Yabem language

Native to Papua New Guinea
Region Huon Gulf, Morobe Province
Native speakers
(2,100 cited 1978)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 jae
Glottolog yabe1254[2]

Yabem or Jabêm is an Austronesian language and a division of the Melanesian languages[3] spoken natively (in 1978) by about 2,000 people at Finschhafen, which is on the southern tip of the Huon Peninsula in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea, despite historical evidence that shows the language originating in the northern coast.[4] However, Yabem was adopted as local lingua franca along with Kâte[5] for evangelical and educational purposes by the German Lutheran missionaries who first arrived at Simbang, a Yabem-speaking village, in 1885.[6] Because the missionaries arrived first in Yabem was the first language which the missionaries created a writing system for because that was the language they first encountered when they arrived. They even created a school system to provide education for the Yabem community.

By 1939, it was spoken by as many as 15,000 people, and understood by as many as 100,000 (Zahn 1940). In the decade after World War II, the mission's network of schools managed to educate 30,000 students using Yabem as the medium of instruction (Streicher 1982). Although the usage of Yabem as a local lingua franca was replaced by Tok Pisin, which was used in informal everyday life such as religious meetings and the workplace,[7] and English, which was used in more formal institutions such as education and government in the 1950s,[5] Yabem remains one of the best documented Austronesian languages, with extensive instructional and liturgical materials (including many original compositions, not just translations from German or English) as well as grammars and dictionaries. The government wanted an easier assimilation to Western culture and values and access to their superior educational resources, so English was the most efficient language of instruction.[8] Regardless, the transition from the usage of Kâte and Yabem, which are languages with local origins, to Tok Pisin and English, which are languages with foreign origins, affected the dynamic of the people and their view of language and the church in a somewhat negative light.

It also shares a close relationship with the Kela and Bukawa languages.[4] In fact, many people who speak Bukawa also speak Yabem.

Yabem's current language status is "Threatened."[9] Its alternative names include Laulabu, Jabem, Jabêm, Jabim, Yabim, and Yabêm.[10]


Vowels (orthographic)

Yabem distinguishes seven vowel qualities.

Front Central Back
High i u
Upper mid ê ô
Lower mid e o
Low a

Consonants (orthographic)

Glottal stop, written with a -c, is only distinctive at the end of syllables. The only other consonants that can occur syllable-finally are labials and nasals: p, b, m, ŋ. The liquid /l/ is realized as either a flap [ɾ] or a lateral [l]. Syllable-structure constraints are most easily explained if labialized and prenasalized consonants are considered unit phonemes rather than clusters. However, Otto Dempwolff, who greatly influenced the German missionary orthographies in New Guinea, apparently did not sanction labialized labials, preferring instead to signal rounding on labials by the presence of a round mid vowel (-o- or -ô-) between the labial consonant and the syllable nucleus, as in vs. ômôêŋ 'you'll come' vs. ômêŋ 'he'll come' or ômôa 'you'll dwell' vs. ômac 'you'll be sick' (Dempwolff 1939). (Compare the orthographies of Sio and Kâte.)

Bilabial Coronal Velar Glottal
Voiceless stop p / po-/pô- t k / kw -c
Voiced stop b / bo-/bô- d g / gw
Prenasalized mb / mbo-/mbô- nd ŋg / ŋgw
Nasal m / mo-/mô- n ŋ
Fricative s
Lateral l
Approximant w j


Yabem has a simple system of register tone that distinguishes high-tone syllables from low-tone ones. In the standard orthography, high-tone syllables are unmarked, while the nuclei of low-tone syllables are marked with a grave accent, as in oc 'sun' vs. òc 'my foot' or uc 'breadfruit' vs. ùc 'hunting net'. Tone distinctions in Yabem appear to be of relatively recent origin (Bradshaw 1979) and still correlate strongly with obstruent voicing contrasts (although not in its closest relative, Bukawa). Only high tones occur in syllables with voiceless obstruents (p, t, k) while only low tone occurs in syllables with voiced obstruents (b, d, g). The fricative /s/ is voiced in low-tone syllables but voiceless in high-tone syllables. Other phonemes are neutral with respect to tone, that is, they can occur in either high-tone or low-tone environments.


Pronouns and person markers

Free pronouns

First person plural inclusive and exclusive are not distinguished in the free pronouns, but are distinguished in the subject prefixes and the genitives.

Person Singular Plural Dual
1st person inclusive aêàc aêàgêc
1st person exclusive aêàc aêàgêc
2nd person aôm amàc amàgêc
3rd person êsêàc êsêàgêc

Genitive pronouns

The short, underdifferentiated genitive forms are often disambiguated by adding the free pronoun in front.

Person Singular Plural
1st person inclusive (aêàc) nêŋ
1st person exclusive (aê) ŋoc (aêàc) ma
2nd person (aôm) nêm (amàc) nêm
3rd person (eŋ) nê (êsêàc) nêŋ

Subject prefixes on verbs

Verbs are prefixed to show the person and number of their subjects. (The 1st person plural exclusive and 2nd person plural prefixes are homophonous but can be disambiguated by using the free pronouns in subject position.) The singular prefixes also distinguish Realis and Irrealis mood (which usually translates to Nonfuture vs. Future tense). Each prefix also has a high-tone (H) and a low-tone (L) allomorph to meet the tone requirements of each of five conjugation classes. (See Bradshaw 2001.)

Person Singular Realis (H/L) Singular Irrealis (H/L) Plural Realis=Irrealis (H/L)
1st person inclusive ta-/da-
1st person exclusive ka-/ga- ja-/jà- a-/à-
2nd person kô-/gô- ô-/ô`- a-/à-
3rd person kê-/gê- ê-/ê`- sê-/sê`-

Possessed nouns

Alienable vs. inalienable possession

Preposed genitive pronouns are used to mark alienable possession by humans, as in ŋoc àndu 'my house', nêm i 'your fish', nê jàc 'his brother-in-law (wife's brother)'. Inalienable possession is marked by suffixes directly on the nouns denoting the possessions, which are typically kinship relations and body parts. The underdifferentiated suffixes are often disambiguated by adding the free pronoun in front of the suffixed noun. The final -i on the plurals of kin terms is a distributive marker, indicating some but not all of the class to which the noun refers. (See Bradshaw & Czobor 2005:21-29.)

'cross-cousin' Singular Plural
1st person inclusive gwadêŋi
1st person exclusive gwadêc gwadêŋi
2nd person gwadêm gwadêmi
3rd person gwadê gwadêŋi
'body' Singular Plural
1st person inclusive ôliŋ
1st person exclusive ôlic ôliŋ
2nd person ôlim ôlim
3rd person ôli ôliŋ

Inherent possession

Genitive relations for other than humans are not marked by either the genitive pronouns (for alienables) or the genitive suffixes (for inalienables). Instead, inherent possession of nouns as progeny or parts of wholes is marked by a prefix ŋa-, as in (ka) ŋalaka '(tree) branch', (lôm) ŋatau '(men's house) owner', and (talec) ŋalatu '(hen's) chick'. The same is true of adjectives (attributes of other entities) when derived from nouns, as in ŋadani 'thick, dense' (< dani 'thicket') or ŋalemoŋ 'muddy, soft' (< lemoŋ 'mud'). (See Bradshaw & Czobor 2005:26-31.)


Traditional counting practices started with the digits of one hand, then continued on the other hand, and then the feet to reach '20', which translates as 'one person'. Higher numbers are multiples of 'one person'. Nowadays, most counting above '5' is done in Tok Pisin. As in other Huon Gulf languages, an alternate form of the numeral '1' (teŋ) functions as an indefinite article. The numeral luagêc '2' can similarly function as an indefinite plural indicating 'a couple, a few, some'. The numeral root ta '1' suffixed with the adverbial marker -geŋ renders 'one, only one', while the numeral '2' similarly suffixed (luàgêc-geŋ) renders 'only a few'. Reduplicated numerals form distributives: tageŋ-tageŋ 'one by one', têlêàc-têlêàc 'in threes', etc. (See Bradshaw & Czobor 2005: 52-54.)

Numeral Term Gloss
1 ta(-geŋ) / teŋ 'one-ADV' / 'a(n)'
2 luàgêc 'two'
3 têlêàc 'three'
4 àclê 'four'
5 lemeŋ-teŋ 'hand-one'
6 lemeŋ-teŋ ŋanô ta 'hand-one fruit one'
7 lemeŋ-teŋ ŋanô luàgêc 'hand-one fruit two'
8 lemeŋ-teŋ ŋanô têlêàc 'hand-one fruit three'
9 lemeŋ-teŋ ŋanô àclê 'hand-one fruit four'
10 lemeŋ-lu ~ lemelu 'hands-two'
11 lemeŋ-lu ŋanô ta 'hands-two fruit one'
15 lemeŋ-lu ŋa-lemeŋ-teŋ 'hands-two its-hands-one'
20 ŋac teŋ 'man one'


Due to the limited amount of consonants and vowels in the Yabem language, pronunciation is critical in order to get the correct meaning across. In some cases, simply changing the accent on a letter can change the meaning of a word entirely.[5]

Numeral Meaning of word IPA
1 'man' ŋɑʔ
2 'your mother's brother' sa-m

<sa- 'mother's brother' + -m 'your (singular)'

3 'she/he ate' g-ɛŋ

< g (ɛ) - 'third person singular subject, realis'; -ɛŋ 'eat'

4 'possum' moyaŋ
5 'your mother' tena-m
6 'I spoke' ka-som
7 'I walked' ka-seleŋ
8 'he will carry' e-toloŋ
9 'valuables' awÁ
10 '(his/her) mouth' awÀ
11 'outside' awÉ
12 'woman' awÈ
13 'body' olÍ
14 'wages olÌ
15 'prohibition' yaÓ
16 'enmity' yaÒ
17 'mango'
18 'crocodile'
19 'hammer (verb)' -sÁʔ
20 to put on top of -sÀʔ
21 'careless' paliŋ
22 'far away' baliŋ
23 'shell' piŋ
24 'speech' biŋ
25 'all at once' tÍp
26 'thud' dÌp
27 'service' sakiŋ
28 'house partition' sagiŋ
29 'I called out' ka-kÚŋ
30 'I speared (something)' ga-gÙŋ
31 'I provoked trouble' ka-kilÍ
32 'I stepped over (s.t.)' ka-gelÌ
33 'I dwelt' ga-m"À

*Table taken from Tonogeneis in the North Huon Gulf Chain by Malcolm D. Ross [11]


  1. Yabem at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Yabem". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. "Yabem language | language". Retrieved 2016-09-16.
  4. 1 2 Edmondson, Jerold A. (1993-01-01). Tonality in Austronesian Languages. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 9780824815301.
  5. 1 2 3 Paris, Hannah (2012-03-22). "Sociolinguistic effects of church languages in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea". International Journal of the Sociology of Language. 2012 (214). doi:10.1515/ijsl-2012-0020. ISSN 1613-3668.
  6. Bradshaw, Joel (2016). Changing Language Choices in Melanesia. University of Hawaii at Manoa LING 150: Languages of the Pacific Islands. Honolulu, HI: Curriculum Research & Development Group.
  7. S.J, John W. M. Verhaar (1990-01-01). Melanesian Pidgin and Tok Pisin: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Pidgins and Creoles in Melanesia. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 9789027282071.
  8. S.J, John W. M. Verhaar (1990-01-01). Melanesian Pidgin and Tok Pisin: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Pidgins and Creoles in Melanesia. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 9789027282071.
  9. "Yabem". Retrieved 2016-09-12.
  10. "Yabem - MultiTree". multitree.org. Retrieved 2016-09-20.
  11. Ross, Malcolm D. (1993-01-01). "Tonogenesis in the North Huon Gulf Chain". Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications (24): 133–153. JSTOR 20006753.
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