Tolomako language

Last updated
Native to Vanuatu
RegionBig Bay, Espiritu Santo Island
Native speakers
900 (2001) [1]
  • Tolomako proper
  • Tsuréviu
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tlm
Glottolog tolo1255
ELP Tolomako
Lang Status 60-DE.svg
Tolomako is classified as Definitely Endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger

Tolomako (also called Bigbay) is a language of the Oceanic subgroup of Austronesian languages. It is spoken on Santo island in Vanuatu.



It distinguishes four numbers for its personal pronouns: singular, dual, trial, plural. Its verbs have no tense or aspect marking, but two moods, realis and irrealis. Substantives and numerals also have the same two moods. E.g.












not to be

na tatsua mo tea mo tsoa

REALIS person REALIS one REALIS {not to be}

Someone is missing












not to be

te tatsua i tea mo tsoa

IRREALIS person IRREALIS one REALIS {not to be}

There is nobody.

Tolomako proper is characterized by having dentals where the mother language had labials before front vowels. It shares this feature with Sakao, but not with its dialect Tsureviu, which is otherwise very close. Thus:


When labials do occur preceding front vowels they seem to be reflexes of older labiovelars:


Compare with Fijian ŋata "snake" (spelt gata).

It is possible that Tolomako is a very simplified daughter-language or pidgin of the neighboring language Sakao. However, Tolomako is more likely a sister language of Sakao, not a pidgin. It cannot be phonologically derived from Sakao, whereas Sakao can be from Tolomako to some extent. Comparing Tolomako with its close dialect of Tsureviu allows researchers to reconstruct an earlier state, from which most of Sakao can be regularly derived. This earlier state is very close to what can be reconstructed of Proto-North-Central Vanuatu. Thus Tolomako is a very conservative language, whereas Sakao has undergone drastic innovations in its phonology and grammar, both in the direction of increased complexity.


Tolomako has a simple syllable structure, maximally consonant-vowel-vowel: V, CV, VV, CVV. However, in older materials, it permitted closed syllables, such as kanam "you (exclusive)" versus kanamu, though this may have been the result of not articulating high vowels after nasals.


There are three degrees of deixis, here/this, there/that, yonder/yon.


Tolomako has inalienably possessed nouns, which are regularly derived:


Tolomako syntax is isolating. It has a single preposition, ne, for all relationships of space and time; below it is used to distinguish the object of a verb from the instrument used.















mo losi na poe ne na matsa

3SG hits ART pig PREP ART club

"He hits (kills) the pig with a club"


Tolomako was unwritten until the arrival of missionaries from the New Hebrides Mission. James Sandilands translated Matthew, Jonah and Malachi from the Bible into Tolomako and these were published as "Na taveti tahonae hi Iesu Kristo, Matiu moulia..." by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1904. A missionary with the New Hebrides Mission, Charles E. Yates translated the book of Acts into Tolomaku and this was published by the Melbourne Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1906.

Charles E. Yates then worked on the Gospel of John, the Letter to the Philippians and the 1st and 2nd Letters to Timothy. With the help of fifteen of his teaching staff they translated "Na Taveti Tahonai hi Jon na Varisula" and 750 copies were published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1909.

See also

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  1. Tolomako at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)