Tayap language

Coordinates: 4°01′43″S 144°30′11″E / 4.028746°S 144.50304°E / -4.028746; 144.50304 (Gapun)
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Tayap mer
Native toPapua New Guinea
RegionGapun village, Marienberg Rural LLG, East Sepik Province
Native speakers
less than 50 (2020)[1]
  • Sepik Coast
    • Tayap–Marienberg
      • Tayap
Language codes
ISO 639-3gpn
Approximate location where Tayap is spoken
Approximate location where Tayap is spoken
Coordinates: 4°01′43″S 144°30′11″E / 4.028746°S 144.50304°E / -4.028746; 144.50304 (Gapun)
Map all coordinates using: OpenStreetMap

Tayap (also spelled Taiap; called Gapun in earlier literature, after the name of the village in which it is spoken) is an endangered Papuan language spoken by fewer than 50 people in Gapun village of Marienberg Rural LLG in East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea (4°01′43″S 144°30′11″E / 4.028746°S 144.50304°E / -4.028746; 144.50304 (Gapun), located just to the south of the Sepik River mouth near the coast).[2][3] It is being replaced by the national language and lingua franca Tok Pisin.


The first European to describe Tayap was Georg Höltker [de], a German missionary-linguist, in 1937. Höltker spent three hours in the village and collected a word list of 125 words, which he published in 1938. He wrote that “it will be awhile before any other researcher ‘stumbles across’ Gapun, if only because of the small chances of worthwhile academic yields in this tiny village community, and also because of the inconvenient and arduous route leading to this linguistic island”.[4]

Höltker's list was all that was known about Tayap in literature until the early 1970s, when the Australian linguist Donald Laycock travelled around the lower Sepik to collect basic vocabulary lists that allowed him to identify and propose classifications of the many languages spoken there. Tayap and its speakers have been extensively studied by linguistic anthropologist Don Kulick since the mid-1980s. The language is described in detail in Tayap Grammar and Dictionary: The Life and Death of a Papuan Language and in A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea.[5][6]

Until World War II, when Japanese soldiers occupied the area and caused the villagers to flee into the rainforest, Gapun was located on a hill that several thousand years earlier had been an island in the sea that receded and formed the lower Sepik River. This indicates that Tayap may be the descendant of an ancient, autochthonous language that was already in place before the various waves of migration from the inland to the coast began occurring thousands of years ago.[7] Foley (2018) also speculates that Tayap could have been part of a larger language family that was spoken on the island before the arrival of Lower Sepik speakers. As the coastline moved further northeast, Lower Sepik speakers migrated from the foothills into the new land areas created by the receding waters.[8]


Up to 2018, Gapun was the only village where Tayap is spoken, although some speakers of the language also lived in neighboring villages such as Wongan and Watam, having moved there because of marriage or as a result of conflicts over land or sorcery in Gapun. However, in 2018, Gapun village was burned down and abandoned due to violence among households. The former residents fled to the nearby villages of Wongan (3°59′58″S 144°31′56″E / 3.999326°S 144.532123°E / -3.999326; 144.532123 (Wongan)), Watam (3°54′24″S 144°32′43″E / 3.906592°S 144.545246°E / -3.906592; 144.545246 (Watam)), and Boroi.[9]

As a result of colonial activity,[10] Gapun villagers subconsciously associate Tok Pisin with Christianity, modernity and masculinity, and they associate Tayap with paganism, "backwardness" , disruptive femininity and childish stubbornness. As a result, Tayap is being increasingly, but neither consciously nor deliberately, replaced by Tok Pisin,[11] even though the villagers all express positive sentiments towards it and insist that they want their children to speak the language.[12] Villagers express bewilderment towards the fact that their children no longer actively speak Tayap, and believe that they have, out of stubbornness, decided to reject Tayap entirely, and that they have chosen to speak Tok Pisin instead.[10]

Unlike the neighboring patrilineal Lower Sepik-Ramu speakers, Tayap speakers are matrilineal.[11] Tayap is typologically very different from the neighboring Lower Sepik-Ramu languages.

Tayap also has many loanwords from the Kopar and Adjora languages.[13]


Tayap is not related to the neighboring Lower Sepik languages, though a relationship to the more distant Torricelli family has been proposed by Usher (2020).[14]

In the 1970s Australian linguist Donald Laycock classified Tayap (which he called "Gapun") as a sub-phylum of the Sepik-Ramu language phylum, on the basis of Georg Höltker's 1938 word list and a few verb paradigms that Laycock gathered from two speakers.[15]

Kulick and Terrill (2019) found no evidence that Tayap is related to the Lower Sepik languages, another branch of the erstwhile Sepik-Ramu phylum. They conclude that Tayap is a language isolate, though they do not compare it to other language families, as would be required to establish Tayap as an independent language family. Comparative vocabulary demonstrates the lexical aberrancy of Tayap as compared to the surrounding Lower Sepik languages: e.g. sene 'two' (cf. proto-Lower Sepik *ri-pa-), neke 'ear' (*kwand-), ŋgino 'eye' (*tambri), tar 'hear' (*and-), min 'breast' (*nɨŋgay), nɨŋg 'bone' (*sariŋamp), malɨt 'tongue' (*minɨŋ), mayar 'leaf' (*nɨmpramp) among the Holman et al. (2008) ranking of the Swadesh list. Cultural vocabulary such as 'village', 'canoe', 'oar', and 'lime', as well as the basic words awin 'water' (cf. *arɨm) and a 'eat' (cf. *am ~ *amb), may be shared with Lower Sepik languages. The word karep 'moon' is shared specifically with Kopar (karep). However, most basic vocabulary items have no apparent cognates in surrounding languages.[16]


Labial Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive plain p t k
prenasal ᵐb <mb> ⁿd <nd> ⁿdʒ <nj> ᵑɡ <ŋg>
Fricative s
Liquid r
Semivowel w j <y>
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid ɛ <e> ɵ~ø <ɨ> ɔ <o>
Back a


Tayap pronouns are:[5]

sg pl
1 ŋa yim
2 yu yum
3m ŋɨ ŋgɨ
3f ŋgu ŋgɨ


Like many Sepik languages, Tayap is a synthetic language. Verbs are the most elaborated area of the grammar. They are complex, fusional and massively suppletive, with opaque verbal morphology including unpredictable conjugation class, both in terms of membership and formal marking.

Tayap distinguishes between realis and irrealis stems and suffixes. Verbal suffixes distinguish between Subject/Agent (S/A) and Object (O), which is marked by discontinuous morphemes in some conjugations. The ergative case (A) is marked by free pronouns and noun phrases, while the absolutive (S/O) does not have marked forms. As in many ergative Papuan languages, the ergative marker is not always included, as it is optional.[17]


Nouns generally do not mark number themselves, although there is a small class of largely human nouns which mark plural, and a smaller class which mark dual. These categories, where marked, are largely marked by partial or full suppletion. Oblique cases, largely local, are marked by clitics attached to the end of the oblique noun phrase.[5]


Like many languages of the Sepik-Ramu basin (particularly the Sepik languages), Tayap has masculine and feminine genders.

There are two genders, masculine and feminine, marked not on the noun itself but on deictics, the ergative marker, suppletive verbal stems and verbal affixes. The unmarked, generic form of all nouns, including animate nouns, even humans, is feminine: however, a male referent may be masculine. Another criterion is size and shape: long, thin and large referents tend to be masculine; short, stocky and small referents tend to be feminine. This type of gender-assignment system is typical of the Sepik region. Gender is only ever marked in the singular, never in the dual or plural.


Selected Tayap words from Kulick & Terrill (2019), pp. 442–454:


gloss Tayap
pig mbor
domesticated dog nje
tree possum, cuscus enamb
ground possum síw
bandicoot sasik
rat, mouse ŋgabugar, kokosik, njip, mangɨm
sugar glider ŋgesiŋe
flying fox njakep
bat sumusumu
tree kangaroo species kanuŋg
crocodile orem
snake aram
snake, types of ambonor; arambwar; aramŋgor; atemb; karewa; kanakai aramŋgor; nɨŋɨr aram; pake; and
venomous snake species mbumjor; kombɨn
lizard, types of agin; akirónda; amanep; mbutak; ŋgararik; ŋgogrodak; ŋgurbewat; kurbi; masukondep; onjaŋnoŋor; tapetak
frog pasákeke
large brown water bullfrog uráŋgeba
tadpole mbókokɨr < kokɨr ‘head’
fish ŋgomar
freshwater fish aiyo, ndɨdɨmaŋ, ŋgomákokɨr, orɨnd, semb
catfish tokine
large eel ŋgem


gloss Tayap
shrimp sasu
small shrimp sasupat
freshwater lobster keymare
crab kosep, ŋgarorak, sasápoke
hermit crab pisik
shelled slug kandip
clam, types of eporaŋ, oyaŋ
mosquito at
mosquito, type of aiawaŋgar; indagawr; iurok; mbunbun; mɨriŋa at; njakepma arɨt; njeyewɨr at; ŋgurpan
ant sɨwɨr
ant, type of kandap; ŋgugrub; kambobai; rewitoto; sɨwɨrdɨdɨm; sɨwɨrkararkarar
termite agu; kamus
spider tomɨktomɨk
spider of the ground tomɨktomɨk sumbwaŋa
house spider tomɨktomɨk patɨrŋa (lit. ‘spider of the house’)
centipede yandum
firefly ŋgudum
bee mbadɨŋ
bee, type of arúmbatak kunemb; metawr
butterfly, moth mumuk
caterpillars without fur atɨr
caterpillars with fur nɨŋgasin
beetle tutumb
beetle, type of arawer; mbirkraw onko; ŋgabugrip
beetle grub, type of kɨmɨrɨk; komɨ; urukuruk
wasp kɨkri
fly arúmbatak
biting horsefly tetei
blue fly arúmbatak wasow (literally ’fly death’)
fruit fly, gnat ipipir
scorpion katáwa
millipede kakámatik
walking stick nekan
praying mantis ŋgat
worm kekékato
earwig ikinŋan yandum
wood louse tɨtɨpreŋ
cicada ŋgaratgarat, kikik
grasshopper njojok, njajak
cockroach sasawraŋ, numbutik
bedbug ndedeŋ
flea itum
louse pakɨnd
leech mbímaŋ
mite kandap

Sago-related vocabulary[edit]

gloss Tayap
flour muna
a kind of rubbery pancake tamwai
broken pot shard pambram
tennis ball-sized sago chunk muna kokɨr, which literally means ‘sago head’
fire paŋgɨp
congeal munakumund
sago jelly mum
sago soup wawan
large chisel makor or yasuk
tree wot
crown of the palm mar
sawdust tawar
long funnel iko or ndadum
coconut fiber strainer waris
palm fronds kondew
cakes of sago flour munakatar
small benches made of branches kokɨparaŋ
short sago-pounder made of a single piece of wood yasuk
basket saiput

In Tayap, a felled sago palm tree can be divided into 7 parts. The Tayap names are listed below, from the base (wot) to the crown (mar).[18]

  • wot
  • wotŋa orom
  • orom
  • ndagŋa orom
  • ndag
  • marŋa orom
  • mar

The word orom means ‘in the vicinity of’.

Clan names[edit]

There are five Tayap clans:

gloss Tayap
crocodile orem
dog nje
parrot karar
pig mbor
flying fox njakep

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tayap at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Eberhard, David M.; Simons, Gary F.; Fennig, Charles D., eds. (2019). "Papua New Guinea Languages". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (22nd ed.). Dallas: SIL International. Archived from the original on 2019-06-03. Retrieved 2019-06-03.
  3. ^ United Nations in Papua New Guinea (2018). "Papua New Guinea Village Coordinates Lookup". Humanitarian Data Exchange. 1.31.9. Archived from the original on 2019-06-05. Retrieved 2019-06-07.
  4. ^ Höltker, Georg (1938). "Eine fragmentarische Wörterliste der Gapún-Sprache Neuguineas". Anthropos. 33 (1/2): 279–282. JSTOR 41103168.
  5. ^ a b c d e Kulick & Terrill (2019).
  6. ^ Kulick (2019)
  7. ^ Ross (2005)
  8. ^ Foley, William A. (2018). "The Languages of the Sepik-Ramu Basin and Environs". In Palmer, Bill (ed.). The Languages and Linguistics of the New Guinea Area: A Comprehensive Guide. The World of Linguistics, Vol. 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. pp. 197–432. ISBN 978-3-11-028642-7.
  9. ^ Kulick & Terrill (2019), p. 16.
  10. ^ a b Kulick (2019), pp. 182–188.
  11. ^ a b Kulick (1992)
  12. ^ Kulick (2019), pp. 182–188; Kulick & Terrill (2019), pp. 1–3.
  13. ^ Kulick & Terrill (2019), p. 349.
  14. ^ New Guinea World – Taiap
  15. ^ Laycock (1973)
  16. ^ Foley, William A. (2005). "Linguistic Prehistory in the Sepik-Ramu Basin". In Pawley, Andrew; Attenborough, Robert; Hide, Robin; Golson, Jack (eds.). Papuan Pasts: Cultural, Linguistic and Biological Histories of Papuan-Speaking Peoples. Pacific Linguistics 572. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. pp. 109–144. hdl:1885/146735. ISBN 0-85883-562-2.
  17. ^ Kulick & Terrill (2019), p. 25.
  18. ^ Kulick & Terrill (2019), p. 454.