The Watam Language


Watam is one of the five member languages of the Lower Ramu family, its closest relative being Kaian. The languages of the Lower Ramu family are quite closely related, divergence among them being on the order of the Western Romance languages or the Polynesian languages. The Lower Ramu family in turn is very distantly related to the Lower Sepik family, which includes Yimas; this relationship, however, is not at all obvious and is evidenced mainly by some cognate pronoun forms and some bound suffixes of nominal morphology, most specifically a number of bound nominal number suffixes.

Unlike the morphologically highly complex languages of the Lower Sepik family, Watam and other languages of the Lower Ramu family are morphologically rather simple: indeed the Awar-Bosman subgroup of the family is almost isolating. Watam is predominantly suffixing, but does allow one prefix position on its verbs. Word order is mainly verb final, but oblique constituents may follow the verb. Core constituents always precede the verb, but either SOV or OSV order is acceptable, with no strong marked pragmatic difference.

(Note: in the following Watam examples "N" = velar nasal; "ny" = palatal nasal.)

Watam Phonology

Watam landscape

Landscape of the area in PNG, where Watam is spoken.

The phonological inventory of Watam is somewhat larger than most Papuan languages, consisting of 19 consonants and 5 vowels. Like many languages of the Sepik-Ramu basin, there are no fricative phonemes; [s] is just the allophonic realization of the palatal stop /c/. The language distinguishes four places of articulation: bilabial, dental, palatal and velar; this again is a typical Sepik-Ramu feature. There are four series of stops: an oral voiceless series, an oral voiced series, a nasal voiced series and a prenasalized voiced series. This four-way contrast in stops is unusual among Sepik-Ramu languages, for it is extremely rare to find a phonemic contrast between oral voiced stops and prenasalized voiced stops. Usually the voiced stop series is prenasalized in Papuan languages, or if it is not, a prenasalized series is lacking. But this contrast is found in all Lower Ramu languages and in all possible positions of the word, as these Watam examples illustrate:


'fish (sp)'


'type of clam (sp)'


'type of snail (sp)'


'chew betelnut'





The other three consonants found in Watam are sonorants, the 2 glides /y/ and /w/ and a tap /r/. The vowel system of Watam (and its close relative Kaian) is unusual among Sepik-Ramu languages in lacking non-low central vowels, specifically the high or mid central vowel so pervasive in the region and preserved in the other Lower Ramu languages. Watam and Kaian have lost these vowels by merging them with the corresponding front or back vowels /i/ or /u/, resulting in a canonical five vowel system: /i e a o u/.

Watam Word Classes

Watam has two major word classes: noun and verb, each distinguished by their paradigms of inflection. In addition to these, there are 7 minor categories: adjective, quantifier, locational, temporal, pronoun, deictic, and interjection. There is a smallish set of true adjectives, which are distinguished by the fact that they agree in number with the nouns they modify, a feature true verbs lack. Quantifiers are distinguished from adjectives in that they lack number agreement with the nouns they modify. Locationals and temporals are two adverbial-like parts of speech expressing the spatial and temporal orientation of events and participants. Some of these share features of both the nouns and verbs, such as their ability to pluralize or be inflected for tense-aspect.

The number distinctions of Watam pronouns, like those of Yimas, is richer than many Papuan languages: in addition to the usual three persons, four numbers are distinguished: singular, dual, paucal (a few) and plural (more than a few). Deictics, on the other hand, are greatly unelaborated. There is only one true deictic form, the PROXimal deictic an 'this': markum an 'this pig'. There is no true distal deictic form, i.e. 'that'. The third person singular pronoun ma 'he/she/it' can be used as an anaphoric deictic much like English 'that': ma markum 3SG pig 'that's a pig', but never in combination with a noun in a noun phrase: *markum ma 'that pig'. Finally, like many Papuan languages Watam lacks true conjunctions, their function being filled by suffixes to dependent verb forms.

Watam Nouns

Watam baskets

Traditional Watam woven baskets.

Nouns in Watam are characterized by a single inflectional possibility, suffixation to mark number. Dual is very simply marked by suffixing -ni to the singular form, but marking for plural is extremely complex. While there is an unmarked plural suffix -ar, many nouns, especially those of basic vocabulary or denoting culturally important objects, are highly irregular in their plural formation, and not a few are completely suppletive: ondaN 'arrow' ujik 'arrows'. This highly irregular plural formation is the vestige of the earlier noun classes system of Proto-Lower Sepik-Ramu, still preserved in Lower Sepik languages like Yimas. As the noun class distinctions got lost, all that remained were the variations for plural marking in the nouns, resulting in the highly complex opaque situation we see in Watam today, a complication, incidentally, which has been resolved in Awar of the Awar-Bosman subgroup, which has regularized plural marking to suffixation with -ri for all nouns.

Nouns in Watam lack inflection for case; rather there is a set of postpositions which indicate the role of the noun phrase. The basic contrast is between mo DATive (which marks the recipient of ditransitive verbs and the animate object of a transitive verb, a system much like that of Spanish a or Hindi/Urdu ko; such systems are common among Sepik-Ramu languages) and mbo OBLique. The subjects of both transitive and intransitive verbs are unmarked, so formally the system is of nominative-accusative type, not the ergative-absolutive type so common in Papuan languages generally. POSSession is marked by postpositive na (also the ABLative postposition); this form for possession is common throughout the Sepik-Ramu region, rather an area feature.

Watam Verbs

Verbs are the most morphologically complex word class in Watam, but even they are not highly so. Verbal morphology is weakly agglutinative with a single prefix position and two suffix positions. The three prefixes are Nga- FOCus (discussed below in the section on word order), ma- PROGressive and ba- NEGation. The first suffix position expresses tense, aspect and mood. There is a basic distinction between IRReals marked by -na and within the REALis category, a number of tense aspect distinctions: -ri PAST, -ta PRESent/HABitual, -r PERFective and -ra IMPERFective/INCEPitive, as well as other still more specific distinctions. The second suffix position contains markers for illocutionary force: -n DECLarative (optional), or -ki ~ -ka Question; the marker for imperatives or hortatives is f and they also require zero affixation for tense-aspect-mood.

Related Links

Ethnologue: Watam
The Ethnologue reference for Watam provides information on its lineage within the Sepik category.

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