|northern Papua New Guinea (mostly in East Sepik Province)|
|Linguistic classification||One of the world's primary language families|
The Sepik languages are a family of some 50 Papuan languages spoken in the Sepik river basin of northern Papua New Guinea, proposed by Donald Laycock in 1965 in a somewhat more limited form than presented here. They tend to have simple phonologies, with few consonants or vowels and usually no tones.
The Sepik languages, like their Ramu neighbors, appear to have three-vowel systems, /ɨ ə a/, that distinguish only vowel height. Phonetic [i e o u] are a result of palatal and labial assimilation to adjacent consonants. It is suspected that the Ndu languages may reduce this to a two-vowel system, with /ɨ/ epenthetic (Foley 1986).
The Sepik languages consist of two branches of Kandru's Laycock's Sepik–Ramu proposal, the Sepik subphylum and Leonhard Schultze stock. According to Malcolm Ross, the most promising external relationship is not with Ramu, pace Laycock, but with the Torricelli family.
In the cladogram below, the small "families" at the ends of the branches are clearly valid units. Higher nodes (Upper Sepik, Middle Sepik, Sepik Hills) are less certain; Foley (2005) accepts Sepik Hills and Middle Sepik.
The pronouns Ross reconstructs for proto-Sepik are:
|I||*wan||we two||*na-nd, *na-p||we||*na-m|
|thou (M)||*mɨ-n||you two||*kwə-p||you||*kwə-m|
|thou (F)||*yɨ-n, *nyɨ-n|
|he||*ətə-d, *də||they two||*ətə-p, *tɨ-p||they||*ətə-m, *tɨ-m|
Note the similarities of the dual and plural suffixes with those of the Torricelli languages.
Ross reconstructs two sets of pronouns for "proto–Upper Sepik" (actually, Abau–Iwam and Wogamusin (Tama)). These are the default set (Set I), and a set with "certain interpersonal and pragmatic functions" (table 1.27):
|thou (M)||*nɨ||you two||*nə-p||you||*nə-m|
|thou (M)||*kɨ||you two||*kə-p||you||*kə-m|
Most Sepik languages have reflexes of proto-Sepik *na ~ *an for 1sg, *no for 1pl, and *ni for 2sg.
Proto-Sepik forms reconstructed by Foley (2018) that are widespread across the family:
|‘1sg’||*na ~ *an|
Like the isolate Taiap, but unlike the Lower Sepik-Ramu, Yuat, and Upper Yuat families, Sepik languages distinguish masculine and feminine genders, with the feminine gender being the more common default unmarked gender. Proto-Sepik gender-marking suffixes are reconstructed by Foley (2018) as:
|feminine||*-t ~ *-s|
In Sepik languages, gender-marking suffixes are not always attached to the head noun, and can also be affixed to other roots in the phrase.
Typically, the genders of lower animals and inanimate objects are determined according to shape and size: big or long objects are typically classified as masculine (as a result of phallic imagery), while small or short objects are typically classified as feminine. In some languages, objects can be classified as either masculine or feminine, depending on the physical characteristics intended for emphasis. To illustrate, below is an example in Abau, an Upper Sepik language:
Except for the Middle Sepik languages, most Sepik languages overtly mark nouns using gender suffixes.