Mbula language - Mbula language

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Native toPapua New Guinea
RegionMorobe Province
Native speakers
4,500 (2007)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3mna
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Mbula (also known as Mangap-Mbula, Mangaaba, Mangaawa, Mangaava, Kaimanga) is an Austronesian language spoken by around 2,500 people on Umboi Island and Sakar Island in the Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea. Its basic word order is subject–verb–object; it has a nominative–accusative case-marking strategy.


Mbula speakers generally display difficulty expressing a name for their language. Historically it has been referenced as Mangap or Kaimanga but Kaimanga is considered an offensive term along the lines of "unsophisticated bush person". Mangap is not in known use however Mangaaba is the name given to Mbula speakers by Siassi Islanders. Mbula is the only name known to have been used by Mbula speakers themselves, though many of them are unfamiliar with this.

Language Family and Origin

Mbula is a member of the Oceanic group of Austronesian languages. It was originally proposed as a member of the Siassi Family language group which is a set of languages extending from Karkar Island in the Madang Province of Papua New Guinea, along the coast of Finschafen and across New Britain. However more recent evidence suggests that it is a descendant of the Vitiaz Dialect Linkage. Its nearest genetic relations are the Kilenge and Maleu languages, its nearest geographic neighbour is the Papuan Kovai language.


Mbula speakers are generally located in seven villages: Gaura, Yangla, Birik, Marile, Kampalap, Kabi and Sakar. These villages are located on Sakar Island and the eastern half of Umboi Island. Both islands are inactive volcanos and both are rich in game, timber and fish. Location has influenced the language in that there are many specific vocabular items for species of fish, shells, canoes, nets, spears and a pair of motion verbs '-pet - to go out, appear, happen' and '-le - to enter' which specifically describe paths of motion which are radially outward toward the sea or radially inward from the sea.

People and Culture

Colonialism has had a fair impact on the culture of Mbula speakers. Missionization began in 1884 and the vast majority of Mbula speakers now identify themselves as Christian. Some traditions are retained from tribal religions, foremost among them are those concerning sorcery, white magic and divination. Two general types of magic are identified among speakers, naborou, a beneficial love magic used by many young men in their pursuit of young ladies and yaamba, a kind of mildly destructive magic used to curse and hurt others. A third kind, pu, is considered the most evil, used only to kill or disable people.

Language Contact

The Mangap-Mbula are part of a previously extensive trading network with bordering language groups, especially those in the Ngero language group of the Siassi islands which formed the hub of the trading network. As a result, approximately 65% of Mbula speakers are at least somewhat bilingual in Tok Pisin and some 30% speak and understand some Ngero. Due to missionization and other factors, 35% can speak and write English.



The consonant phonemes of Mbula are as shown in the following table:

Table of consonant phonemes of Mbula
Bilabial Dental/Alveolar Velar
Voiceless Oral Stops p t k
Voiced Oral Stops b d ɡ
Voiced Pre-Nasalised Stops mb nd ŋɡ
Voiceless Fricative s
Voiced Fricatives z
Nasals m n ŋ
Lateral l
Trill r
Glides w j

The consonant /b/ is realised as [β] intervocalically. Prenasalised stops, while requiring two phonetic units, exist as a single phonemic unit. The palatal glide /j/ is treated as being underlyingly vocalic in morphophonemic analysis while the labio-velar glide /w/ is analysed consonantally. All voiceless plosives, /p t k/, are optionally pronounced with a voiceless nasal release word finally. All velars are fronted or backed, depending on the vowel immediately contiguous to them within the same syllable. /t/ is palatalized to a voiceless, laminal, post-alveolar plosive when followed by a morpheme boundary and /i/.


Mbula has five vowels phonemes as shown in the following table. Phonetically front vowels are unrounded and back vowels are rounded. /i/ and /u/ can be lax or tense and /e/ can be half close tense and half open lax. All vowels can be short or long though this is interpreted in the phonology as a sequence of two vowels rather than as the existence of long vowel phonemes. The two high vowels /i/ and /u/ are lowered slightly when followed by /e/, /o/, or /a/.

Table of vowel phonemes of Mbula
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a

Vowels are subject to two rules: penultimate lengthening which means that external realisations may be long vowels while the underlying form is a short vowel and epenthesis which means the insertion of a vowel where the underlying form of the morpheme does not contain one. Epenthesis is regressive which means that epenthetic vowels take on the quality of the first vowel in the rest of the form. Vowel length is contrastive as can be seen in the following examples:

[molo] - long

[moːlo] - a type of ant

[mbili] - domestic animal

[mbiːli] - new shoot of a plant

[ipata] - 3SG be heavy

[ipaːta] - 3SG reads


The placement of stress is predictable. In most words, primary stress falls on the penultimate syllable.

Syllable Patterns

Syllable structure is generally (C)V(C). VV can sometimes form a syllable in the case of a diphthong or long vowel and syllable structure can be analysed as CCV when /w/ or /j/ is analysed as a C.


As stated above, vowel length is contrastive. What would be written phonetically as a: is represented by aa. All long vowels are written this way. All alveolars (/t/, /d/, /n/, /nd/) are dental-alveolars. They are represented in the orthography by t, d, n and nd. The /j/ sound is represented by y. The complete orthography of Mbula is as follows:

a e i o u b d g k l m mb n nd ŋ ŋg p r s t w z y
A E I O U B D G K L M Mb N Nd Ŋ Ŋg P R S T W Z Y

Syntax and Word Classes

In an ideal grammar each classificatory word type would belong only to one category and in Mbula that is mostly the case. However, in the following three areas, word-forms exist which are hard to nail down as one or the other:

  1. verbs and prepositions
  2. verbs and adverbs
  3. verbs and instrumental nouns

The occurrence of a form in a wide range of conversational environments can result in the gradual loss of morphological features which are not appropriate to some particular conversational environments as well as the morphological gain of features which are appropriate to other conversational environments. This can mean ultimately either category shift of a word class or even just the general greying of the word classes as iron clad categories.

Verbs and Prepositions

Prototypical verbs and prototypical prepositions exist along a cline with verbs at the start, prepositions at the end, and multicategoried word types in the middle:

  1. forms inflected with the Subject prefixes which function syntactically only as predicates in sentences
  2. forms not inflected with the Subject prefixes which syntactically function only as predicates in sentences (the uninflected verbs discussed below in verbs)
  3. forms potentially exhibiting Subject agreement inflection which function syntactically as both predicates in sentences and in serial constructions (the prepositional verbs discussed below)
  4. forms never exhibiting inflection and which function syntactically only as prepositions

Verbs and Adverbs

Prototypical verbs and adverbs exist along a cline with verbs at the start, adverbs at the end and multicategoried word types in the middle:

  1. inflected verbs which never occur as modifiers within the predicate phrase and never occur in cosubordinate adverbial predications
  2. inflected verbs which never occur as modifiers within the predicate phrase, and can occur in either a preceding or following cosubordinate adverbial predication
  3. uninflected verbs which never occur as modifiers within the predicate phrase, but which can occur in either a preceding or following cosubordinate adverbial predication
  4. forms which can occur as modifiers in the predicate phrase after the object or occur as uninflected verbs in an adjacent cosubordinate adverbial predication
  5. forms which occur immediately after the object and never function as predicates in an adjacent cosubordinate adverbial construction
  6. forms which can occur immediately after the predicate and never function as a predicate in an adjacent cosubordinate adverbial construction

Verbs and Instrumental Nouns

Verbs and instrumental nouns crossover in that verbs theoretically derived from these nouns appear in an identical form. I.e., there is no overt morphological derivation which might indicate what direction the derivation has occurred in. Examples include:

didi - wall

-didi - to wall in

peeze - paddle

-peeze - to paddle

kor - implement for sweeping

-kor - to sweep up using this implement

ris - a line

-ris - to draw a line


There is no syntactic distinction between nouns and adjectives in Mbula. Nouns are syntactically distinguished by the following three characteristics:

  1. They may function 'in isolation' (i.e. without any further syntactic modification) as arguments in a predication, a property that distinguishes them from non-inflecting stative verbs.
  2. When functioning as the heads of noun phrases, nouns occur phrase initially with all modifiers following.
  3. A subclass of nouns is morphologically distinguished by being obligatorily inflected with a set of genitive suffixes.

There are eight semantic features of noun referents which are especially important for characterising the morphosyntactic behaviour of Mbula nouns:

  1. human referent
  2. animate referent
  3. potent (the referent of the noun can be viewed as the ultimate cause of some process which affects another entity)
  4. concrete (the noun can potentially refer to a physical location to which, at which, or from which an event takes place)
  5. temporal (the noun may be used to delineate the time at which an event takes place)
  6. potentially consumable (the referent of the noun can be eaten or drunk)
  7. individuated/count (the referent of the noun may be easily separated from its environment and may not be divided without changing its essential nature/character)
  8. inalienable genitive (the referent of the item is inherently associated with some other entity)


Pronouns make the following person/number distinctions.

  • 1 singular
  • 1 dual exclusive
  • 1 dual inclusive
  • 1 plural exclusive
  • 1 plural inclusive
  • 2 singular
  • 2 dual
  • 2 plural
  • 3 singular
  • 3 dual
  • 3 plural

Pronouns also inflect for nominative, accusative, referent and locative cases. Most pronouns are composed of an initial case marker plus a person-number marker. The nominative series of pronouns is generally used to encode animate participants which function as subjects. There are three demonstrative pronouns: ingi (this one, these ones), ina (that one, those ones) and inga (that one over there, those ones over there). Accusative pronouns encode animate participants which function as objects. The referent pronouns encode virtually any animate oblique argument. Locative pronouns indicate an animate location toward which an action is taking place in dynamic predications, or at which an item is located. The locative form is also used to encode possession. Interrogative pronouns such as who, when, where, operate in a replacement fashion. That is, the interrogative pronoun is used in place of the normal syntactic position of the item being questioned.


The characteristic syntactic function of verbs is to act as the heads of predications in which they occur. They are defined by a number of properties:

  1. They typically index the person and number of the subject of the sentence.
  2. They may contain transitivity-altering prefixes.
  3. They may not function as noun-phrase modifiers in certain frames.

Uninflected Verbs

There are several categories of non-inflecting verbs in Mbula:

  1. stative experiential verbs
  2. stative verbs encoding properties
  3. verbs of manner
  4. aspectual verbs

All of these non-inflecting verbs function only as predicates in clauses. Thus they cannot function as heads of noun phrases and they cannot function as restrictive modifiers of nouns unless they are relativised or nominalised. Syntactically, they resemble inflected verbs. They are only distinguished from other verbs morphologically.


The reason this class is called adverbials and not adverbs is because Mbula contains a large collection of words which are defined as modifiers of constituents other than nouns. Semantically, such forms typically encode notions of time, aspect, manner and modality.


Quantifiers are uninflected forms which always occur in noun phrases following nouns, locative/alienable genitive pronouns, and attributive stative nouns, but before determiners, locative/alienable genitive prepositional phrases, relative clauses and demonstratives. The Mbula counting system is based upon the notions of five and twenty.


Prepositions are generally uninflected forms which govern a single noun phrase complement and relate it to a head or predicate. Mbula employs five categories of prepositions:

  1. the referent preposition -pa- used for oblique arguments
  2. the locative preposition -ki- used for animate goals towards which some entity moves, sites at which some entity is located and body parts which perceive something
  3. the preposition -kembei- used to express resemblance, similarity or approximate equality (i.e., like, as)
  4. the comitative and manner prepositions -ramaki-/-raama- used for accompaniment and manner
  5. prepositional verbs discussed below

Prepositional Verbs

These forms are a set of optionally inflected verbs which occur in serialisations functioning as case markers. As they may potentially contain inflection for third person singular in these serialisations they depart from the typical uninflected preposition. However, they retain the prepositional function of relating a dependent noun phrase to a verbal head.


Demonstratives in Mbula include determiners which occur in noun phrases and what one may call 'locative adverbial use' - those demonstratives which encode location in sentences. Because there is no morphological distinction between the two, they are considered to constitute a single class.


Complementisers are uninflected forms which only govern a following sentence. The combination of a complementiser and a following sentence becomes the constituent in a noun or predicate phrase. Mbula contains seven types of complementiser:

  1. kokena - lest (I don't want this to happen)
  2. be ~ nothing - non-presupposition of factuality (I do not say this is something which has happened)
  3. (ta)kembei - like (I think like this)
  4. nothing - asserted factuality (I say this is something which has happened or is happening)
  5. ta(u) ~ nothing - presupposed factuality (I know that this is something which has happened and I think you know about it too)
  6. tabe - presupposed non-factuality (I know that this is something which has not happened and I think you know about it)
  7. ki - habitual event (This is the kind of thing that is always happening)


There are a great deal of conjunctions in Mbula that each encode their own subtly different meaning. However, all conjunctions fall broadly into four categories: temporal conjunctions, conditional conjunctions, causal conjunctions and disjunctions.


There are a number of interjections in Mbula, all of which play no role in the grammar of the language, but which function to convey the speaker's attitudes and intentions. They always occur sentence initially and include the following examples:

a - I want to say something ais - I want something ha - I hear something, I don't know what it is ii - I don't know lak - I want to ask you something som - I do not agree with you yo(o) - I say you did something good ywe - I think you are bad


Word structure in the Mbula language is not complex. There is little inflection of both nouns and verbs and few derivational processes. Most words in the Mbula language are mono-morphemic. Multi-morphemic words can be formed via the following processes:

  • indexing on verbs for the person and number of the Subject
  • inflection of inalienable nouns for the person and number of their genitives
  • reduplication
  • derivation of predicates to increase or decrease their transitivity
  • compounding
  • nominalisation

These processes will be discussed below.

Inflectional Morphology

The only types of inflectional processes in the language are on verbs for the person and number of the Subject, inflection of inalienable nouns for the person and number of their genitives as well as pronoun person/number distinctions.

Verbal Inflection

Verbs typically index the person and number of the subject of the sentence with the following set of subject prefixes:

1sg - ang

2sg - nothing ~ ku

3sg - i

1pl.inc - t

1pl.exc - am

2pl - k

3pl - ti

Inflection of Inalienable Nouns

Mbula contains a class of nouns which are obligatorily inflected with genitive suffixes. 'Inalienable' describes the semantic nature of the nouns. That is, they are semantically considered in speakers’ minds to be inalienable or inseparable from something. Examples include body parts and family members – concepts which exist in relation to something else, just the way an edge cannot exist without being the edge of something. Following is a list of the genitive suffixes:

gen.1sg - ng

gen.2sg - m

gen.3sg - VnV

gen.1pl.inc - ndV

gen.1pl.inc - yam

gen.2pl - yom

gen.3pl - n

Pronoun Inflection

Pronouns in Mbula inflect for first, second and third person as well as singular, dual and plural, as well as inclusive and exclusive in the first person. They also change depending on whether they are in the nominative, accusative, referent or locative case. The following table details the paradigm:

Nominative Accusative Referent Locative
1SG nio yo pio tio
2SG nu ~ niwi u pu ~ piwi ku ~ kiwi
3SG ni i pini kini
1DU.INC ituru
1DU.EXC niamru
2DU niomru
3DU ziru
1PL.INC iti ti piti kiti
1PL.EXC niam yam piam tiam
2PL niom yom piom tiom
3PL zin zin pizin kizin

Derivational Morphology

The following types of derivation occur in Mbula: compounding of nouns and verbs, creation of nouns by means other than compounding, derivational devices which alter the transitivity of verbs, reduplication and some other minor processes. Compounding is not a very productive process in Mbula though is far more common in verbs than in nouns. Verbs can compound with adverbs, nouns and other verbs to create verbs. Nouns are more likely to be derived by the nominalising suffix -nga. When combined with adverbs it yields stative nouns, with nouns it can either signal an intensification of meaning or a slight change in meaning (with no intensification), it turns stative verbs into stative nouns and dynamic verbs into nouns. Semantically, -nga derivations tend to convey the idea of generic, habitual or characteristic actions. A further nominalisation suffix -i exists but is far less productive than -nga. Transitivity of predicates can be altered by the addition of one or more of the following prefixes: pa, par, m and these are extremely productive processes. Finally, reduplication can result in any one of the following meanings: plurality, distribution, intensification, diminution or habitual-durative action (action that is somehow extended).


  1. ^ Mbula at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Mbula". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.


External links