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Documenting Yopno Diversity: Dialect Variation in a Papuan Language

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Language Bonkiman (ISO639-3:bop), Domung (ISO639-3:dev), Yuwong (ISO639-3:), Yopno (ISO639-3:yut)
Depositor James Slotta
Location Papua New Guinea
Collection ID 0344
Grant ID IPF0202
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle



Summary of the collection

This project documents several of the dialects spoken in the Yopno valley, an area of extreme linguistic diversity within one of the most linguistically diverse countries on earth, Papua New Guinea. Although multilingualism and multidialectalism has been an everyday fact of life in these communities, state schooling is drastically reducing local linguistic diversity. Through linguistic elicitation, interviews, and recording of interactional events, the project captures a cross-section of the variation found in a set of neighboring villages where five dialects of Yopno are spoken: Westkokop, Gwa, Ganggalut, Nian, and Wurap.


Group represented

Yupna languages (Yopno, Nankina, Domung, Bonkiman, Yuwong, Ma) are spoken by roughly 13,000 people in the Finisterre mountains of Papua New Guinea. Yopno is spoken by around 8,000, Nankina by 2,500, Domung by 2,000, Bonkiman by 150 and Yuwong by 100. Though Yopno is by far the largest language community in the Yupna family, Yopno itself is composed of a number of highly divergent dialects divisible into at least 6 regional groupings (based on common areal and/or genetic features) and each regional grouping differentiated at least lexically into individual village varieties, of which there are at least 15.

Like Yopno, Domung is a language community that appears to be composed of a highly diverse set of dialects, even with its relatively small population. Given this diversity in the larger languages in the Yupna family, the distinct languages associated with the villages of Bonkiman and Yuwong are merely extreme instances of the linguistic diversity that is found throughout the Yupna region.(From all indications, Nankina exhibits a dialectal diversity similar to that found in the Yopno and Domung language communities).

Throughout the region there is an acute sense that local linguistic and cultural practices are unalterably changing. One older man in the village of Wurap discussing my previous research there explained it to his fellow villagers as follows: “your children will grow up speaking English and Tok Pisin, living and working in urban areas, and when they want to know how their ancestors lived, how they talked, it is this research that will keep our ways alive.”


Special characteristics

The linguistic diversity of Yupna languages has its roots at once in sociolinguistic practices and the linguistic systems of these languages. Dialect differences are central to social life in the region, they serve as diacritics of social groups and are used in interactions to formulate identities and social relationships (Slotta 2012a). Dialect differences are widely understood as markers of “separate but equal” social groups, no dialect being better or higher than another, no social groups commanding more prestige than another. Rather, dialect differences and the social groups that they distinguish form a unity in diversity – a key cultural value found throughout the region.

Given that linguistic diversity is an ever present fact of communication in these communities, it is no surprise that these dialects and languages considered as linguistic systems reflect their use in such a multi-lingual communicative setting, yet they have not completely converged. For instance, the researcher’s previous work on Yopno dialects has uncovered the fact that unlike cases of areal convergence, some Yopno dialects have different underlying phonological systems (e.g., different numbers of vowels in their phonemic inventory) even as the phonetic realization of the underlying forms can mask this divergence. Such deep seated – “systemic” – differences among dialects and languages may provide some insight into the persistence of linguistic diversity found in the region.

To take another example, these dialects and languages contain a large number of suppletive paradigms and portmanteau morphemes, which are perhaps another reflex of the multi-lingual and multi-dialectal communicative setting in the Yupna region. A multi-lectal grammar and dictionary can illuminate the function and history of portmanteau morphemes and items in these suppletive paradigms, as suppletive forms in one dialect often correspond to non-suppletive forms in another and portmanteau morphemes in one dialect often correspond with two morphemes in another.


Collection history

This documentation project has two aims. First, it will document two small languages (Bonkiman and Yuwong) as well as three dialects of the larger languages (Yupno and Domung), each to different degrees threatened by the growing use of Tok Pisin, the English based creole spoken throughout Papua New Guinea. Second, the project aims to document the dialectal and linguistic diversity that appears in every village and even in every nuclear family in the Yupna language family. There is simply no way to document the language or dialect spoken in a single community, because every community is thoroughly multilingual and multidialectal. This diversity is both of linguistic and sociolinguistic interest, and is particularly vulnerable not only to external languages like Tok Pisin but also to dominant “high” dialects of Yopno now being used in local churches and pre-school education.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Slotta, James. 2014. Documenting Yopno Diversity: Dialect Variation in a Papuan Language. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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