Western Melanesia
Geographic location: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia
Number of Languages: 533
Number of Genetic Units: 100
Genetic Index: .188
Endangerment Index: 4.34 (low)
Research Index: to be determined
Threat Level: medium
map of WME


The island of New Guinea, which is split between the country of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, is possibly the most linguistically diverse area in the world. There are a huge number of languages spoken on the island, many of them from small language families. The classification of many of these languages and their relations to other world languages are not yet well understood.

One endangered language of New Guinea is Wiarumus, which is only spoken by around 162 people in the village of Mandi in Papua New Guinea. Young adults now only understand the language but cannot speak it fluently, and the children of the village don't understand Wiarumus. In June 2002, the village met to design an alphabet and discuss revitalizing the language. Mandi is only 7 ½ miles from the province capital, though, so there is strong pressure for children to learn the national language, Tok Pisin. To revive the language, speakers of Wiarumus would need to dramatically shift social attitudes.

The Bird’s Head Peninsula juts out from the northwest end of the island of New Guinea, in Indonesia.  This area is covered by the unique and ecologically diverse Vogelkop Montane Rain Forests Ecoregion.  The rainforest holds a huge number of birds, mammals, and butterflies, many of them unique to the Bird’s Head Peninsula.  The inhabitants of the area are mainly subsistence farmers who live in close connection with this unique ecosystem.

One language of this area is Abun, spoken by around 3,000 people along the north coast and interior of the Bird’s Head Peninsula.  This language is also known as Karon, a name that Abun speakers consider offensive.  ‘Karon’ means rotten or maggot-eaten in the Biak language, which is spoken on the nearby Biak Island.  When Biak speakers first landed on the mainland, they found a number of Abun speakers lying on the ground, smeared with maggots and pretending to be dead in order to make the Biak speakers ignore them and leave.  Instead, Biak speakers settled in the area and called Abun speakers maggot-eaten, which was the name most outsiders used for the Abun people until quite recently.

Languages and genetic units in this hotspot:

  1. Abinomn (Isolate)
  2. Amto-Musan
  3. Arapesh
  4. Aru
  5. Asmat-Kamoro
  6. Awbono-Bayono
  7. Awyu-Dumut
  8. Babar
  9. Baibai
  10. Bewani
  11. Bisi
  12. Bomberai
  13. Bulaka River
  14. Burmeso (Isolate)
  15. Cenderwasih Bay
  16. Central Bird's Head
  17. Central Maluku
  18. Central South Bird's Head
  19. Dani-Kwerba
  20. Dem
  21. East Geelvink Bay
  22. East Pauwasi
  23. Eastern South Bird's Head
  24. Inanwatan
  25. Karkar-Yuri (Isolate)v
  26. Kayagar
  27. Kebar
  28. Kombio
  29. Konda-Yahadian
  30. Krisa
  31. Kwomtari
  32. Lakes Plain
  33. Left May
  34. Lower Mamberamo
  35. Maimai
  36. Mairasi-Tanahmerah
  37. Manikion
  38. Marienberg
  39. Marind
  40. Meax
  41. Mek
  42. Micronesian
  43. Molof
  44. Momuna
  45. Morwap/Elseng
  46. Ndu
  47. Nimboran
  48. North Bird's Head
  49. North Bomberai
  50. North New Guinea
  51. Northern North Halmahera
  52. Nukuma
  53. Odiai (Isolate)
  54. Oirata
  55. Ok
  56. Palei
  57. Papi
  58. Pyu
  59. Ram
  60. Senagi
  61. Sentani
  62. Sepik Hill
  63. South Bomberai
  64. South Halmahera
  65. Southeast Maluku
  66. Southern North Halmahera
  67. Taikat
  68. Tama
  69. Teor-Kur
  70. Timor
  71. Tofanma
  72. Tor
  73. Trans-Fly
  74. Upper Sepik
  75. Urat
  76. Urim
  77. Usku
  78. Vanimo
  79. Walio
  80. Wapei
  81. Waris
  82. West Bird's Head
  83. West Bomberai TNG
  84. West Damar
  85. West New Guinea
  86. West Pauwasi
  87. West Wapei
  88. Western South Bird's Head
  89. Wissel Lakes-Kemandoga
  90. Yale (Isolate)
  91. Yawa
  92. Yellow River
  93. Unclassified Central/South New Guinea-Kutubuan
  94. Unclassified Malayo-Polynesian (2)
  95. Unclassified WME (5)

Endangered languages include:

  • Anus (< 70 speakers, Northern New Guinea Oceanic)
  • Awbono (< 100 speakers, Bayono-Awbono)
  • Burumakok (< 40 speakers, Kutubuan)
  • Duriankere (< 30 speakers, South Bird's Head-Timor-Alor-Pantar)
  • Ibu (< 40 speakers, West Papuan)
  • Iresim (< 70 speakers, South Halmahera-West New Guinea)
  • Itik (< 80 speakers, Northern Tor)
  • Mer (85 speakers, Mairasi-Tanahmerah)
  • Narau (< 80 speakers, Kaure)
  • Piru (< 10 speakers, Central Maluku)
  • Tofanma (< 90 speakers, Tofanma)
  • Usku (< 25 speakers, Usku)
  • Woria (< 10 speakers, East Geelvink Bay)

Some features of languages include:

  • dual person marker
  • mostly SOV word order
  • few numerals but complex counting systems based on body parts


  • Speakers of Kewa (35,000 speakers) use body parts to count quite high. Their counting system starts with the little finger, goes across all ten fingers, then goes up the arm, across the body, and down the other arm. This makes 24 'between the eyes,' 36 'other elbow' and 47 'other little finger'.

  • Speakers of Kaluli (2,500 speakers) use no words for numbers, just body-part names. They begin at the left pinkie finger, count up the arm, shoulders, neck, and across the face before going down the right arm.


Iqwaye man counts on his fingers and toes

Mr. Omalyca-Taqalyce of the Iqwaye people demonstrates counting on his fingers and toes. 9 = all the fingers but the right pinkie; 10 = all the finger; 11 = all the fingers and the big toe; 20 = all the fingers and toes. Yagwoia-Anga language, Yalqwaalye village, Papua New Guinea. Courtesy of Jadran Mimica.

Cdentral Rotokas man

Timothy Taureviri, a speaker of Central Rotokas who has worked with linguists like Stuart Robinson for years, transcribing his language. Courtesy of Stuart Robinson


Berry, Keith and Christine Berry. 1999. A Description of Abun: A West Papuan Language of Irian Jaya. Canberra: Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University.

Lean, Glendon A. 1992. Counting systems of Papua New Guinea and Oceania. Ph.D dissertation. Papua New Guinea University of Technology.

Vogelkop Montain Rain Forests.  2001.  WWF. http://www.worldwildlife.org/wildworld/profiles/terrestrial/aa/aa0127_full.html

Welsch, Robert L, John Terrell and John A. Nadolski.  1992.  Language and Culture on the North Coast of New Guinea.  American Anthropologist.  94:3, pp. 568-600.

Wurm, S.A., ed. 1977. New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study, Volume 1: Papuan Languages and the New Guinea Linguistic Scene, Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra. Available online at http://www.papuaweb.org/dlib/bk/pl/C38/_toc.html