The Trans New Guinea Family

Andrew Pawley, Harald Hammarstrom

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    The island of New Guinea is a region of spectacular, deep linguistic diversity. It contains roughly 850 languages, which on present evidence fall into at least 18 language families that are not demonstrably related, along with several isolates. This immense diversity, far greater than that found in the much larger area of Europe, is no doubt mainly a consequence of the fact that New Guinea has been occupied for roughly 50,000 years by peoples organised into small kin-based social groups, lacking overarching political affiliations, and dispersed across a terrain largely dominated by rugged mountains and swampy lowlands, with quite frequent population movements. Among the non-Austronesian families of New Guinea one family stands out for its large membership and wide geographic spread: Trans New Guinea (TNG). With a probable membership of between 300 and 500 discrete languages, plus hundreds of highly divergent dialects, TNG is among the most numerous of the world’s language families. TNG languages are spoken from the Bomberai Peninsula at the western end of mainland New Guinea (132 degrees E) almost to the eastern tip of the island (150 degrees E). Most of the cordillera that runs for more than 2000 kilometers along the centre of New Guinea is occupied exclusively by TNG languages. They are also prominent in much of the lowlands to the south of the cordillera and in patches to the north, especially from central Madang Province eastwards. There are possible outliers spoken on Timor, Alor and Pantar. The breakup of the common ancestor of the core members of TNG (see sections 2.2, 2.3, 2.8) was recent enough for their common origins to be still detectable, yet early enough for the language family to be lexically much more diverse than either the well-established Indo-European or Austronesian families and to severely limit what can be done by way of reconstructing Proto Trans New Guinea (pTNG) lexicon. A case can be made for associating the initial dispersal of TNG languages with the spread of agriculture through the major valleys of the highlands perhaps between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago (see section 2.8). Section 2.2 of this chapter gives a brief history of the TNG hypothesis. Section 3 treats the subgrouping and membership of the family. Sections 2.4–2.6 sketch structural similarities and differences exhibited by TNG languages in phonology, morphology-syntax and lexical semantics, respectively. Section 2.7 summarises progress to date in reconstructing the phonology and morphosyntax of early TNG and later interstages. The final section asks questions about the circumstances that led to the present distribution of TNG languages. For example, what circumstances enabled TNG languages to spread over the large area of New Guinea they now occupy while preventing them from spreading into other areas? Where was the primary dispersal centre and what was the chronology of the dispersal? In order to tackle such questions it is necessary to compare linguistic evidence with that of other historical disciplines, such as archaeology, palaeobotany, geomorphology, climatology, and biological anthropology. The best print-published bibliography of Papuan linguistics is Carrington (1996), which gives a near exhaustive treatment of published and unpublished materials up to 1995. A large and up-to-date on-line bibliography is the appendix to Hammarström and Nordhoff (2012). Foley (1986) gives the clearest account of the structural features of Papuan languages in general, updated in Foley (2000). Quite detailed historical reviews of research on Papuan languages up to the early 1970s are provided by Laycock (1975) for Papua New Guinea, and Voorhoeve (1975) for Irian Jaya (today’s Indonesian provinces of Papua and Papua Barat) Wurm (1982) reviews research on the major groups of Trans New Guinea and other Papuan languages up to the late 1970s. The atlas of Wurm and Hattori (1981–83) maps the distribution of these languages. More recent commentaries on historical research on TNG can be found in Pawley et al. (2005) and Hammarström and van den Heuvel (2012).
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Languages and Linguistics of the New Guinea Area: A Comprehensive Guide
    Editors Bill Palmer
    Place of PublicationBerlin, Germany
    PublisherDe Gruyter Mouton
    ISBN (Print)9783110286427
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


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