The Yimas Language


Yimas belongs to the grouping of languages spoken in the Pacific known as Papuan languages. With so many Papuan language families composed of so many distinct languages, it is very difficult to describe what a "typical" Papuan language is, as all generalizations will be contradicted by one language or indeed one language family (refer to Papua New Guinea page).

Nonetheless, I attempted just this in earlier work (W. A. Foley, 1986, The Papuan Languages of New Guinea, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) and I will summarize here how Yimas fits with the characterization of Papuan languages proposed. Yimas is one of six member languages of the Lower Sepik family. As with the other languages of the family, it is morphologically agglutinative, employing both prefixes and suffixes. Word order is highly variable and quite free, although some other languages in the family have a weak preference for Subject/Object/Verb.

Click to view a map of the Lower Sepik area in PNG that depicts the area within which Yimas is spoken.

Yimas Phonology

Sepik landscape

Landscape of the Sepik area in PNG, where Yimas is spoken.

The phonological inventory of Yimas is small, even by the standards of Papuan languages, having only 12 consonants and 4 vowels. The phonology exhibits many features typical of Sepik area languages. There are no fricative phonemes; [s] is just an allophonic realization of the voiceless palatal stop /c/. The language distinguishes four places of articulation: bilabial, dental, palatal, and velar, with a corresponding voiceless stop and nasal in each position. There is no voiced/voiceless distinction for stops, the voiced stops being allophonic realizations of the voiceless stops in certain positions, such as following nasals. Unusually for a Papuan language, Yimas has an r/l distinction, but the /l/ is always palatal(ized), i.e., [ly] or [], and the /r/ is always dental-alveolar, to a large extent varying freely between [l] and [\] as phonetic realizations.

The vocalic system is typically, one might say prototypically, Sepik. There is a dearth of vowel phonemes, both abstractly and as the segmental phonemes of particular words. Many words lack underlying vowel phonemes altogether, and the string of underlying consonants is broken up in phonetic realization by epenthetic vowels inserted by a phonological rule. The only clear unambiguous underlying vowel in the language is the low central vowel /a/. The three high vowels /i, i, u/ are often the result of vowel epenthesis, the /i/ almost invariably so. The semivowels /y/ and /w/, especially the latter, interact closely with the phonological rules involving vowels, such that their phonetic realization is often the result of these rules. Stress is predictable and generally occurs initially.

Yimas Word Classes

Sepik village mask

A traditional Sepik village mask.

Yimas has two major word classes, noun and verb. In addition to these, there are eight minor categories: adjective, quantifier, locational, temporal, pronoun, deictic, conjunction, and interjection. There are only three true adjectives in Yimas; other roots corresponding to adjectives in English belong to the major classes of verb and noun. Quantifiers must be treated as a separate word class from adjectives in Yimas due to their highly divergent morphology. Locationals and temporals are two adverb-like parts of speech, expressing the spatial and temporal orientations of events. They both share some of the features of nouns, such as the occasional ability to pluralize. The number distinctions of Yimas pronouns are much richer than in most other Papuan languages.

In addition to the usual three persons, Yimas pronouns distinguish four numbers: singular, dual, paucal (a few), and plural (more than a few). Deictics exhibit a three-way distinction: place near the speaker, place near the addressee, and place near neither of these. There are over sixty of these deictic forms; besides deictic distance, they distinguish noun class and number of the nominal designating the object whose position they describe. Like most Papuan languages, Yimas has a very restricted set of conjunctions (some languages in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea lack them entirely). There are no subordinating conjunctions and only two coordinating conjunctions, equivalent to 'and' and 'but'.

Yimas Nouns

Nouns in Yimas are characterized by being divided into ten major classes, plus a few idiosyncratic classes. The criteria for assignment to noun class are both semantic and phonological. Nouns are obligatorily inflected for three numbers (singular, dual, and plural), with the morphemes indicating number highly variable according to noun class. Suppletion of the noun stem in the plural form is common. The only other inflection available to nouns is case, and for this there is only a single oblique case inflection, which marks nouns functioning in an instrumental or locative role. Possession is marked by a particle postposed to the possessor.

Yimas Verbs

Sepik landscape

A Sepik family, speakers of the Yimas language.

Verbs are the most morphologically complex word class in Yimas, and they are highly so. Because of this complexity, Yimas can properly be characterized as an agglutinative polysynthetic language, equal in most respects to the much discussed polysynthetic languages of the Americas. The verb can occur with many prefixes and suffixes, with the former predominating. The suffixes largely express notions of tense, aspect, and mood.

The language is very rich in this area, marking, for example, eight distinct tenses. There are five potentially filled suffixal slots to the verb. The prefixes are more numerous, with eight potentially filled positions. The prefixes express notions like modality; agreement for noun class, person and number of core nominals like subject, direct object, and indirect object (this information can also be expressed by suffixes in some environments); adverbial notions like place, direction, duration and manner; and finally, valence alternations to the verb like reciprocal formation, causativization and applicative verb formation. Another common feature of verbs is verb compounding, or serialization. This is done at the word level, as shown by the fact that the whole set of verbal prefixes and suffixes flank these compounded verbal forms.

Yimas Pronouns

Pronouns in Yimas are not inflected. True pronouns only exist for first- and second-persons; the so-called third-person independent pronouns are actually deictics, and distinguish noun class and number. Pronouns are actually rather infrequently used in Yimas, for the simple reason that the verb has pronominal affixes for the subject, direct object, and indirect object of the clauses. These affixes exhibit a very complex person-based split for their case-marking schema. First- and second-person forms follow an underlying nominative/accusative pattern, and third-person forms, something like an ergative/absolutive one.

Related Links

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

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