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Shompen language

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Title: Shompen language  
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Subject: Austroasiatic languages, Southern Nicobarese language, Minriq language, Phai language, Wila' language
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Shompen language

Shom Peng
Region Great Nicobar Island
Ethnicity Shompen people
Native speakers
400 (2004)[1]
Kalay (west)
Keyet (east)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 sii
Glottolog shom1245[2]

Shompen (Shom Peng) is a poorly known language, or languages, spoken on Great Nicobar Island in the Indian union territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean south of Burma.

Partially because the native peoples of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are protected from outside researchers, Shompen is poorly described, with much of the data from the 19th century, and the little 20th–21st century data of poor quality. However, Roger Blench and Paul Sidwell demonstrate that it is an Austroasiatic language, though they suggest that it might constitute a distinct branch of that family.


The Shompen are hunter-gatherers living in the hilly hinterland of the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve. Population estimates are approximately 400, although no census has been conducted.

Parmanand Lal (1977:104)[3] reported the presence of several Shompen villages in the interior of Great Nicobar Island.

  • Dakade (10 km northeast of Pulo-babi, a Nicobarese village on the western coast of Great Nicobar; 15 persons and 4 huts)
  • Puithey (16 km southeast of Pulo-babi)
  • Tataiya (inhabited by the Dogmar River Shompen group, who had moved from Tataiya to Pulo-kunyi between 1960 and 1977)


During the 20th century, the only data available were a short word list in De Roepstorff (1875),[4] scattered notes Man (1886),[5] and comparative list in Man (1889).[6]

It was a century before more data became available. 70 words were published in 1995,[7] and then in 2003 substantial new data was published, the most extensive so far.[8] However, Blench and Sidwell (2011) note that the 2003 book is at least partially plagiarized, the authors show little sign of understanding the material, which is full of anomalies and inconsistencies,[9] and that the data appears to have been taken from an earlier source or sources, perhaps from the colonial era.[10] Van Driem (2008) found it too difficult to work with,[11] but Blench and Sidwell made an attempt at analyzing and retranscribing the data, based on comparisons of Malay loanwords and identifiable cognates with other Austroasiatic languages. They conclude that the data in the 1995 and 2003 publications come from either the same language or two closely related languages.


Although traditionally lumped in with the Nicobarese languages, which form a branch of the Austroasiatic language family, there was little evidence to support this assumption during the 20th century. Man (1886) notes that there are very few Shompen words that "bear any resemblance" to Nicobarese, and also that "in most instances" words differ between the two Shompen groups he worked with. For example, the word for "back (of the body)" is given as gikau, tamnōi, and hokōa in different sources; "to bathe" as pu(g)oihoɔp and hōhōm; and "head" as koi and fiāu. In some of these cases, this may be a matter of borrowed versus native vocabulary, as koi appears to be Nicobarese, but it also suggests that Shompen is not a single language.

Based on the 1997 data, however, van Driem concluded that Shompen was a Nicobarese language.[11]

Blench and Sidwell note many cognates with both Nicobarese and with Jahaic in the 2003 data, including many words found only in Nicobarese or only in Jahaic (or sometimes also in Senoic), and also note that Shompen shares historical phonological developments with Jahaic. Given the likelihood of borrowing from Nicobarese, this suggests that Shompen might be a Jahaic or at least an Aslian language, or perhaps a third branch of a Southern Austroasiatic family alongside Aslian and Nicobarese.[10]


It is not clear if the following description applies to all varieties of Shompen, or how phonemic it is where it does apply.

Eight vowel qualities are recovered from the transcription, /i e ɛ a ə ɔ o u/, which may be nasalized and also appear long. There are numerous vowel sequences and diphthongs.

The consonants are attested as follows:

Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal [m] [n] [ɲ] [ŋ]
Plosive voiceless [p] [t] [c] [k] [ʔ]
voiced [b] [d] [ɟ] [ɡ]
aspiration [pʰ] [tʰ] [kʰ]
Fricative voiceless [x]
voiced [ɣ]
Approximant [w] [l] [j]

Many Austroasiatic roots with final nasal stops, *m *n *ŋ, appear in Shompen with voiced oral stops [b d ɡ]. This resembles Aslian, and especially Jahaic, where historical final nasals have become prestopped or fully oral. However, whereas in Jahaic nasals conflated with oral stops, in Shompen oral stops appear to have been lost first, only to be reacquired as nasals became oral. There are also, however, numerous words that retain final nasal stops. It is not clear if borrowing from Nicobarese is enough to explain all of these—Shompen could have been partially relexified under the influence of Nicobarese, or consultants might have given Nicobarese words during elicitation—though it was clearly the case for some.

Other historical sound changes are word-final *r and *l as [w], *r before a vowel as [j], loss of final *h and *s, and the breaking of Austroasiatic long vowels into diphthongs.


  1. ^ Shompen at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^
  3. ^ Lal, Parmanand. 1977. Great Nicobar Island: study in human ecology. Calcutta: Anthropological Survey of India, Govt. of India.
  4. ^ De Roëpstorff, 1875. Vocabulary of dialects spoken in the Nicobar and Andaman islands. 2nd ed. Calcutta.
  5. ^ EH Man, 1886. "A Brief Account of the Nicobar Islanders, with Special Reference to the Inland Tribe of Great Nicobar." The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 15:428–451.
  6. ^ EH Man, 1889. A dictionary of the Central Nicobarese language. London: W.H. Allen.
  7. ^ Rathinasabapathy Elangaiyan et al., 1995. Shompen–Hindi Bilingual Primer Śompen Bhāratī 1. Port Blair and Mysore.
  8. ^ Subhash Chandra Chattopadhyay & Asok Kumar Mukhopadhyay, 2003. The Language of the Shompen of Great Nicobar: a preliminary appraisal. Kolkata: Anthropological Survey of India.
  9. ^ for example, [a] is transcribed as short a but schwa [ə] as long ā, the opposite of normal conventions in India or elsewhere
  10. ^ a b Roger Blench & Paul Sidwell, 2011. "Is Shom Pen a Distinct Branch?" In Sophana Srichampa and Paul Sidwell, eds. Austroasiatic Studies: Papers from ICAAL 4. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. (ICAAL, ms)
  11. ^ a b George van Driem, 2008. "The Shompen of Great Nicobar Island: New linguistic and genetic data, and the Austroasiatic homeland revisited." Mother Tongue, 13:227–247.
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