Monthly Archives: October 2011

Subject prefixes on verbs

Every Numbami verb has to have a prefix that shows the person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular, plural) of its subject and the tense (nonfuture or future). To show that it requires a prefix, we write a hyphen at the beginning of each bare verb stem.

Here is a full paradigm for one of the most important verbs in the language, -nggo ‘to say, talk, tell, scold’, using Tok Pisin glosses. The following examples show hyphens between each prefix and verb stem, but the hyphen is not necessary in normal writing.

wa-nggo ‘mi tok’
u-nggo ‘yu tok’
i-nggo ’em i tok’
ta-nggo ‘yumi tok’
ma-nggo ‘mipela i tok’
mu-nggo ‘yupela i tok’
ti-nggo ‘ol i tok’

na-nggo ‘bai mi tok’
nu-nggo ‘bai yu tok’
ni-nggo ‘bai em i tok’
tana-nggo ‘bai yumi tok’
mana-nggo ‘bai mipela i tok’
muna-nggo ‘bai yupela i tok’
ina-nggo ‘bai ol i tok’

In most cases, subject prefixes are easy to separate from verb stems, but in a few very common words, the final vowels of the prefixes merge with initial vowels of the stems to yield irregularly inflected forms, as in the following paradigm for -ani ‘to eat’. (Another very common verb, -ambi ‘to hold, take’, works the same way.)

wani (< wa-ani) ‘mi kaikai’
woni (< u-ani) ‘yu kaikai’
weni (< i-ani) ’em i kaikai’
tani (< ta-ani) ‘yumi kaikai’
mani (< ma-ani) ‘mipela i kaikai’
moni (< mu-ani) ‘yupela i kaikai’
teni (< ti-ani) ‘ol i kaikai’

wambi (< wa-ambi) ‘mi holim/kisim’
wombi (< u-ambi) ‘yu holim/kisim’
wembi (< i-ambi) ’em i holim/kisim’
tambi (< ta-ambi) ‘yumi holim/kisim’
mambi (< ma-ambi) ‘mipela holim/kisim’
mombi (< mu-ambi) ‘yupela holim/kisim’
tembi (< ti-ambi) ‘ol i holim/kisim’

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Writing system

You need only 5 vowels and 18 consonants to read and write Numbami. The 5 vowels are low a, front e, i, and back o, u. The consonants need to distinguish 4 voiceless positions p, t, s, k; 4 oral-voiced positions b, d, z, g; 4 nasal-voiced positions -mb-, -nd-, -nz-, -ngg-; 3 nasal positions m, n, ng, 1 liquid l, and 2 glides w, y

  1. The liquid l usually sounds like a flapped r (as it does in Jabêm).
  2. The glide w sounds a bit like v before the front vowels i, e.
  3. The oral- and nasal-voiced consonants only need to be distinguished between vowels, not at the beginnings of words.
  4. Voiceless s is consistent, but voiced z often sounds like English j (not like Jabêm j).
  5. The nasal ng is just an easier (but bulkier) keyboard equivalent of ŋ, which most people in the Jabêm circuit already know as the n baliŋ (‘long n’).

Click on the Wikipedia link for more technical details.

Here is a list of words showing contrasts between sets of consonants (from Bradshaw 1978).

ababa ‘crosswise, across’
ambamba ‘handdrum’

papaka ‘chip, plank’
boboka ‘twins’

kipa ‘sore, wound’
kemba ‘skin discoloration’

kote ‘not’
kodeya ‘meat’
kandeya ‘small basket’

totoma ‘along with’
dodo ‘play’
dondomu ‘sea grass’

sasa ‘waterfall’
zaza ‘type of tree’
zanzami ‘driftwood’

aga ‘taboo’
angga ‘yolk’

yagomi ‘type of pandanus’
yanggo ‘maize’

-weke ‘to leave (something)’
-wenggene ‘to face toward (something)’

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