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Yélî Dnye

About Yélî Dnye
  1. Language
  2. Geography
  3. People and Culture
  4. Publications
  5. Photos


Yélî Dnye is a language isolate, not clearly related to any other language. Ancient relationships to other offshore Papuan languages in the Bismark archipelago, Bougainville and the Solomons are likely but unproven. It has the following features:

  • SOV word order tendency, with free phrase order
  • Ergative/Absolutive case marking on NPs
  • Complex cross-referencing on the verb, with over 1000 portmanteau affixes or clitics
  • Ergative syntax
  • 90 phonemes, some with multiple articulations not known from any other language
  • Widespread suppletion of verbs on tense, aspect, mood; nouns on number
  • Absolute spatial system, large adposition inventory, positional verbs



The language is spoken on Rossel Island, Papua New Guinea, (154 E, 11 S), the last island in the Louiseade archipelago, just under 400 km offshore from the mainland. It is a high island (c. 900 metres), 34 km by 14 km, fringed with massive reefs. The island is covered by primary rain forest, and secondary growth after slash and burn agriculture. The settlement pattern is dispersed hamlets. It is relatively depauperate in fauna and flora, but many of the species are new to science. There is no regular transport to or from the island. It has had a century of sporadic contact with westerners, including Catholic missionaries since c. 1953.


People and Culture

Rossel Islanders are physically distinctive, and have a vibrant culture of their own, which however shows many general influences (e.g. cultivars, valuables, canoes) from the Massim culture area. The traditional political system is a kind of 'big man' system, expressed in the control of shell money. Song performances, pig and funeral feasts involve massive exchanges of valuables. Subsistence is traditionally taro and sago based, but increasingly sweet potato and manioc are staples; protein comes largely from the sea, where there are rich fisheries. Rossel island exports soulavi shell necklaces (treasured by the Massim), and beche de mer (sea cucumber for the Asian market), and imports especially nails, axes, sugar, paraffin and rice.



  • Levinson, S. C. (in preparation). A Grammar of Yélî Dnye.
  • Levinson, S. C. & Brown, P. (in preparation). Put and take in Yélî Dnye. In A. Kopecka & B. Narasimhan (eds). (in preparation) Events of "putting" and "taking": A Crosslinguistic Perspective [working title]. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, series Typological Studies in Language.
  • Maddieson, I. & Levinson, S. C. (in preparation). The Phonetics of Yélî Dnye, the Language of Rossel Island.
  • Foley, R., Terrill, A., Dunn, M., Mirazon Lahr, M., Lindström, E., Reesink, G. & Levinson, S. C. (submitted). Deep Oceans, Deep Time: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Linguistic History of Island Melanesia. Proceedings of OMLL conference.
  • Levinson, S. C. (submitted). Demonstratives in Yélî Dnye. To appear in M. Dunn, S. Meira & D. Wilkins (eds.) Demonstratives.
  • Levinson, S. C. (accepted). Reciprocals in Yélî Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island. In N. Evans, A. Gaby, S. C. Levinson and A. Majid (eds.) Reciprocals and Semantic Typology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Levinson, S. C. (accepted). Syntactic Ergativity in Yélî Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island, and its implications for typology. Linguistic Typology.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2008). Landscape, seascape and the ontology of places on Rossel Island, Papua New Guinea. Language Sciences, 30(2/3), 256-290.  more >
  • Dunn, M., Levinson, S. C., Lindström, E., Reesink, G., & Terrill, A. (2008). Structural phylogeny in historical linguistics: Methodological explorations applied in Island Melanesia. Language, 84(4), 710-759. more >
  • Dunn, M., Foley, R., Levinson, S. C., Reesink, G. & Terrill, A. (2007). Statistical reasoning in the evaluation of typological diversity in Island Melanesia. Oceanic Linguistics, 46(2): 388–403. more >
  • Levinson, S.C. (2007). 'Cut' and 'break' verbs in Yélî Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island. In A. Majid & M. Bowerman (eds.) Cognitive Linguistics (special issue), 18(2): 207-217. more >
  • Levinson, S.C. (2007). Optimizing person reference - Perspectives from usage on Rossel Island. In N. Enfield & T. Stivers (eds.) Person Reference in Interaction, 29-72. Cambridge: CUP. more >
  • Levinson, S. C. (2006). Introduction: The evolution of culture in a microcosm. In S.C. Levinson & P. Jaisson (eds.) Evolution and Culture, 1-41. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. more >
  • Levinson, S.C. 2006. Matrilineal clans and kin terms on Rossel Island. Anthropological Linguistics, 48(1): 1-43. more >
  • Levinson, S.C. 2006. On the human "interaction engine". In N. Enfield & S.C. Levinson (eds.) Roots of Human Sociality, 39-69. Oxford: Berg Publishers. more >
  • Levinson, S.C. (2006). Parts of the body in Yélî Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island. In A. Majid, N. Enfield & M. van Staden (eds.) Language Sciences (special issue), 28: 221-240. more >
  • Levinson, S.C. (2006). The language of space in Yélî Dnye. In S.C. Levinson & D. Wilkins (eds.) Grammars of Space, 157-205. Cambridge: CUP. more >
  • Levinson, S.C. (2005). Living with Manny's dangerous idea. Discourse Studies, 7(4-5): 431-453. more >
  • Dunn, M., Terrill, A., Reesink, G., Foley, R. & Levinson, S.C. (2005). Structural phylogenetics and the reconstruction of ancient language history. Science, 309: 2072-2075. more >
  • Levinson, S.C., Meira, S. & The Language & Cognition Group (2003). 'Natural concepts' in the spatial topological domain. Language, 79(3): 485-516. more >
  • Levinson, S.C. (2000). H.P. Grice on location in Rossel Island. In S.S. Chang, L. Liaw & J. Ruppenhofer (eds.) Berkeley Linguistics Society, 25: 210-224. more >
  • Levinson, S.C. (2000). Yélî Dnye and the theory of basic color terms. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 10(1): 3-55. more >



Last checked 2017-12-16 by Mark Dingemanse
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Stephen C. Levinson

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
PO Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands