Skip navigati
The Australian National University

Christian Döhler - School of Culture, History & Language


Christian Döhler

PhD Candidate

Email: christian.doehler [at]


Thesis Title: A Grammar of Kómnzo


Research Interests: Papua New Guinea, languages of Southern New Guinea, Australian languages, language description and documentation, language in the political and public discourse, historical linguistics, numeral systems, pronominal syncretism

Curriculum Vitae: available here


My work focuses on Kómnzo, a small language spoken in Rouku village, Western Province of Papua New Guinea. The language belongs to the Yam language family (formerly know as Morehead Upper-Maro), which comprises about 20 languages. The Yam family has so far not received much attention in language documentation or description. It is located in a highly diverse part of Papua New Guinea most of whose families have themselves received surprisingly little scientific attention. See the map below for an overview of the area.

map - morehead maro languages

Typological profile

Kómnzo is a double marking language. The flagging of noun phrases follows an ergative-absolutive system. Verbs index up to two arguments in an Undergoer prefix (which can be filled by a Patient, Recipient, Benefactor or raised Possessor) and an Actor/Agent suffix. Intransitive verbs show a split-S, the more dynamic event types make use of an invariant (middle) morpheme in the prefix slot and the sole argument in the suffix. A handful of intransitive verbs index S in the prefix without a suffix. The split does not follow along volitionality or affectedness, but rather along stative / dynamic event types.

Kómnzo makes use of phasal verbs (start,finish) which take over the indexing of the original verb which is then has to be nominalized, much like English `start x-ing'. This is a common feature cross-linguistically, but somewhat untypical for Papua New Guinea.

The verbal morphology of the language exhibits a high degree of fusion involving Number, Person and TAM. An interesting fact about the morphology lies in the fact that it works on the basis of distributed exponents. A grammatical category of a particular word form, say an inflected verb (Number, Person, TAM), can only be `read off' after different morphemes have been integrated. Individual morpheme slots are underspecified for a particular category. For example, the verbal prefixes encode two number values: singular and non-singular. In order to arrive at the correct number value, one has to integrate this information with a suffix slot which encodes dual versus non-dual. Hence, in the prefixes the plural and the dual share one form while in the suffix the plural and the singular share one form. This principle of distributed exponents stretches across the whole morphology and involves the marking of number, person and tense, aspect and mood.

The geography and geological history

The geographical region stretches roughly 300km from west to east and 150km from north to south. The area is affected by the sharp contrast between wet season and dry season. The wet season turns the swamps into shallow, but large inland lakes, creeks change to big streams. Village become islands that can often be reached only by canoe. A realm of eucalyptus and melaleuca savannah, anthills, wallabies and bandicoots, are alternating with dense rainforest in which swidden yam cultivation is practiced. Over the past 10,000 years, the region has variously been joined on to Australia, cut off by rising seas, formed a separate large island, and then been rebuilt by progradation with sediment brought south by the giant Fly River in the North. This dynamic geo-morphological history is one likely cause of the region’s linguistic diversity.

Below you can see some pictures taken during my pilot field trip to the Morehead District in September 2010.

yamyam countingyam diggingchurchsago choppingchildrendrumpreparing tarodhingy

The numeral system

The Morehead culture is unique in the world in using a senary (base-six) number system. There are term for 1 to 6 and there are terms for the powers of six (36, 216, 1296, 7776 and 46656). This system is traditionally and exclusively employed in yam counting, which is an important ritual in the intense exchange relations between villages. The counting procedure is public and its importance is underlined by the beat of the drum which heralds the ritual to bypassers and the surrounding villages. Below you can see two videos of such a yam counting procedure. The first took place in preparation of a big wedding feast in September 2010. The second took place in 2012 for a different, much smaller feast.

more videos

In the video below you can see Nakre Abia explaining the manufacturing and use of two children's toys to me: `férfér' and `kifikifi'.


  • Döhler, Christian. In prep. A grammar of Kómnzo. Doctoral Dissertation, Australian National University.
  • Döhler, Christian. 2013. "Don't talk to him! His family speaks a bit mixed." Multilingualism from the perspective of the documenter. Presented at ICLDC 3 at University of Hawaii (audio and powerpoint at scholarspace)
  • Döhler, Christian. 2013. Review of Grummitt and Masters 2012. `A Survey of the Tonda Sub-Group of Languages. SIL Electronic Survey Report 2012-018' (text)
  • Döhler, Christian. 2012. The Morehead Upper-Maro languages of Southern New Guinea. Presented at Conference on History, contact and classification of Papuan Languages at VU Amsterdam (powerpoint)
  • Döhler, Christian. 2011. Positional Verbs in Kómnzo. Presented at 'Work in Progress Seminar Series' at Leipzig MPI-EVA (handout)
  • Döhler, Christian. 2009. Die Sprache des Migrationsdiskurses - Eine linguistische Analyse der Diskussion um das Zuwanderungsgesetz. Magisterarbeit, Technische Universität Chemnitz.
  • Döhler, Christian. 2006. Clusivity Flip – Patterns of Deponency in the Pronoun Paradigms of Northern Australian Languages. Honours Thesis, University of Melbourne.


  • The Languages of Southern New Guinea - project page @ ANU
  • Christian Döhler @
  • Christian Döhler's blog @ (written in German)

Updated: 11 June 2011/ Page Contact:  Christian Döhler