to him, "Hey, I want you to bring some medicine for Kaltog, if you can do that." (Thieberger 2006 p. 110)

The examples(4) show all realis form of pronouns in all cases except the subject of the verb mai ‘to come’ which is appeared in a desiderative complement.

Perfect pronominal[edit]

When dealing with aspectual past (event that is over), regarding the speaking event and past time reference, the perfect form of proclitic is used. Generally, perfect procitics directly followed by the perfective particle pe, yet it is not a necessary criterion. Notably, perfect proclitics never occur in imperatives. Perfect proclitics can be found in narratives that deal with long events like World War 2.

5) narrative

I=piatlak tete nen kin ru=weswes skot-i-r. Go,

3sgRS=have some that REL 3p.RS=work with-TS-3p.O and

ru=lap te-p̃ur rui=pe mat. Rukoi=pe mat.

3p.RS=many DET-big 3p.PS=PF dead 3p.RS=PF dead

There are some who worked with them (the Americans). And very many died. They died. (Thieberger 2006 p. 110)

The example(5) shows the perfect proclitics being used to refer to those who are long dead in a narrative sentence.

Traditional stories in Nafsan often use perfect proclitic form as they are set in the past. The example(6) of an extract of a custom story telling also shows that perfective particle pe is not necessary to appear in perfect proclitic sentence.

6) Storytelling

Kaltog i=kel ntak Selwin tefla=n go rakai=ler mai pak esum̃

Kaltag 3sgRS=hold back Selwin thus=DST and 3d.PS=return come to LOC-house

Kaltog rubbed Selwin's back like that and they returned to the house. (Thieberger 2006 p. 111)

Bound Object pronoun[edit]

There are two separate types of object suffix, can be distinguished by the roles they encoded and the host they attached to. One type is for direct objects, the direct object suffixes attached to the object of the predicator to encode it. The other type is for oblique objects, the oblique object suffixes encode typically the location and the case of semitransitive verbs. Based on the semantics of the semitransitive verbs in the oblique case, the oblique object suffixes apply to movement to, at, or from a location. There are list of distinctive bound suffix being used in two types of object in table.2.

Bound pronouns
Direct Object Oblique Object Direct Possessive
1sg -wou -wou -k
2sg (transitivisor) -k -wok -m
3sg (transitivisor) -ø/ -n -wes -n
1p. (in) -kit -kit -kit
1p. (ex) -mam/-mom/-m -mam -mam/-mom/-m
2p. -mus -mus -mus
3p. (transitivisor) -r -wer -r

Table.2. Bound pronouns

The direct object[edit]

Object suffixes encode the object of derived transitive verbs, ambitransitive verbs, ditransitive verbs and of the preposition -ki. To reference an object in Nafsan can be either by an object suffix or a lexical NP. Therefore, object suffix cannot appeared in the Verb Complex while there is a referential lexical NP for object indication.

7) transitive verb/ preposition -ki

Ke=fo pes-kerai-ki-k tete nrak, tete nrak,

3sgIRR=PSP:IR talk-strong-TR-2sgO some time some time,

masta nen kin i=wi, i=pes-kerkerai-ki ag m̃as.

boss that REL 3sgRS=good 3sgRS=talk-strong-TR 2sg only

He will speak harshly to you, sometimes, sometimes a good boss will just speak harshly to you. (as opposed to beating you) (Thieberger, 2006, p. 116)

This is an example(7) showing how object suffix used in transitive verb. The intransitive verb pes-kerai takes the transitivising suffix -ki to become transitive which allows it to take the object suffix -k in the first use. However, to emphasis the object, the last clause used the focal pronoun ag ‘you(singular)’ instead of the object suffix.

8) ambitransitive verb

I=f wel ku=f tae trok-wes go

3sgRS=CND thus 2sgRS=CND know agree-3sg0BL and

ka=fo plak-e-r ler.

1sgIRR=PSP:IR with-TS-3p.O return

If you agree with it, then I will go back with them. (Thieberger, 2006, p. 116)

In general, ambitransitive verbs requires a transitive suffix before the addition of the object suffix. The example(8) shows that transitive suffix -e is added before the object suffix -r occurred.

9)ditransitive verb

Or ka=fo mer nrik-i-r ki i=skei.

yes 1sgIRR=PSP:IR in.turn tell-TS-3p.O PREP 3sgRS=one

Yes, I will now tell them one (story). (Thieberger, 2006, p. 116)

The object suffix indicates the recipient when it is with a ditransitive verb. The example (9)shows when the suffix -r is used to encode the addresses.

Oblique object[edit]

The oblique suffix has a locational meaning. The oblique case can also be indicating temporal and spatial references. The example shows the suffix -wes encoded the day that the race was held.

10) oblique suffix

Naliati nen rak=fo res-wes me

day this 3d.IRR=PSP:IR race-3sg0BL but

katom i=pei usrek-ki ser nagis.

hermit.crab 3sgRS=first go.round-TR every point

That day they would race, but the hermit crab was first around every point. (Thieberger, 2006, p. 119)

Bound direct possessive pronouns[edit]

The direct possessive suffix can only be attached to direct possessed nouns and reflexive/reciprocal morpheme yet not being a clitic. The 3 person singular is the most common form of direct possessive pronoun being found, even though there is other direct possessive pronoun see table.2. The following example(11) shows the 3sg direct possessive suffix -r.

11) direct possessive suffix

Gar nen ru=lek-a-Ø ki namt-e-r.

3p. REL 3p.RS=see-TS-3sgO PREP eye-V-3p.DP

It was they who saw it with their own eyes. (Thieberger, 2006, p. 122)

Access to resources[edit]

Thieberger's field recordings have been archived with Paradisec:


  • General notes:
  1. ^ Nafsan at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "South Efate". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ South Efate — English dictionary
  4. ^ Payne, 1997
  1. ^ Thieberger (2006: 45).
  2. ^ a b Thieberger (2006: 46).
  3. ^ Thieberger (2006: 54).
  4. ^ a b Thieberger (2006: 77).
  5. ^ a b Thieberger (2006: 127).
  6. ^ a b Thieberger (2006: 128).
  7. ^ a b Thieberger (2006: 129).
  8. ^ Thieberger (2006: 130).
  9. ^ Thieberger (2006: 131).


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External links[edit]