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The Biak Language in its cultural context

The language, its speakers and their environment

Biak is one of the many languages of the province Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) in Indonesia. The language belongs to the Austronesian language family, which is the family with the highest number of languages of the world. This website forms an introduction to the Biak language, and is largely based on fieldwork conducted by Wilco van den Heuvel. More detailed information on the Biak language can be found in his PhD thesis Biak, description of an Austronesian language of Papua.

Most speakers of Biak live on the islands Biak, Supirori, Numfor and the smaller islands around, the location of which can be seen in the figure below:

the islands Biak, Supirori, Numfor and the smaller islands around

The island Biak measures approximately 70 by 35 km, and is separated from the neighboring island Supiori by a small strait.  The larger part of the island is relatively flat, the only mountains being found in the North-West part of the island, with the highest mountain reaching approximately 740 meter above sea level.  Like Biak, the island Numfor is relatively flat,  the highest mountain not reaching above 225m. The island Supiori, on the other hand, is dominated by a high mountain, the highest top reaching 1034 m above sea level.

As official data are lacking, the total number of speakers of Biak can only be estimated, and estimates range from 30,000 (Wikipedia, July 2011) to 70,000 (Mansoben 2003).  Approximately half of all inhabitants in Biak live in town, while the others live in the villages outside, which in general are connected to town by small asphalt roads.

In the villages, the dominant means of existence are fishery or work on the land, dependent on whether the village is coastal or not. Families are self-supporting, and use the surplus of the crop or catch to sell on the local market or the market in Biak town. The most commonly cultivated products are different sorts of taro, cassava and sweet potatoes. In the wetter areas, one also finds sago trees, the product of which is popular throughout the island.

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