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The Awyu-Ndumut Languages Website

The Awyu-Ndumut Languages

Digul Wambon
Yonggom - Wambon

The Awyu-Ndumut Languages

Geographical location

The Papuan languages of the Awyu-Ndumut family are spoken in the Digul River basin of central and south-west New Guinea, on the Indonesian half of the island, from the upper part of the 525 kilometer long Digul river to its estuary in the Arafura sea, but also between the Digul and the Mapi river, and from the border area near the Fly river east of the Digul all the way to the south-west of the Wildeman river. This vast expanse of lowland covered with swamps and rainforests is the home of around 35,000 speakers of Awyu-Ndumut languages.

The Ndumut subfamily is spoken along the upper stretches of the Digul river. The Murup tributary of the Digul separates Mandobo, on the southern end, from Yonggom Wambon, spoken in and around Tirop village. Digul Wambon is spoken on the northern end of the chain, on both sides of the Digul and east of the Tsaw river. The Awyu languages are spoken on the western side of the Digul, between the Digul and Mapi rivers. They extend further south than the Ndumut languages.

Languages Background

At present six languages are classified as Awyu-Numut languages on the basis of reconstructive work by Healy (1970) and Voorhoeve (2001, 2005). Mandobo (Drabbe 1959), Digul Wambon (de Vries 1992) and Yonggom Wambon (Drabbe 1959) form the Ndumut subfamily and Aghu (Drabbe 1957), Syiaxa (Drabbe 1950) and Pisa (Drabbe 1947, 1950) form the Awyu subfamily. Voorhoeve (2005:149) also mentions Sawuy (Voorhoeve 1971) in the west and Korowai (Van Enk and De Vries 1997) in the north as possible Awyu-Dumut languages but excludes them from his study because no comparative work has been done for these languages. In addition, Voorhoeve (2005:149) mentions Kombai (De Vries 1993) as a possible Awyu-Ndumut language. Until further research has been done in the Awyu-Ndumut project, we will treat Sawuy, Korowai and Kombai as ‘isolate’ languages.

The six, possibly more, Awyu-Ndumut languages are part of a larger language family, the trans New Guinea language family containing about 300 languages. There are around 1200 languages spoken in New Guinea, with an average of 3000 speakers. Such language diversity lends itself perfectly for multilingualism and language contact. Foley then also concludes that “in such a complex, fragmented linguistic situation, New Guinea languages, not unexpectedly, exhibit a pattern of enormous cross-influence in all areas. All types of linguistic features – basic vocabulary, pronouns, grammatical patterns, discourse styles – can and have been borrowed from one language into another” (Foley 2000:359). Because of this great amount of borrowing, and especially of lexical borrowing, there is consensus in the field of comparative New Guinea linguistics that cognate bound (morphological) forms within a construction or paradigm form the strongest type of evidence for genealogical relatedness. Shared bound morphology within two or more languages is an essential confirmation of their genealogical relationship. Therefore, the Awyu-Ndumut project focuses especially on (bound) morphology, rather than on lexical items.

Individual Languages

To the left, there are sections devoted to each Awyu-Ndumut language individually. Note that these are not complete language descriptions, but serve to give a first impression of the language. For each language, language specific characteristics are discussed as well as characteristics that the language has in common with other Awyu-Ndumut languages. Short transcribed texts are included for the Awyu-Ndumut languages where such texts are available in the sources.