Category Archives: vocabulary

Kinship terms

Although the actual words to describe the relationships differ from language to language, the Numbami kinship system is fairly widespread, not just among indigenous peoples in Papua New Guinea and Australia, but also in South India and across North America. In North American terms, Numbami kinship terminology can be classified as of the Iroquois type.

One of the major classificatory criteria of such a system is whether a chain of relationships crosses sex lines or stays within the same sex. For instance, siblings of the same sex (parallel siblings) are distinguished according to whether they are elder or younger than oneself. Siblings of the opposite sex (cross-siblings) are not. Similarly, one’s father’s brothers and mother’s sisters (parallel siblings) are distinguished according to whether they are elder or younger than the respective parent, and their children (parallel cousins) are classified as either elder or younger parallel siblings in accordance with the relative age of their parents.

In contrast, relative age is not regularly distinguished for relatives linked across sex lines, such as one’s father’s sister’s children or mother’s brother’s children (cross-cousins). This lack of age-ranking among cross-cousins may help explain why the gode-lu-gode (‘cousin-to-cousin’) relationship is considered the most open and easygoing among kin relationships.

Numbami kinship terms also show unique morphology. The suffix -(e)we (from ewa ‘female’) marks specifically female equivalents in male–female pairs of terms. And the female suffix also preserves a few older traces of possessive suffixes that used to mark kin terms (and body parts) in a pattern that is very widespread in Oceanic languages, but generally eroded to varying degrees in the Huon Gulf languages of PNG. These traces of older possessive suffixes are discussed below.

amba ‘great-grandfather’
ambanewe ‘great-grandmother’

tumbuna ‘grandson, grandfather’
tumbunewe ‘granddaughter, grandmother’

tama ‘father’ (somewhat archaic or technical in usage)
tina ‘mother’ (somewhat archaic or metaphorical in usage)

mama ‘father’ (both referential and vocative)
awa ‘mother’ (both referential and vocative)

mama bamo ‘father’s elder brother, mother’s elder sister’s spouse’
awa bamo ‘mother’s elder sister, father’s elder brother’s spouse’

mama kae ‘father’s younger brother, mother’s younger sister’s spouse’
awa kae ‘mother’s younger sister, father’s younger brother’s spouse’

sika ‘elder (usually male) parallel sibling (father’s elder brother’s son or mother’s elder sister’s son)’
sikanewe ‘elder female parallel sibling (father’s elder brother’s daughter or mother’s younger sister’s daughter)’

kapa ‘younger (usu. male) parallel sibling (father’s younger brother’s son or mother’s younger sister’s son)’
kapowe ‘younger female parallel sibling (father’s younger brother’s daughter or mother’s younger sister’s daughter)’

lu ‘cross-sibling (woman’s brother or male parallel cousin)’
lunewe ‘female cross-sibling (man’s sister or female parallel cousin)’

gode ‘cross-cousin (mother’s brother’s or father’s sister’s child, usu. male)’
godenewe ‘female cross-cousin (mother’s brother’s or father’s sister’s daughter)’

asowa ‘spouse (husband or wife)’
asosika ‘spouse of one’s elder parallel sibling’
asokapa ‘spouse of one’s younger parallel sibling’

iwa ‘spouse’s (usu. wife’s) cross-sibling’ (TP tambu)
iwanewe ‘husband’s cross-sibling’
kolamundu ‘cross-sibling’s spouse’ (TP tambu)

wowa ‘uncle (mother’s brother or father’s sister’s husband)’
wawe ‘aunt (father’s sister or mother’s brother’s wife)’

natu ‘offspring, son (of self or parallel sibling)’
natunewe ‘daughter (of self or parallel sibling)’

tamota ‘nephew (son of cross-sibling or cross-cousin)’
tamotewe ‘niece (daughter of cross-sibling or cross-cousin)’

In Numbami, possessive suffixes have been lost everywhere except on a handful of kin terms. (They are eroded, but somewhat better preserved in Jabêm and even better preserved in Iwal.) Even where the suffixes survive, however, they only distinguish the person, not the number, of the possessor. They are also highly variable in actual usage, and almost always redundant because the possessor is also marked by a full pronoun. (The only exceptions are a few vocatives, like tumbu-gi-to ‘my collective grandsons’). If one is ever unsure about which form to use, the safest choice seems to be -n-ewe, which used to signal a 3rd-person singular possessor.

Compare the following:

nanggi lu ‘my (usu. male) cross-sibling’
anami lu ‘your (usu. male) cross-sibling’
ena lu ‘her (usu. male) cross-sibling’

nanggi lunggewe/lunewe ‘my female cross-sibling’
anami lumewe/lunewe ‘your female cross-sibling’
ena lunewe ‘his female cross-sibling’

nanggi gode ‘my (usu. male) cross-cousin’
anami gode ‘your (usu. male) cross-cousin’
ena gode ‘his/her (usu. male) cross-cousin’

nanggi godenewe/godenggewe ‘my female cross-cousin’
anami godenewe/godemewe ‘your female cross-cousin’
ena godenewe ‘his/her female cross-cousin’

NOTE: The formerly 3rd-person suffix -n- also shows up in a few body-part compounds, as in tanga-n-owa ‘ear(hole)’, nisi-n-owa ‘nose(hole)’, tai-n-owa ‘arse(hole)’ and the words for male and female genitals, all of which are external body parts whose holes perform vital bodily functions!


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Ideophones: aiti-paka wa nomba ikana

Like most languages, Numbami has a class of ideophones, words whose sounds give a vivid sense of how speakers feel the sounds, shapes, movement, or mood of the world around them. But Numbami may be unique in having a special marker for such words, a suffix –a(n)dala, which is clearly related to the noun andalowa ‘path, way, road’—probably from andala ‘path’ + awa ‘opening’. (Words of similar shape and meaning can be found in many Austronesian languages, including Malay jalan and Hawaiian ala, both meaning ‘path, road’.)

Here are a few examples of how ideophones are used Numbami sentences.

Ai-sanga i-yotomu pakádala
tree-branch it-severed crackingly
‘The tree branch snapped with a crack’

Sai ko i-nggo kãiandala
who there he-said shoutingly
‘Who is that shouting over there?’

Gáwadala ti-nzolo ti-wesa
disappearingly they-scattered they-went
‘Away they scattered’

Wa-usi talápuadala wa-peka wai
I-stepped slippingly I-fell FIN
‘I slipped and fell down’

Here is a list of all such words that I was able to record in 1976. The accents mark where the stress usually falls in each word.

áiti-adala ‘going dark, dying out (as lamps)’
ambále-andala ‘happening irregularly’
bái-andala ‘overcast, clouded over’
bé-andala-ma ‘secretly, furtively’
dendende-ándala ‘shivering’
galála-adala ‘splashing, disrupting surface (as rain or fish feeding)’
gási-adala ‘shaking’
gáwa-adala ‘finishing up, letting up (as rain)’ (cf. gawagawa ‘above, on top’)
gidogído-adala ‘trembling’
golópu-adala ‘slipping or dripping through’
gumúni-adala ‘chuckling, smiling’
ká-andala ‘bouncing back, ricocheting’
kelekále(-adala) ‘meandering, staggering’
kí-andala ‘scorching, parched’
kilikála(-adala) ‘crackling, scurrying, scampering’
kilikíli-adala ‘scampering, scurrying, crackling’
kitikáta-adala ‘writhing, fidgeting’
kúi-andala ‘poking’
kulukúlu-adala ‘gurgling’
kúsu-adala ‘popping into sight, suddenly appearing’
pá-andala ‘banging’
paká-adala ‘getting light, flashing on, popping’
páku-adala ‘plopping, splashing’
palapála-adala ‘flip-flopping, moving restlessly’
pí-andala ‘bouncing up, springing up, rising up’ (cf. -pi ‘ascend, rise’)
pilíli-adala ‘flashing briefly (as lightning)’
pilipíli-adala ‘flapping, fluttering (as clothes or bird feathers)’
pó-adala ‘booming’
póko-adala ‘banging, snapping, slamming, bursting’
póu-andala ‘snapping, popping (as bamboo or sugarcane)’
púku-adala ‘bursting’
púpú-adala ‘stinking, rotting’ (cf. sapu ‘ripe, rotten’; putaputa ‘rubbish’)
sái-andala ‘spurting, spraying’
salála-adala ‘slipping, sliding’
sí-andala ‘shooting up, springing away’
solólo-adala ‘plummeting, whistling’
sulúku-adala ‘sucking, slurping’
sulúpu-adala ‘disappearing’ (cf. sulupama ‘underwater’; -suluma ‘get dark’)
sú-undala ‘blowing out, blowing away (as blowing the nose)’
taká-adala ‘stuck fast, planted firmly’
talála-adala ‘slipping, sliding’
talápu-adala ‘slipping, sliding’
tíki-adala ‘going dark’
tentente-ándala ‘shivering’

Jabêm also has many ideophones, but they don’t have their own marker as they do in Numbami. Instead, they’re marked just like other adverbs. Shorter ones are followed by tageŋ ‘once’, longer ones by geŋ ‘-ly’, and really long ones by nothing at all, as in the following examples.

ka tulu diŋ tageŋ
tree severed crash once
‘the tree snapped with a crash’

ôsic kê-kac eb tageŋ
lightning it-tore flash once
‘lightning flashed suddenly’

waŋ kê-sêlêŋ kalalac-geŋ
canoe it-traveled hissing-ly
‘the canoe whizzed away’

ka-pê moc sololop
I-shot bird slipping
‘I shot and missed the bird’

bu kê-pulu mềŋboab-mềŋboab
water it-bubbled come-bubbling
‘the water bubbled up’

Japanese has maybe 2000 ideophones, well used and well studied. Korean also seems to have a lot.

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Females and males, young and old

Here are some terms for females and males at various stages of life.

ewa ‘female’, tamona ‘male’
bola ewa ‘sow’, bola tamona ‘boar’

ewa ‘woman’, kole ‘man’

e(we)kapa ‘girl(s), young woman/women’
kolapa ‘boy(s), young man/men’
ekap(a)-kolapa ‘girls and boys, young women and men’
(unlike Tok Pisin manmeri)

ekapa kakapi ‘little girls’
kolapa kakapi ‘little boys’
kakapiko ‘little children’

ewesika ‘adult women’, tamota ‘men’
ewesika wa tamota ‘women and men’
(unlike Tok Pisin manmeri)

kolapa dewala ‘young bachelors’
kolapa asasa ‘young adult man’ (married?)

ewesika mamatala ‘adult married women’

embamoto ‘elderly woman/women’
kombamoto ‘elderly man/men’

embamoko ‘poor dear (female)’
kombamoko ‘poor dear, poor fellow (male)’
(exclamations of sympathy)

Kolapa can also mean ‘child’, not necessarily male, as in -nggewe kolapa ‘to bear a child’ or kolapa palele ‘infant (male or female)’.

I believe I’ve also heard it as an exclamation: “Kolapa!” ‘Oh man!’ or ‘Oh boy!’ (like Tok Pisin Olaman, Olaboi).

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