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About Mor
  1. Language
  2. Geography
  3. People and Culture
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The Mor language (ISO-639-3: moq) is spoken mainly in the village of Mitimber located about 5 hours by road northeast of Fak-Fak in Indonesian Papua. There is another language in Indonesian Papua also called Mor (ISO-639-3: mhz), named after a group of islands northeast of Nabire. This is a totally different Austronesian language and it is just a coincidence that both are called Mor. Mor is spoken fluently by approximately 30 people over 40 years of age, and another 70 younger people have some command of the language. The name of the language means 'person' in Mor. The Mor has been assumed to be a member of the Trans New Guinea family, but the evidence for this is extremely slight, being no more than a pronoun form or two. Apart from obvious recent loans, the lexicon of Mor is fundamentally different from all its neighbours, so Mor is best regarded as a language isolate.

Mor is a fairly isolating SOV language. The segmental inventory is relatively small, typical for a Papuan language, and contains a bilabial fricative, typical of the region. There is no distinctive tone or stress. Nouns show alienability distinction, where inalienable nouns (body parts and the words for wife, shadow and friend) obligatorily take a possessive prefix. A few animate nouns take a plural suffix, but otherwise plurality cannot be marked morphologically. Verbs take prefixed subject and object markers and some suffixal morphology to mark tense and polarity. There is little evidence for subordination apart from a frequent converb construction. Adjectives are typically reduplicated.


The traditional habitat of the Mor people were the swampy lands along the Budidi and Bomberai rivers. Like so many lowland Papuan peoples, the Mor subsisted mainly on sago and fish. Wild pigs were a favourite for hunting, and figure prominently in folktales. Neighbours in the hills to the West were the tuber-cultivating Baham people. In the south, separated by a stretch of uninhabited land, were the Sabakor people, a (probably recent) offshoot of the Kamoro family. To the east were the Austronesian-speaking Irarutus. To the northeast, along North Bomberai the coast, were the Kemberano, also a sago/fish-based Papuan people from across Bintuni Bay. To the northwest, west of the Budidi rivermouth, were the people of Goras village. The Goras are much more recent Austronesian arrivals, forming the easternmost post of dialect chain including the villages Arguni, Fior, Forir and Derembang, whom the Mor collectively call Nuta. The Mor people had the most intimate contact with the Goras people. The Mor people, as far as can be told, were a small nation, averaging perhaps around 60 individuals throughout the past century. In traditional times (e.g., before the 1950s), a Mor person would speak only Mor as an infant, but learn Goras in childhood, so that every grown-up Mor would speak both Mor and Goras. In addition, occasional Mor would speak Baham or Kemberano as well. None of the neighbouring people, barely even an occasional individual, could speak Mor. The Mor like to say it is because the Mor language is too 'gwaringwari' (i.e., entangled, difficult), but presumably reflect the fact that Mor was a small nation.


People and Culture

Traditionally, the Mor lived in relatively short-term settlements along the two rivers, and the sago exploitation of various streches of the rivers were divided up by clan membership. There is a dry and wet season, but it rains almost every day and every night even in the dry season. It never gets freezing-cold in Mor territory, and consequently there is no word in Mor for 'cold' (asking for one provokes the word for 'wind'). Due their contacts with the Goras people, who had been muslim for a few centuries already, the Mor were exposed to Islam before any significant contact with the Dutch colonial administration. The Mor people had trading contacts with the coastal Goras, involving slaves, sandalwood and crocodile skin. Perhaps to facilitate this relation, the Mor took an interest in Islam in the first half of the 20th century. For muslim festivities, they would bring an Imam from Goras up the river to conduct the services. The Mor appear on Dutch maps and there is one recorded visit of a Dutch official travelling through Mor territory (without realising that the Mor had a different language than Goras), but otherwise the Mor had little or no contact with the colonial administration. Mor octogenarians tell me that they did not know what police, doctors, etc., were and that no Mor spoke Malay. Then came a brief period of Japanese occupation during World War II. The Japanese are remembered as cruel and brutal. After World War II, the government urged the Mor to move out of their swampy river homeland to Goras, and promised to build schools and houses for the Mor. The Mor moved en masse to Goras, where they were a minority. At Goras, all the Mor officially converted to Islam, and everyone younger than about 40 years of age has muslim first names. The everyday language of the Mor shifted to Goras and Fak-Fak Malay (a variant of Ambon Malay with some Papuan Malay traits). However, the government did not build houses and schools as promised, and the traditional subsistence (sago) was further away. As a consequence the Mor wanted to move back to their traditional land and urged the government to build houses for them. This time, the government did help, and since the 1990s most Mor live in the village of Mitimber, on the Budidi river. Young Mor speak Fak-Fak Malay, but little or no Mor or Goras.  


There is only a modicum of previous research on Mor. Van Dissel (1907:998-1000) trekked through Mor territory and gives one or two remarks on the people. The first linguist to note the existence of Mor was Johannes Cornelis Anceaux (1956, English translation 1958) who collected a wordlist of Mor from a speaker in Kokas (outside the Mor territory), and published 10 words of it. Another wordlist was collected in Kokas by a Dutch official around the same time, and both wordlists were finally published in Smits and Voorhoeve (1998). Anceaux also says he collected some grammatical data, but the notebook presumably containing this data is missing from his extensive archive at the KITLV in Leiden, and is probably lost. Voorhoeve (1975) reports on Mor based on Anceaux's data. The SIL conducted two surveys (Walker and Werner 1978, Walker 1983), both unpublished, during which another wordlist of Mor was collected (in Tomage, also outside the Mor territory). Finally, in 2010, Mark Donohue collected a wordlist in Goras, also unpublished.

  • Anceaux, J. C. (1956). Voorlopig kort overzicht van de taal-situatie in de onderafdeling fakfak en de aangrenzende gebieden van kaimana en babo. Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Ministerie van Koloniën: Kantoor Bevolkingszaken Nieuw-Guinea te Hollandia: Rapportenarchief, 1950-1962, nummer toegang 2.10.25, inventarisnummer 792.
  • Anceaux, J. C. (1958). Languages of the Bomberai Peninsula: Outline of a linguistic map. Nieuw-Guinea Studiën, 2:109-121.
  • Dissel, J. S. A van. (1907) Reis van Goras langs de Bědidí naar Ginaróe, en over Woměrá weer naar Goras (vierde voetreis in het bergland van Z.W. Nieuw-Guinea). Tijdschrift van het Koninklijk Nederlandsch Aardrijkskundig Genootschap: Tweede Serie 24. 992-1029.
  • Voorhoeve, C. L. (1975). The central and western areas of the trans-new guinea phylum: Central and western trans-new guinea phylum languages. In Wurm, S. A., editor, New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study Vol 1: Papuan Languages and the New Guinea linguistic scene, volume 38 of Pacific Linguistics: Series C, pages 345-460. Canberra: Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University.
  • Smits, L. and Voorhoeve, C. L. (1998). The J. C. Anceaux collection of wordlists of Irian Jaya languages B: Non-Austronesian (Papuan) languages (Part II), volume 4 of Irian Jaya Source Material No. 10 Series B. Leiden-Jakarta: DSALCUL/IRIS.
  • Walker, R. (1983). Fakfak survey report. Abepura: Unpublished report.
  • Walker, R. and Werner, M. (1978). Bomberai survey report. Abepura: Unpublished report.


Last checked 2017-12-16 by Mark Dingemanse
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Harald Hammarström

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
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