In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Papuan Languages

  • Introduction
  • Surveys
  • Bibliographies
  • Text Collections
  • Sociolinguistic Studies
  • Anthropological Linguistics
  • Typological Studies
  • Language Contact Studies
  • Multidisciplinary Studies

Linguistics Papuan Languages
Harald Hammarström
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0165


The term “Papuan languages” is used to denote the indigenous languages of the New Guinea region that do not belong to the Austronesian family of languages. While the Austronesian languages can all be shown to stem from a common ancestral proto-language, “Papuan languages” is a convenient cover term for languages of this region that do not form one language family, and may, in fact, represent as many as a hundred independent families. The Papuan languages in this sense are found between the Halmahera Island in the north and the Torres Strait in the south and between the lesser Sunda Islands in the west and the Solomon Islands in the east. There are upwards of 850 Papuan languages by the language/dialect divisions of the Ethnologue, according to the website Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Lewis, et al. 2013, cited under Surveys). Apart from revisions due to a better understanding of language/dialect divisions, languages completely unknown to the scientific literature continue to be discovered. Often these are languages spoken by a previously unrecognized minority group bilingual in the dominant language of the area, but there are also pockets of remote inhabited areas in Indonesian Papua, which have never been surveyed. The first list of words of a non-Austronesian language from the New Guinea mainland was published as early as 1830, but it would be almost a century before the first in-depth studies of Papuan languages started to appear. Today, the languages of the Papuan region are the least documented languages of the world in both absolute (most languages lack anything beyond wordlists) and relative terms (the five other comparable regions in the world have a greater average documentation level for their respective languages).


Regarding the language inventory, the relevant sections of Lewis, et al. 2013 provide the most accurate and up-to-date listing of Papuan languages, locations, and speaker numbers and generally provide more information than other recent comparable efforts (Tryon 2006). Individual references are not systematically indicated in either, but large portions derive directly from earlier inventory compilations that do (Silzer and Heikkinen-Clouse 1991, Wurm 1975), which can be used for references and additional information. Alternatively, the works listed in the Bibliographies section can be consulted. For surveys of the characteristics of individual languages and families, the Wurm 1975 collection is a true landmark publication, concisely encompassing more or less all that was known of Papuan languages at the time. Also essential are the later surveys of Papuan languages in Foley 1986 and Foley 2000, which contain more elaboration on certain historical, sociolinguistic, and typological points of interest, in addition to a brief overview. Older surveys such as Capell 1962 suffer from the dearth of documentation at the time they were written.

  • Capell, Arthur. 1962. Linguistic survey of the south-western Pacific. Rev. ed. South Pacific Commission Technical Paper 136. Noumea, Papua New Guinea: South Pacific Commission.

    Listing and snippets of information on all Papuan languages as they were (poorly) known at the time.

  • Foley, William A. 1986. The Papuan languages of New Guinea. Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Small surveys of many Papuan microgroups and chapters on specific topics of special interest.

  • Foley, William A. 2000. The languages of New Guinea. Annual Review of Anthropology 29.1: 357–404.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.29.1.357

    Survey of the linguistic characteristics of the languages of New Guinea.

  • Lewis, Paul M., Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig. 2013. Ethnologue: Languages of the world. 17th ed. Dallas, TX: SIL International.

    The latest edition of the language catalogue of the languages of the world. Has location, speaker numbers, etc., for all living Papuan languages.

  • Silzer, Peter J., and Heljä Heikkinen-Clouse. 1991. Index of Irian Jaya languages. 2d ed. Jayapura, Indonesia: Program Kerjasama Universitas Cenderawasih and SIL.

    Special issue of Irian: Bulletin of Irian Jaya. A listing of the languages of Indonesian Papua with location, speaker numbers, etc., as it was known in 1991. Has systematic bibliographical references.

  • Tryon, Darrell. 2006. Australasia and the Pacific. In Atlas of the world’s languages. Edited by Christopher Moseley and R. E. Asher, 97–126. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge.

    Includes a listing of Papuan languages with a concise discussion of their genealogical relations.

  • Wurm, Stephen A., ed. 1975. New Guinea area languages and language study. Vol 1, Papuan languages and the New Guinea linguistic scene. Pacific Linguistics: Series C 38. Canberra: Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University.

    A collection of chapters written by experts on families/regions surveying the linguistic characteristics and genealogical affiliation of all Papuan languages known at the time.

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