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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

A Reconstruction of Proto-Croiselles Phonology and Lexicon



Andrew Pick


Background and Introduction

The New Guinea region is home to around 1200 languages, around twenty percent of the world’s total (Foley 2000). As the large majority of these languages are poorly documented, little is understood about the history and classification of many languages in this region. Based on lexical resemblances in core vocabulary, McElhanon and Voorhoeve (1970) proposed the Trans New Guinea (TNG) phylum, emcompassing a large portion of the languages of Papua. Later work on the TNG hypothesis (Wurm et al. 1975) included a group of around 80 languages in Madang province. If this hypothesis is correct, this would make the Madang group one of the largest branches of the putative TNG phylum (Foley 2000). 

The current study concerns a group of around twenty languages that Ross (2006) terms the Croiselles linkage, a branch of the proposed Madang group. Using primary data from my own fieldwork on several endangered languages of Madang province, as well as previously published wordlists and dictionaries, I apply the comparative method to demonstrate that Croiselles is a valid genetic grouping. I propose an internal structure for the language family, based off of shared phonological innovations, and reconstruct lexical items for Proto-Croiselles. I then discuss the prospects for demonstrating a genetic link between Croiselles and the other languages of the proposed Madang group. 

Previous work on the Croiselles languages

A survey of the Croiselles languages was carried out by Johannes Z’graggen, who published comparative wordlists of many of the languages in the Madang region (Z’graggen 1980a-d). For many of the Croiselles languages, these wordlists are the only published materials available. Z’graggen (1971) applies lexicostatistical methods to classify the languages of Madang region into two main branches, which he terms the Madang superstock and the Adelbert Range superstock, together comprising the “Madang subphylum” of TNG. Ross (2005) makes a preliminary hypothesis about the classification of Madang languages through a comparison of pronoun forms alone, arriving at a group he calls the Croiselles linkage, comprised of languages from both branches of Z’graggen’s Madang subphylum. It is primarily the languages of Ross’ Croiselles linkage that I am concerned with in this study. One limitation of both Z’graggen’s and Ross’ classifications is that they do not rely on regular sound correspondences to establish cognacy, but assume cognacy based on subjective judgements of similarity. This is due in part to a lack of adequate descriptive data on many of the Croiselles languages. 

The current study

I use regular sound correspondences to reconstruct the Proto-Croiselles sounds system and vocabulary, and propose an internal subgrouping based on shared phonological innovations. The findings of this study support Ross' hypothesis that the Croiselles languages are related, but indicate a significantly different internal structure for the group than that proposed by Ross. 

This study differs from previous works in two important ways: (1) I employ the comparative method, the accepted standard method of establishing genetic relationship, to identify recurrent form-meaning pairs and establish regular sound correspondences. (2) This study benefits from a larger pool of data, including dictionaries and other materials made available in recent years, as well as primary data from my fieldwork. In Summer 2016, I gathered data on seven Croiselles languages, including two not previously recorded in the literature: Qkuan Kambuar and Yamben. All seven of these languages are endangered– Qkuan Kambuar especially so, with only a handful of elderly speakers. 

Significance of this study for historical linguistics

As home to a significant portion of the world’s languages, the linguistic history of Papua is of interest to historical linguistics working in all areas, as any theory of language change cannot be said to be complete unless it can account account for the patterns of change found in this region. The linguistic ecology of the Papua New Guinea, characterized by an extremely high density of languages in long-standing close contact, with almost no written record, is quite different from some regions where the comparative method has been applied more extensively, such as Western Europe and Polynesia, with more closely related languages spread over larger areas. This close contact of great time depth, along with prevalent multilingualism, has resulted in a situation where languages freely borrow from each other features that have been said to be resistant to borrowing, such as basic vocabulary and pronouns (Foley 2000). This situation makes Papuan languages an interesting test case for the application of the comparative method, as distinguishing between inherited and borrowed material can be especially challenging. This study adds to a growing body of work, such as Daniels (2015) on the Sogeram languages and Holton et al. (2012) on Alor-Pantar, which have successfully applied the comparative method to smaller families of Papuan languages– a necessary prerequisite to evaluating the validity and scope of proposed larger groupings, such as Madang and Trans New Guinea. 


Daniels, D. R. (2015). A Reconstruction of Proto-Sogeram Phonology, Lexicon, and Morphosyntax (Doctoral dissertation). University of California, Santa Barbara 

Foley, W. A. (2000). The Languages of New Guinea. Annual Review of Anthropology, 29, 357–404. 

Holton, G., Klamer, M., Kratochvíl, F., Robinson, L. C., & Schapper, A. (2012). The historical relations of the Papuan languages of Alor and Pantar. Oceanic Linguistics, 86–122. 

McElhanon, K. A., & Voorhoeve, C. L. (1970). The Trans-New Guinea phylum: Explorations in deep-level genetic relationships. Pacific Linguistics B-16. 

Ross, M. (2005). Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages. Papuan pasts: Cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples, 15–65.

Wurm, S. A., Voorhoeve, C. L., & McElhanon, K. A. (1975). The trans-New Guinea phylum in general. New Guinea Area Languages. Vol. 1. Papuan languages and the New Guinea Linguistic Scene, Pacific Linguistics C-38. 

Z’graggen, J. A. (1971). Classificatory and Typological Studies in Languages of the Madang District, Papua New Guinea. Pacific Linguistics C-19. 

Z’graggen, J. A. (1980a). A comparative word list of the Rai Coast languages, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. Pacific Linguistics C-30. 

Z’graggen, J. A. (1980b). A comparative word list of the Northern Adelbert Range languages, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. Pacific Linguistics C-31. 

Z’graggen, J. A. (1980c). A comparative word list of the Mabuso languages, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. Pacific Linguistics C-32. 

Z’graggen, J. A. (1980d). A comparative word list of the Southern Adelbert

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