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Describing Papapana, an endangered language of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea


Research focus:

This collection of research analyses and describes the grammatical structures and sound system of Papapana, a highly endangered Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea. Previously, we knew very little about this language and the only record was a short wordlist; therefore this research is highly significant for the field of linguistics, as it contributes to our knowledge of the world’s 7000 languages, 50% of which are predicted to disappear before 2100.

As much as possible, I compare my analysis with what we know about other languages of the world, to establish how similar or different Papapana is, and what this tells us about culture and the human capacity for language.


I collected linguistic data while living in the Papapana community for 12 months between 2011 and 2013, and further data during a 3-week visit in 2018. My corpus includes:

  • 51 hours audio-recorded lexical and grammatical elicitation sessions
  • 10.5 hours audio- and/or video-recorded monologues (e.g. traditional narratives, procedural descriptions)
  • 1.5 hours of video-recorded dialogues

All data, including annotations and metadata, have been archived with The Endangered Language Archive (ELAR) (Smith 2015).

Key findings:

Compared with other languages of the world, unusual features of Papapana include:

  • Multiple verbal reduplication expresses habitual aspect, i.e. parts of the verb are copied and repeated twice to indicate that the action is repeated habitually
  • The noun class system interacts with articles in a way that involves inverse number marking (e.g. the singular article for noun class I marks plural for noun class II – this would be like French using le ‘the’ for singular masculine nouns and le for plural feminine nouns)
  • The counting system is a combination of quinary and decimal, i.e. there are distinct numbers for 1-5 and 10 but all other numbers are based on these (e.g. ‘six’ is literally ‘five-one’).

To find out more:

Smith-Dennis, Ellen. (2020; aop). Don’t feel obligated, lest it be undesirable: the relationship between prohibitives and apprehensives in Papapana and beyond. Linguistic Typology.

Smith-Dennis, Ellen. (2020). A Grammar of Papapana: an Oceanic language of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.

Smith, Ellen (2016). Papapana re~redu~reduplicates: multiple reduplication in an endangered Northwest Solomonic language. Oceanic Linguistics, 55(2): 522-560.

Smith, E. (2015). Documenting Papapana, a highly endangered Northwest Solomonic language of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. SOAS.