Sulawesi Language Alliance

Championing Local Languages in the Heart of Indonesia

Classification of Sulawesi Languages

Over one hundred indigenous languages are spoken across the island of Sulawesi and its immediate environs in Indonesia. These languages all belong to the Austronesian language family. In total the Austronesian family comprises over 1200 languages spoken from Madagascar off the coast of Africa, across Indonesia and the Philippines, and into the great Pacific Basin.

Current scholarship divides the languages of Sulawesi into ten low-level, non-controversial groupings for which the term ‘microgroup’ has been used (Sneddon 1989, 1993; Blust 1991; Mead 2003a). The ten microgroups of Sulawesi are located on the following map. In the key that follows, the number of languages in each group is indicated in parentheses after the microgroup name.

Map of Sulawesi Microgroups

  yellow Sangiric (5)   lavender Saluan-Banggai (6)  
  fuschia Minahasan (5)   pink Bungku-Tolaki (15)  
  mint Gorontalo-Mongondow (9)   green Muna-Buton (12)  
  red Tomini-Tolitoli (10)   orange Wotu-Wolio (6)  
  gold Kaili-Pamona (13)   blue South Sulawesi (33)  

In addition, three indigenous languages of Sulawesi belong to language groups centered outside of Sulawesi and thus are not included in any of these ten microgroups: Manado Malay, Makassar Indonesian, and Indonesian Bajau.

Manado Malay is spoken in Manado, the provincial capital of North Sulawesi, and also serves as a lingua franca throughout the province. Owing to school teachers and civil servants who were recruited from Manado during the colonial era, influences from Manado Malay are felt even in interior Central Sulawesi. Manado Malay is classified as an East Indonesian Trade Malay (Adelaar and Prentence 1996). It developed out of, or in close connection with, the variety of Malay formerly spoken in Ternate and now known as North Moluccan Malay.

Makassar Indonesian is spoken in Makassar, the provincial capital of South Sulawesi, where it competes with Bugis and Makasar, both very dominant local languages. Makassar Indonesian is best considered a regional, informal variety of Indonesian which has been influenced by the Makasar language, although it is now also spoken by those whose mother tongue is not Makasar. As with Manado Malay, Makassar Indonesian is part of the larger Malayic complex of languages with its center on Borneo and Sumatra.

Finally, pockets of Indonesian Bajau speakers are found in coastal areas across Sulawesi, particularly in eastern and southeastern Sulawesi (Nagatsu 2007; Mead and Lee 2007). Their language is related to the other Sama-Bajau languages of Malaysia and the southern Philippines. Prior to their arrival in Malaysia and the Philippines, the original homeland of the Sama-Bajau was southeastern Borneo (Blust 2005, 2007).

Here follow brief presentations of the ten microgoups of Sulawesi, followed by a discussion of higher-level relationships among them.

The Sangiric Microgroup

The Sangiric microgroup is the northernmost of Sulawesi’s language groups. It comprises five languages. Bantik and Ratahan are spoken on the mainland of northern Sulawesi. Sangir (Sangíhe) and Talaud are spoken on islands to the north of mainland Sulawesi. Sangil is spoken across the border in the Philippines. For locations of these languages, see especially the maps in Sneddon (1984:vii, viii).

Sneddon (1984) has classified the five Sangiric languages into a northern and a southern group. Sneddon’s classification is based on the comparative method.

            Sangil (in the Philippines)

The speech varieties of Tahulandang and Siau—two small island groups lying between Sangir Island and mainland northern Sulawesi—are usually considered dialects of Sangir owing to their mutual similarity (i.e. above 93% lexically similar in basic vocabulary). Because of reported limited intelligibility, however, Merrifield and Salea (1996:14) were willing to recognize Tahulandang and Siau as languages in their own right. Despite their geographical proximity, Tahulandang, Siau and Sangir have also had their separate histories; see among others Henley (1993).

The Minahasan Microgroup

The Minahasan microgroup comprises five languages spoken on the tip of mainland northern Sulawesi. These five languages share a common cultural and linguistic heritage. The name Minahasa is derived from a local word meaning ‘unity.’

The current classification of the Minahasan languages was first proposed by Sneddon (1970), and is only slightly revised from an earlier classification by Adriani (1925). Sneddon’s classification is based on lexicostatistics, but “all the other evidence considered strongly supports the findings of the lexicostatistical study” (Sneddon 1978:9).

      North Minahasan
            North-East Minahasan

The Gorontalo-Mongondow Microgroup

The Gorontalo-Mongondow languages are spoken across three provinces. The western-most language, Buol, is spoken in Central Sulawesi. Gorontalo and Suwawa, along with the Atinggola dialect of Bolango, are spoken in present-day Gorontalo Province. The remaining languages are spoken in the province of North Sulawesi (see e.g. the maps in Sneddon and Usup 1986:408 and Sneddon 1991:300).

Gorontalo and the languages most closely related to it are referred to as Gorontalic languages, and likewise for Mongondow and its closest relations (now only Ponosakan, but once also thought to include Lolak; see below). Originally the Gorontalic and Mongondowic languages were believed to constitute separate groups. The linguistic unity of the Gorontalo-Mongondow microgroup was first recognized by Charles (1974), and established by Noorduyn (1982).


Lolak was originally classified as a Mongondowic language, but Sneddon (1991) argues that Lolak is best considered a Gorontalic language that has borrowed heavily from Mongondow.

Bolango has two major dialects spoken in separate locations, the result of migration over two hundred years ago (Wahidji 1977, cited in Sneddon and Usup 1986:410). The Atinggola dialect is spoken on the northern coast (Celebes Sea) between Gorontalo and Kaidipang, while Bolango proper is spoken eastward and southward on the opposite coast (Tomini Bay) in a Mongondow area. Because of their distinct geographic locations, which now includes a provincial boundary between them, Atinggola and Bolango are sometimes treated as separate languages.

Usup (1981a, 1981b, 1986), following in the steps of Adriani and Kruyt (1914:192), at one time promoted a further subclassification of Gorontalic languages into an eastern group comprising Kaidipang, Bolango, Atinggola, Suwawa and Bintauna, and a western group comprising Gorontalo and Buol. However, a closer investigation (Sneddon and Usup 1986) revealed that most sound changes must have diffused across the Gorontalic area, and therefore cannot be used for subgrouping in a genetic inheritance model. In fact a further, genetic subclassification of the Gorontalic languages may never be achieved.

The Tomini-Tolitoli Microgroup

The Tomini-Tolitoli languages are spoken on both the eastern (Tomini Bay) and western (Makassar Straight) sides of the narrow ‘neck’ of Sulawesi’s northern penninsula. Linguistically the Tomini-Tolitoli area has long been under the influence of more prominent languages, including Kaili, Gorontalo, Bugis, Makasar and even Mandar.

Nikolaus Himmelmann, the first linguist to do extensive field research in the Tomini-Tolitoli area (in the late 1980s and early 1990s, results published 2000), presents the following classification. He qualifies his classification as a ‘tentative subgrouping.’

            Northern Tomini
            Southern Tomini

It remains to be determined whether these ten languages constitute a genetic group, or whether they are merely geographically related. In particular Totoli and Boano, the two northernmost languages, “differ considerably from the other languages with respect to phonology, lexicon and grammar, … [and] the possibility cannot be excluded that the Tomini languages are in fact not their next of kin” (Himmelmann 2001:20).

A further issue concerns whether the two major varieties of Lauje (Lauje proper and Ampibabo Lauje) should be considered separate languages. If accepted, this would bring the total number of Tomini-Tolitoli languages to eleven.

The Kaili-Pamona Microgroup

The Kaili-Pamona microgroup comprises thirteen languages. Most of these languages are spoken in Central Sulawesi, although three languages—Baras, Topoiyo and Sarudu—are spoken in small enclaves in West Sulawesi.

In the Dutch era these were called Torajan languages, based on a Bugis exonym meaning ‘people of the interior.’ In the 1970s the group was renamed after its two principal languages.

Adriani and Kruyt (1914) divided these languages into two groups: an East Toraja group comprising Pamona (then known as Bare’e), Rampi, and the Badaic languages (Napu, Bada, and Besoa), which they placed against a West Toraja group that included Kaili, Lindu, Moma, Sedoa and Uma. Based on a comprehensive study of sound changes, however, Martens (1989a) proposed a new classification into northern and southern groups.

Recently Erik Zobel proposed that the Badaic languages be removed from Kaili-Pamona and placed instead with the Seko languages (Zobel 2015b). (He also noted certain affinities between Rampi and Seko-Badaic, but called for additional data before Rampi’s genetic affiliations can be assessed with certainty.) With this update (but keeping Rampi in place), the remaining Kaili-Pamona languages are classified as follows.

                  Kaili, Da’a
                  Kaili, Ledo
                  Kaili, Unde

The several speech varieties spoken in the broad Kaili area have sometimes been regarded as a single language, and sometimes as four or more languages (for a summary of these different viewpoints, see Mead 2010). Baras, spoken by only tens of households in West Sulawesi, may be better regarded as a dialect of Kaili-Da’a. Conversely, the Rai (Tawaili-Sindue), Tara (Parigi) and Ta’a (Dolago-Sausu) varieties are currently subsumed as dialects of Kaili-Ledo, despite significant differences from Ledo in both grammar and vocabulary.

In a paper on the historical phonology of the Wolio language of southeastern Sulawesi, Van den Berg (2008) noted certain striking similarities between Wolio and the Ledo variety of Kaili, which he explained as early influence on both languages from a South Sulawesi source. Zobel (2015a) goes further, suggesting that Ledo Kaili (but not any of the other local Kaili varieties such as Rai, Tara, or Ta’a) be removed from the Kaili-Pamona microgroup and placed with the Wotu-Wolio languages.

The Saluan-Banggai Microgroup

The Saluan-Banggai microgroup comprises six languages spoken in and around the eastern penninsula of Sulawesi. The internal classification of the Saluan-Banggai languages was investigated by Mead (2003b), who also demonstrated that the divergent Banggai language—sometimes reported as a ‘language isolate’—is a bona fide member of this group.


Banggai, Balantak and Saluan are large languages, each with tens of thousands of speakers. Bobongko, Andio and Batui are small languages which have sometimes been overlooked in inventories of languages of the area. In fact for nearly a century Batui was misclassified as a dialect of Pamona, the error only recently being discovered and corrected (Mead and Pasanda 2015).

The Bungku-Tolaki Microgroup

The Bungku-Tolaki microgroup (in the literature also known as the Bungku-Mori or Bungku-Mori-Tolaki group) comprises fifteen languages spoken in southeastern Sulawesi and its offshore islands. A classification of the Bungku-Tolaki languages based on the comparative method was first proposed by Mead (1998:117).

            East Coast
                  Mori Bawah
                  Mori Atas
            West Coast

This classification supersedes an earlier classification proposed by Mead in 1994 (but not published until 1999) that was based on a lexicostatistical comparison. In this earlier classification, the primary groupings under Bungku-Tolaki were ‘Bungku,’ ‘Mori’ and ‘Tolaki’ (Mead 1999:32–35). In light of evidence from historical sound change and innovations in pronoun sets, however, the unity of the proposed Mori group (comprising Bahonsuai, Mori Bawah, Mori Atas, Padoe and Tomadino) could not be maintained. Rather it had to be recognized that an ancient language boundary ran through this group, dividing Bahonsuai and Mori Bawah (which, as above, are now known to belong to the eastern branch of Bungku-Tolaki) from Mori Atas, Padoe and Tomadino (which belong to the western branch).

The Muna-Buton Microgroup

The Muna-Buton microgroup as presently understood comprises twelve languages spoken in and around the islands off the southern coast of mainland Southeast Sulawesi.

The internal classification of the Muna-Buton languages has been treated in two articles. Donohue (2004) demonstrated the need to remove the five Wotu-Wolio languages from this group, and proposed a classification of the remaining Muna-Buton languages (but left Tukang Besi and Bonerate out of consideration). Meanwhile, Van den Berg (2003) has convincingly shown that Tukang Besi and Bonerate consitute a first-order subgroup within Muna-Buton. In the classification shown here, the subgroups under Nuclear Muna-Buton follow those proposed by Donohue (2004:33).

      Tukang Besi
            Tukang Besi, North
            Tukang Besi, South
      Nuclear Muna-Buton
                  East Buton
                  West Buton

At least four issues remain unsettled regarding language boundaries within Muna-Buton.

One issue concerns whether Cia-Cia should be considered a single language or possibly up to three distinct languages (e.g. Cia‑Cia, Masiri, and Island Cia‑Cia).

Second, the Pancana language likely comprises a dialect chain, and upon closer examination language boundaries between it and its neighbors Liabuku and Kambowa may need to be shifted, or removed altogether.

Third, Donohue (2000) favors merging Bonerate as a dialect of South Tukang Besi. Among Muna-Buton languages, Bonerate alone is spoken in South Sulawesi, and doubtless its distant geographical location and the presence of a provincial boundary—more so than any linguistic basis—led Bonerate to being recognized as a separate language.

Fourth, despite marginal inherent intelligibility between North Tukang Besi and South Tukang Besi, local opinion strongly favors recognizing only one language (Donohue 2000:63).

The Wotu-Wolio Microgroup

The Wotu-Wolio microgroup comprises five languages spoken in coastal enclaves in and around the Gulf of Bone. Wotu—at the head of the gulf—represents the probable homeland of this once-seafaring group. Until recently, the five Wotu-Wolio languages were included as part and parcel of the Muna-Buton group. Their separate position was first recognized by Sirk (1988), and established by Donohue (published 2004, but circulating as an underground paper since 1993).


An internal classification of the five Wotu-Wolio languages has yet to be definitively worked out. However, it is clear that Wolio and Kamaru share a closer relationship to each other than they do to any of the other languages, and likewise for Kalao, Laiyolo and Barang-Barang (which together have sometimes been referred to as the Kalao subgroup).

In some studies Barang-Barang is subsumed as a dialect of Laiyolo (lexical similarity 86%, Friberg and Laskowske 1989:14). However Wyn Laidig, who worked with speakers of both Barang-Barang and Laiyolo in the 1990s, wrote of them as separate languages (Laidig and Maingak 1999; Belding, Laidig and Maingak 2001). Among other reasons, he noted that speakers of Laiyolo and Barang-Barang preferred to communicate with each other in Selayar (the dominant regional language) (Laidig 1997:2).

The South Sulawesi Microgroup

The South Sulawesi microgroup comprises thirty-three languages, most of which are spoken in South Sulawesi and the newly formed province of West Sulawesi (until 2004 part of South Sulawesi). Esser (1938) was the first to propose a South Sulawesi group, with boundaries as generally recognized today, where previously Adriani had recognized three groups: Makassar-Buginese, Sadang and Mandar (Adriani and Kruyt 1914:353–354) and Van der Veen (1929), in a more fine-grained analysis, had recognized six groups: Makassar-Buginese, Sa’dan, Mandar, Luwu-Masenrempulu, Pitu Ulunna Salu, and Seko. Both Mills (1975) and Sirk (1989) strengthened Esser’s notion by delineating a reasoned basis for recognizing which languages belong to the South Sulawesi microgroup. Since then, however, the membership of the South Sulawesi microgroup has not remained static.

In the early 1990s, Adelaar demonstrated that the Embaloh and Taman languages of central Borneo  (with Kalis sometimes recogonized as a third language, together the ‘Tamanic languages’) are, despite their geographic location, genetically South Sulawesi languages closely related to Bugis (Adelaar 1994).

In 1988 Michael Martens surveyed the Napu, Bada and Besoa languages of the central Sulawesi highlands. Concluding that they formed a single group, he referred to them together as the Badaic languages, and suggested that they were genetically Kaili-Pamona languages that had been heavily influenced by South Sulawesi languages, particularly Seko (Martens 1989b). Later Mead (2003a:136) entertained the opposite hypothesis, namely that the Badaic languages were genetically South Sulawesi languages that had been influenced by Kaili-Pamona languages. Building on the work of Laskowske (2007), who noted the odd fit of Seko within South Sulawesi, Zobel (2015b) deduced evidence for grouping the Seko and Badaic languages closely together versus the remaining South Sulawesi languages.

At the same time Zobel confirmed the placement of the Limola language (widely known in the literature as Lemolang) in the Badaic subgroup. Prior to this it had an enigmatic classification. Van der Veen (1929:93–96), the first linguist to bring to light even a small amount of data on Limola, tended to see resemblances between it and Rampi. Sirk (1981:34) suggested that Limola was possibly an “aboriginal non-South Sulawesi language.” Grimes and Grimes (1987:53–54) classified Limola as a South Sulawesi isolate solely on lexicostatistical evidence, while Yamaguchi (2003) argued Limola was probably a Bungku-Tolaki language. Initial evidence suggesting that Limola shared a close relationship with the Badaic languages was first adduced by Martens (1989a).

An internal classification of the revised South Sulawesi group is presented below. It follows a subgrouping—based on a lexicostatistical analysis—originally proposed by Friberg and Laskowske (1989), with the addition of the Tamanic and Badaic languages as noted above. To avoid introducing potentially confusing uses of the term ‘South Sulawesi’ as a linguistic term, I use the label ‘Greater South Sulawesi’ for the larger group that includes Seko-Badaic, and the label ‘Nuclear South Sulawesi’ for the group that includes all the South Sulawesi languages exclusive of Seko Badaic.

Greater South Sulawesi
                  Seko Padang
                  Seko Tengah 
      Nuclear South Sulawesi      
                         Embaloh (in Borneo)
                         Taman (in Borneo)
                   Konjo, Coastal
                   Konjo, Highland
                  Pitu Ulunna Salu
                        Toraja, Sa'dan

There also exists a genetic classification of the (Nuclear) South Sulawesi languages, proposed by Mills (1975:490 ff). In his scheme, starting from the top, the first split is between the Makasar subgroup of languages and everything else; the second split is between the Bugis subgroup and everything else; and third between Mandar and everything else—or perhaps, he notes, is was Mandar first, then Bugis. However, Mills worked with sometimes unreliable data and only a subset of languages (e.g. he did not consider Lemolang or the Tamanic languages). His classification also relied heavily on what happened historically to consonants in final position. Unfortunately, final consonant merger and loss are insufficient in and of themselves to support a genetic classification—that is to say, there is too great a likelihood that such changes spread arealy and therefore have nothing to say about genetic relationships (Sneddon 1993, Mead 1996).

With better understanding of sound change in the northern part of the language area (Smith 1993, Yamaguchi 2001), the internal classification of the Nuclear South Sulawesi languages is due for a reexamination.

Finally, upon closer investigation, two languages may merit a different placement within a subclassification of South Sulawesi languages. First, it has been suggested that the small Talondo' enclave may in fact be a Seko language which has borrowed heavily from Kalumpang (Friberg and Laskowske 1989:8; note also Van der Veen 1929:62–63 who included Talondo' among a list of Seko-speaking villages). Second, while Friberg and Laskowske (1989:5) place Campalagian with Bugis, they note that similarities may be the result of convergence and suggest an historical-comparative investigation to determine Campalagian’s deeper affinities.

Higher-level Relationships among the Ten Established Microgroups of Sulawesi

Besides the historical-comparative work which has established the ten low-level microgroups (see sketches of each microgroup above), linguists have also attempted to establish higher level relationships between these microgroups. A number of studies which went looking for higher level connections, however, actually came up empty.

Starting from his work in South Sulawesi, Roger Mills (1975:517 ff.) investigated but could find no basis for macrogrouping South Sulawesi languages with the Kaili-Pamona, Bungku-Tolaki or Muna-Buton groups, which he collectively referred to as ‘Toraja’ languages (the existence of a Wotu-Wolio group separate from Muna-Buton was unknown to Mills). Later Mills (1981) sketched out four major subgroups across the island of Sulawesi, namely the South Sulawesi languages, the ‘Toraja’ languages, the North Sulawesi languages, and finally the Saluan languages. His groupings, however, were mostly impressionistic. He speculated, for example, that the Saluan languages including Banggai were ultimately connected with Philippine languages, and might be relatively recent arrivals in Sulawesi. He left the Tomini-Tolitoli languages out of consideration owing to the small amount of material then available.

Ülo Sirk (1981) reached the same conclusions as Mills concerning South Sulawesi languages. While Sirk identified several ‘old’ lexical items which South Sulawesi languages shared with their neighbors, particularly Kaili-Pamona languages, and structural similarities which they shared with languages of southeastern Sulawesi, he concluded that such similarities merely pointed to a long period of contact.

In 1989 James Sneddon published the results of his comparison of northern Sulawesi languages from the perspective of both historical sound change and lexical innovations. In this careful study, he found no basis for grouping the Gorontalo-Mongondow, Minahasan or Sangiric languages with each other, nor did he find support for grouping any of these three with other language groups of Sulawesi. He concluded that “the search for close affinities [of the three North Sulawesi microgroups] must be directed northward, to the languages of the Philippines” (Sneddon 1989:103).

Work in that direction was already in progress. In 1991, Blust identified the Gorontalo-Mongondow languages (but not the Minahasan or Sangiric languages) as belonging to his newly proposed Greater Central Philippines group. In essence, the Gorontalo-Mongondow languages are relatively recent arrivals in Sulawesi (circa 500 BC) and share a closer affiliation with Tagalog, Cebuano and other Greater Central Philippine languages than they do with any language group on Sulawesi.

Proving a connection between the other two ‘North Sulawesi’ microgroups—Sangiric and Minahasan—and other (or all) Philippine languages has proved more elusive. Some initial evidence for their inclusion in a larger, all-encompassing Philippine group was accumulated by Zorc (1986). However, his evidence consisted of lexical innovations only—an inherently weaker type of evidence than shared sound change or grammatical innovations. Among his ninety-eight Proto Philippine lexical innovations, sixteen had reflexes in Proto Minahasan or a Minahasan language, while fifteen had reflexes in Proto Sangiric or a Sangiric language. Blust accepts Zorc’s claim, and has even upped the number of Proto Philippine lexical innovations to 327, with the promise of more to follow (Blust 2005:35 ff.). This evidence has not been critically evaluated with respect to the Sangiric or Minahasan microgroups. Furthermore, the notion of an all-encompassing ‘Philippine group’ has had, and continues to have, its detractors (Reid 1982, Ross 2005:13).

Mills’s original notion of a ‘Toraja group’ embracing the languages across a broad swath of central and southeastern Sulawesi has persisted. Renaming it the Celebic supergroup, Van den Berg (1996) was the first to sketch out a reasoned basis for grouping together the Kaili-Pamona, Bungku-Tolaki and Muna-Buton (including Wotu-Wolio) languages. Mead (2003a) critically evaluated Van den Berg’s evidence, and adduced additional evidence allowing the Tomini-Tolitoli and Saluan-Banggai languages also to be placed within this group. The Celebic supergroup thus includes six of Sulawesi’s ten microgroups. Following Mead (2003a:135) and Zobel (2015a), it has the following internal relationships.

      Eastern Celebic
            Southeastern Celebic


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