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Documentation and analysis of Yaw linguistic practices

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Language Yaw
Depositor Joseph Brooks
Affiliation University of Virginia
Location Papua New Guinea
Collection ID 0595
Grant ID IPF0279
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle




Summary of the collection

This collection represents the first documentary effort for the Yaw language. It includes documentary materials about the Iteri people in East Sepik Province, PNG. This collection focuses on word lists, folk tales, and casual interaction as part of the first documentation of this language which is spoken in a fairly large area straddling the East Sepik and West Sepik provincial borders. The few recordings from a pilot trip in 2019 are audio-only, the rest from the ELDP-funded trip in 2020 are audiovisual.

Group represented

The Iteris, whose village (of the same name, i.e. Iteri) and bush houses hug the Arai River. The Iteris have no autonymic form for their language, referring to it only as ‘speech/talk’ (yaw) or ‘our speech’ when distinguishing it with other languages. For the purposes of this project and ease of reference, the language is therefore referred to as ‘Yaw’. The language is also spoken in 4 other villages: Akromey, Mosketo, Iwau, and Faru. With Faru as the only clear outlier, the language appears to be fairly uniform in terms of dialects.

Speakers of the neighboring Nakwi [nax] language are also represented in a couple of the recordings, and there is also a short exchange in Sorimi [bpw]. This collection also includes some documentation of code-switching between Yaw and Tok Pisin, especially in oratory.

Language information

Yaw is spoken by an estimated 500 people living in 5 villages in and around the West Range mountains in western Papua New Guinea. It belongs to Left May, a small family of 6 languages. Its phoneme inventory of 13 consonants and 8-9 vowels, lexical pitch accent, little nominal morphology and elaborate verb morphology. One interesting feature in the language is an unusual play on the serial verb constructions for which Papuan languages are known. But instead of morphological isolation for the analogous structure in Yaw, Yaw has a synthetic form where pairs of (2) actions in a series (‘go and eat’) occur within a single word. In many of these pairs, the root for the first verb is not identical to the form of the free lexeme even though the meaning is the same. These forms appear to have undergone lexicalization and are not (as far as I can tell), predictable.

Special characteristics

The annotated parts of this collection provide insight into certain cultural practices and local cultural frameworks of meaning specific to the Iteris’ way of life.

One of the major examples of this relates to the particularities of the dispersed ancestral homesteading model of settlement versus the (post-contact) centralized village settlement pattern are rather fascinating in Iteri. This is because of the major problem of food (that is, protein) scarcity in Iteri and how that interrelates with a range of social complexities for the communal as opposed to isolated homesteading life. Many of the conversations and recordings shed insight on these matters and from diverse angles. For instance the documentation includes the building of a fish dam to catch the (tiny!) fish in the Arai river, and it also includes things like parents’ socialization of children to teach them how to balance the value of private food hoarding versus the social obligation of food sharing in the presence of others.

Collection contents

This collection includes about 22 hours of audiovisual recordings in Yaw, 1.5hrs of which are currently transcribed and translated into Tok Pisin in ELAN. The genres and discourse types included are as follows:

The collection includes about 11 hours of documentation of home life in Iteri, of primarily 4 different families sitting around the hearth and chatting about village matters and issues of domestic life. Approximately a half hour of one of these interactions is currently transcribed.

As this is the first documentary effort for the Yaw language, the recording of word lists was prioritized and includes 3.5 hours. The word lists are geared strategically toward those area of grammar I found most challenging in my initial efforts to understand the workings of the language, namely the distinctions between the high/mid front vowels and also the high/mid back vowels, and then also verb tense and the verb morphology which is very complex.

There are just over 2.5 hours of documentation of community events and activities, including communal work, a village party, and a traditional earth-oven (mumu). Also recorded is a very special cultural practice that the Iteris only do on rare occasion, which is the construction of a dam from stones and leaves as a means of catching fish.

Because the Christian faith is central to the local culture, the documentation includes 2.5 hours of 3 different church services led by the local church leaders. These recordings are quite special both culturally and linguistically: culturally because of what they tell us about how the Iteris practice and conceptualize their faith, linguistically because of the pastors’ use of code-switching between Yaw and Tok Pisin as a rhetorical device in oratory/preaching. 5 minutes of an interesting part of one of Robert Sepi’s code-switched sermons are transcribed and translated.

Other forms of monologic discourse are also included. Of 48 minutes of recordings of traditional folk tales, 30 minutes are transcribed and translated. 28 minutes of local lore and history as well as autobiography were documented, all of which are transcribed and translated. 47 minutes of a bush walk were also recorded. A few other relevant types of documentation are included such as permissions, photographs, and field notes.

The collection also contains a small amount of speech in Tok Pisin [tpi] and a short exchange in the neighboring Sorimi language [bpw] over the local New Tribes Mission radio.

Collection history

This collection includes documentation from two trips to Iteri. The first trip was a short pilot trip for about 2 weeks in early 2019, which was generously funded by a grant from the Mithun-Chafe Fund for Research on Understudied Languages. The bulk of the documentation is from the ELDP-funded trip in early 2020 as part of an IPF grant and post-doctoral position at the University of Virginia. Data processing began upon return to North America during the pandemic and is on-going.

Other Information

Annotation files are still in the process of being worked over, and they will be updated and added in due course. English translations of the Tok Pisin translations are also forthcoming.

Also, while the global pandemic makes it uncertain when a return trip will be possible, the collection here is part of a long-term commitment to the Iteris and the documentation and description of their language.

Acknowledgement and citation

Anyone wishing to use or cite the contents of this collection for research purposes or otherwise is requested to ask the principle investigator prior to doing so. I am best reached at

Uses of the collection should acknowledge Joseph Brooks as the principle investigator and researcher and should acknowledge ELDP as the funder.

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

Brooks, Joseph. 2021. Documentation and analysis of Yaw linguistic practices. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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