What are ‘Papuan’ languages?

The last two sections refer to racism. Some of the linked literature contains or quotes racist language and ideas.

If you like my post, you may want to subscribe to my newsletter: https://mariazielenbach.substack.com/

Everyone interested in the languages of the world will soon come across the term ‘Papuan languages’. It often occurs in the context of other linguistic groupings, such as ‘Indo-European languages’ or ‘Austronesian languages.’ The seemingly simple word ‘Papuan’ is not straightforward at all and often causes confusion. Firstly, ‘Papua’ here refers to the island otherwise known as New Guinea. Secondly, not all ‘Papuan languages’ are spoken on Papua/New Guinea. And thirdly, the ‘Papuan languages’ do not form a language family but are a negatively defined group: it includes about 800 languages in a specific geographic region that are not Austronesian.

In this blog post, I will unpack the ‘Papuan’ in ‘Papuan languages’ and hopeful clarify all the misconceptions about this term.

The Papuan languages

Papuan languages = Non-Austronesian languages

I will start with the third point: “the ‘Papuan languages’ do not form a language family but are a negatively defined group: it includes about 800 languages in a specific geographic region that are not Austronesiann”. This is what usually causes the most confusion, even among linguists and people who are really enthusiastic about languages.

We are used to group languages according to their genetic affiliation, also called genealogical relatedness, into language families. Even people with no deep interest in linguistics may be aware that Italian and Spanish are ‘related’, and maybe they even know that they are both ‘Romance languages’. They may also know that English, German and Dutch are related and that they are ‘Germanic languages.’ And maybe some have even heard that the Romance and the Germanic languages are related as well and belong to a huge language family called ‘Indo-European’. Less commonly known is that language relatedness is a heavily theory loaded term. I have written a whole blog post about this topic but in short, related languages developed from one common ancestor languages and their relatedness is shown through different linguistic methods.

Establishing language relatedness is not always easy and linguists use other types of classifications as well. Geographic classifications are another common way to group languages in linguistics. We talk about European languages and include Indo-European as well as Finno-Ugric languages (Finnish, Hungarian, etc.) and Basque. ‘North American languages’ include a wide variety of language families and isolated families (languages without any known relatives). And even the 200 to 300 ‘Australien languages’ may not all be related. Languages that are geographically close to each other often share features which are assumed to have spread via language contact. Hence, geographic classification have a purpose beyond the mere localization of languages.

The term ‘Papuan languages’ is also a geographic classification, though the geographic boundaries are rather vague, as I will explain in the next section. Most importantly, it is NOT GENETIC. Not all languages spoken on Papua (New Guinea) are genetically related, or at least we cannot show that they are at the moment. A multitude of language families are spoken on the island and beyond.

The term also fulfills another purpose: it demarcates Austronesian from non-Austronesian = Papuan languages. The Austronesian languages are a large language family, spread all the way from Madagascar to Hawaii. As you can see in the map below, some Austronesian languages are spoken on New Guinea. Yet, they aren’t ‘Papuan languages’. When linguists started to classify the languages they encountered in Maritime Southeast Asia, they found that most languages spoken there were Austronesian. But especially on the island of New Guinea, non-Austronesian languages were spoken. These were summarized under the term ‘Papuan languages’. Therefore, ‘non-Austronesian languages’ and ‘Papuan languages’ are often used synonymously. Of course, strictly speaking, Indo-European languages and languages belonging to other language families are also ‘non-Austronesian’. But the meaning of the term was narrowed down so that nowadays, linguists usually use it for Papuan languages.

The Austronesian languages

Papuan languages beyond Papua

Not all Papuan languages are spoken on the island of New Guinea. This is because the few non-Austronesian languages spoken outside of Papua but roughly in the same region are. grouped under this term as well. For example, the North Halmahera languages about which I am writing my PhD thesis are spoken to the west of New Guinea in the North Moluccas. It has been proposed that some of these languages originated on Papua, later, according to these claims, the speakers left the island and settled in other parts of what is nowadays Indonesia.

Papuan languages are spoken in five states: Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, East Timor and Australia. The westernmost language used to be Tambora on the Indonesian island Sumbawa (directly to the east of Bali and Lombok). It became extinct during the 1815 eruption of the vulcano Mount Tambora (cf. Donohue 2007). The westernmost Papuan languages still spoken today are found on the islands of Alor and Pantar. The easternmost languages are found on the Solomon islands. Most Papuan languages are endangered today, many are spoken by less than 1000 people.

The first attested Papuan language is Ternate (North Halmahera). An anonymous manuscript probably written by Portuguese soldier and politician António Galvão (c. 1450-1557, governor of the fort of Ternate from 1536 to 1540) around 1544 records a few Ternate words (e.g. belo ‘pole in the sea to which a boat is fastened’, Jacobs 1971: 368). The oldest still preserved document in Ternate is a contract between Sultan Mandar Schah of Ternate and the Dutch from 1638.

Page from the oldest presevered document in Ternate

The Papuan languages have been classified into a multitude of different families, displayed in the map below. Please note that language classification in this region subject to ongoing debates. For example, the West Papuan phylum marked in yellow rests so little evidence that it should not be taken as a real language family for now.

Proposed ‘Papuan’ language families

Because the Papuan language are so many and so diverse, it is impossible to name any typological features that they all share. Often evoked are verb-final sentences and complex verbal morphology (cf. Foley 1986: 8ff. for more). The Papuan languages do not form one linguistic area, e.g. a geographical region where languages from different families come into contact and therefore share features. Instead, they belong to multiple contact zones and exhibit all kinds of linguistic features. They are as diverse as the people who speak these languages.

Where does the term ‘Papua’ come from?

Why are the ‘Papuan languages’ called ‘Papuan’ and not ‘New Guinean’ or whatever? Much about the origin of the term ‘Papuan’ is now obscure, but we know exactly who introduced it into linguistics: Britsh linguist Sidney H. Ray (1858-1939).

Sidney H. Ray standing on the right

In his paper The Languages of British New Guinea, published in 1895, he makes a distinction between ‘Melanesian’ (aka Austronesian) and ‘Papuan’ languages and links these languages to different races he has identified on the south coast of British New Guinea. He also states that the Austronesian languages came to the island later and that the Papuan languages are the original ones, a view still hold today.

“the designation of any language spoken in New Guinea as Melanesian will at once mark it as akin to the island tongues, and of intrusive origin, whilst the description of any language as Papuan will show that its nearest allies are among the languages characteristic of the true aborigines of New Guinea.”

Ray 1895: 16

Where did Ray get the term ‘Papuan’ from? The answer is: contemporary anthropology and ethnology. Especially Dutch ethnologist and anthropologists used the term to distinguish the inhabitants of their colony in west New Guinea from those of the rest of the Dutch East Indies (nowadays Indonesia). They viewed the former a culturally and ethnically so different from the latter that a specific term was needed in their eyes.

“The Dutch tended to use terms with negative connotations to distinguish the inhabitants of New Guinea from other people in the Netherlands East Indies; they did not use metal, they did not grow rice, they did not practise weaving, they were not Muslims.”

Ploeg 2002: 80

The etymology (the history) of the word ‘Papua’ is unclear (cf. Sollewijn Gelpke 1993 for different explanations). It was first adopted into Portuguese sources from an unknown origin. Galvão writes in his book 1563 book The discoveries of the world (published in English in 1601):

“The people of Maluco call them Papuas , because they be blacke and friseled in their hair and so also do the Portugals call them”

Galvano 1862: 177

This is also the first instance of the word recorded in English (cf. OED entry ‘Papua’). ‘Papua’ first denoted the western parts of New Guinea, more precisely the islands to the east of the north Moluccas. It then was extended to the people in the parts of New Guinea known to the Dutch (Ploeg 2022: 79). The English explorer Thomas Forrest provides an example of this usage of the term in his 1779 book A Voyage to New Guinea.

Even later (I am not sure when exactly), the label ‘Papuans’ was used for the inhabitants of the whole island and associated with a specific phenotype, namely dark skin and frizzy hair, and several racist connotations (cf. Ray 1895: 16). The term was applied to speakers of Austronesian as well as non-Austronesian languages, the difference had not been established yet.

In summary, ‘Papua’ started out as a term for a specific region that included parts of New Guinea, was then applied by the Dutch to the inhabitants of this region and then extended to other people living on the same island with similar phenotypic features. They belong to a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups. Ray, finally, used the term to distinguish between what he considered the original languages of New Guinea and their speakers, and the later arrived Austronesian languages. And the term stuck and is still used until today in linguistics.

‘Papuan’, a problematic term?

In the previous section, I have left out many allusions to racist ideologies by 18th and 19th century authors. I believe that quoting disgusting ideas of colonialists about other humans will not help anyone understanding the term. I think you can imagine what these authors thought about the inhabitants of New Guinea, and even today I still encounter people holding such views. If you are interested in the history of the term ‘Papuan’ in ethnology, I recommend reading the paper De Papoea by Ploeg (2002).

The connection between linguistics, anthropology and racism is more and more coming into focus. But I never learned about the origin of the term ‘Papua’ in university. So, the final question in this blog post is: should we abandon the term ‘Papua’ because its racist and colonial heritage weights to heavy? Should we just use ‘non-Austronesian languages (of the New Guinea area)’ instead?

One counterargument is that the people of New Guinea have reclaimed the term. The state on the eastern part of the island is called Papua New Guinea. People in the Indonesian part of New Guinea use ‘West Papua’ to refer to the region. The provinces there, formerly known as Irian Jaya, are now called ‘West Papua’, ‘Highland Papua’ etc. (cf. this article for the political implications of the name change). The people also call themselves Papuans. My personal opinion is therefore that we can go on using ‘Papuan languages’ but that we should be aware of the history of the term.


I recommend this video by NativLang:

Linguisticdiscovery is currently publishing a series on Papuan languages on his Instagram account.


Donohue, Mark. 2008). The Papuan Language of TamboraOceanic Linguistics 46 (2). 520–537.

Foley, William A. 1986. The Papuan languages of New Guinea (Cambridge language surveys). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Galvano, Antonio & Richard Hakluyt. 1862 The Discoveries of the World, from their first original unto the year of our lord 1555. London: The Huklyt Society.

Jacobs, Hubert Th. Th. M. 1971. A treatise on the Moluccas (c. 1544): probably the preliminary version of António Galváo ’s lost Historia das Molucas (Sources and Studies for the History of the Jesuits 3). Rome: Jesuit Historical Institute .

Ploeg, Anton. 2022. De Papoea. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 3(1). 75-101.

Ray, Sidney H. 1895. The Languages of British New Guinea. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 24. 15-39.

Sollewijn Gelpke, J. H. F. 1993. On the origin of the name Papua. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 149 (2). 318-332.

Attribution for maps

“The Papuan languages”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Area_of_Papuan_languages.svg

“The Austronesian languages”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Austroneske_jazyky.jpg

“Proposed ‘Papuan’ language families”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NewGuineaSelonUsher.png

Picture of Sidney H. Ray: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Torres_Straits_1898.jpg

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Maria Zielenbach (4. Februar 2024). What are ‘Papuan’ languages? Bäume, Wellen, Inseln - Trees, Waves and Islands. Abgerufen am 13. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/vr1h

Das könnte dich auch interessieren …

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search