Telefol language

Native to Papua New Guinea
Region Sandaun Province, Telefomin District.
Ethnicity Telefol people
Native speakers
5,400 (1994)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tlf
Glottolog tele1256[2]

Telefol is a language spoken by the Telefol people in Papua New Guinea, notable for possessing a base-27 numeral system.


The Iligimin people also spoke Telefol, but they were defeated by the Telefol proper.[3]


Telefol alphabet[4]
Phonemic ɑ ɑɑ e ee i ii o oo u uu b ɸ k l m ŋ w j
Lowercase a aa e e i ii o o u ui b, p d, g f k, g kw l m n ng s t w y
Uppercase A Aa E I Ii O U Uu B D F K Kw M N S T W Y

Single e and o represent both their single and long vowels, since they rarely contrast.

/b/ is written p pre-consonantally and word-finally.

Single /k/ is written g intervocalically, and /kk/ is written k intervocalically.

/kd/ and /ŋd/ are written kg and ngg (since they're pronounced [ɡ] and [ŋɡ] respectively).

Initial /ɡ/ (in loan words) is also written with g, e.g. Got 'God'.



Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar (Glottal)
Plosive (p) b t̪ d̪ k kʷ (ɡ) (ʔ)
Nasal m ŋ
Fricative f (h)
Approximant w j
Lateral l

/ʔ/ and /h/ only appear in a few particles and some exclamations. /p/ and /ɡ/ only appear in a few loans.

Phoneme(s) Condition Allophone
/b/ intervocalic [b~β]
syllable-final [pʰ]
/k/ intervocalic [ɣ]
/l/ intervocalic [ɾ]
/kd/ (everywhere) [ɡ]
/ŋd/ (everywhere) [ŋɡ]


Front Central Back
Close i iː u uː
Mid e eː o oː
Open ɑ ɑː

There are two contrastive phonemic tones in Telefol, high and low. For example, ùlín 'club' vs. úlìn 'planted'.

/e/ and /eː/, /o/ and /oː/, are nearly in complementary distribution. Also, single /e/ and /o/ don't occur in one-syllable words or in terminal syllables.

Vowel length only contrasts in initial syllables. However, in initial syllables single /u/ and /o/, and /i/ and /e/, don't contrast.


Syllable structure is (C)V(ː)(C).

/l/ does not occur word-initially.

/ŋ/ is allowed in medial, but not word-initial, onsets.[6]


Telefol is a subject–object–verb language.

Verbal aspect

Telefol has a rich aspectual system.[7] Telefol verbs have "punctiliar" (momentary/completed) and "continuative" stems.[8]

Counting system

Telefol uses a base-27 counting system. This is mapped onto the body by counting each of the following: the left pinky to the left thumb (1-5); the wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm, and shoulder (6-10); the side of the neck, ear, and left eye (11-13); the nose (14); and similarly on the right side in reverse order, from the right eye to the right pinky (15-27).[9]


Telefol has dyadic kinship terms (terms referring to the relationship two or more people have to each other), which are present in less than 10 languages and not prevalent in Papua New Guinea. However, they are a salient feature of the Ok languages. Related terms are found in Oksapmin, Mian, and Tifal.[10]

See also


  1. Telefol at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Telefol". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Golub, Alex (2007). "Ironies of Organization: Landowners, Land Registration, and Papua New Guinea's Mining and Petroleum Industry". Human Organization.
  4. 1 2 Telefol Organised Phonology Data, p. 1.
  5. Telefol Organized Phonology Data, p. 3.
  6. "Phonotactic restrictions across prosodic domains" (PDF)., p. 2.
  7. "Aspectual stem distinctions in the Mian verb" (PDF)., p. 1.
  8. Foley 1986, p. 146.
  9. Telefol counting
  10. The Oksapmin Kinship System, retrieved May 21, 2009.


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