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The Awyu-Ndumut Languages Website

The Awyu-Ndumut Languages

The languages of the Awyu-Ndumut family are spoken in the Digul River Basin of Papua, Indonesia, in central and south New Guinea, by approximately 35,000 Papuan speakers in a vast expanse of lowland covered with swamps and rainforests. In some parts of the northern half of this area, between the upper reaches of the Eilanden and Digul rivers, most of the speakers live in tree houses, up till 30 meters above the ground, on clan territories and they form an unique opportunity to study how language functions in clan based speech communities in conditions of extreme social and political fragmentation. Towards the coast, along the lower parts of the river, the communities have been integrated to some degree in the Dutch and later Indonesian nation-state.

Sasean Khenei met kind
Veldhuizen, 1987, asean Khenei with child

At present six languages are classified as Awyu-Ndumut languages on the basis of reconstructive work by Healy (1970) and Voorhoeve (2001, 2005). In their classification Mandobo, Digul Wambon and Yonggom Wambon form the Ndumut subfamily and Aghu, Syiaxa and Pisa form the Awyu subfamily. Voorhoeve (2005:149) also mentions Sawuy (Voorhoeve 1971) in the west and Korowai (De Vries 1997a) in the north as possible Awyu-Ndumut 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 an Awyu-Ndumut language, describing it as a language that seems to stand by itself.

The purpose of the Awyu-Ndumut research project is to present a detailed description of the Awyu-Ndumut family in its linguistic and cultural context that integrates findings on the recently discovered languages of the northern part with earlier work on Awyu-Ndumut languages.

Three researchers are working on the Awyu-Ndumut project, each in his or her own subproject. As a PhD student, Ruth Wester focuses on reconstructing central parts of the ancestral language, proto Awyu-Ndumut, while at the same time describing the fascinating and extreme linguistic diversity found within this family. Dr. Wilco van den Heuvel’s post-doc subproject is aimed at discovering how the Awyu-Ndumut family fits in the larger linguistic scene of New Guinea in terms of language relatedness. He is also concerned with finding the northern border of the Awyu-Ndumut family. Lastly, professor dr. de Vries will devote his time within the project to writing a comprehensive book on the Awyu-Ndumut family in its linguistic and cultural context, drawing on his own research as well as on the results of both the PhD and postdoc projects.

Korowai man
Veldhuizen, 1987, Korowai man

The Awyu-Ndumut project focuses on using bound morphology (i.e. endings on verbs and nouns with functions such as expressing tense, person-number agreement, negation etc) to trace language relations both within the Awyu-Ndumut family and between the Awyu-Ndumut languages and their neighboring languages. Traditionally, linguists have focused on using sound correspondences in shared vocabulary (for example German/Dutch koop/kauf, loop/lauf, schip/Schiff) to group languages into language families. When using vocabulary to trace genealogical relationships it is very important to distinguish between copied or borrowed words and genetically inherited words. Within the southern New Guinea context, one can never be sure whether a word is copied or not due to cultural practices of New Guinea clan societies. As bound morphology is more resistant to being copied, also in the New Guinea context, it is a more reliable tool than vocabulary items in tracing genealogical relationships and diachronic changes in language through time. Hence the focus on bound morphology in the Awyu-Ndumut project.

By combining language evidence with evidence from geology, cultural anthropology, archaeology and biology, scholars try to solve the puzzles of the complicated but fascinating (migration) history of New Guinea. The Awyu-Ndumut research project provides important pieces of the puzzle, in the form of the linguistic prehistory of the Awyu-Ndumut languages. This scholarly quest for Papuan Pasts is perceived as very important by Papuans who are not in the position to carry out this research themselves at this point in their history and who see that more and more languages become endangered in their homeland. At the same time the research offers insights in how language functions in very small band- and clan communities that form the highest political units. This is important because during most of the history of mankind languages were spoken in such contexts and we know very little of the linguistic consequences of such cultural and political contexts; the emergence of nation-states that integrated the clans in wider political units, is a very recent phenomenon (5500 BC).

We invite you to click and scroll through this Awyu-Ndumut website. We hope you will be as excited as we are in discovering a piece of the fascinating, wonderful world of south New Guinea languages and cultures.

The Language Documentation Group

All three Awyu-Ndumut researchers are members of the Language Documentation Group, a research cluster within the Department of Language and Communication, Faculty of Arts, VU University, Amsterdam.

The Language Documentation Group focuses on the description and documentation of Amazonion languages (prof. dr. Leo Wetzels) and Austronesian and Papuan languages (prof. dr. Lourens de Vries). These languages are increasingly endangered and their documentation has both scientific and societal importance. However, it would be a misunderstanding to separate the group’s research as “data-oriented” from theoretical and general linguistics. The research group both applies general linguistics to the study of Amazonian, Papuan and Austronesian languages and contributes to the debates in general linguistics.