Phylogenies of the Dreamtime

by David Rose.


The aim of this paper is to sketch some possible correlations between phases in the development of languages in Australia, and phases in the archaeological record of people in the continent. The technique is to compare Australian language groupings, at the scales of phylum, family, group, language and dialect, with events in the climatic and archaeological history of the continent. The emerging historical account is also correlated with other evidence from linguistics, anthropology and mythology, to identify four broad historical phases associated with expansions and contractions of resources and human populations. Universalist maxims about rates of language and cultural change are challenged by these data, suggesting that rates of change in Australia may have been considerably slower than rates in Europe, where such maxims originate. It is argued that this gradual change is more consistent with Aboriginal communities’ own accounts of their histories.

Redressing the Balance on Australian Stop Contrasts: Comments on Austin’s (1988) “Phonological Voicing Contrasts in Australian Aboriginal Languages”

by Andrew Butcher and Nicholas Reid.

Read the paper here. Below is the introduction:

Although the above article has appeared in a volume of Working Papers, rather than in an established journal, it is nevertheless widely available in Australian linguistic circles and, since it claims to be an “Australia-wide survey”, the result of twelve years of research (title footnote), it is likely to be recommended reading for many students of Australian linguistics. It is for these reasons – the claimed scope and the likely readership – that we feel it appropriate to express a number of criticisms we have of this work. These criticisms fall under two major headings: (1) The comparatively scanty treatment of the area of Australia which has the highest concentration of languages with two stop series, namely the ‘Top End’ of the Northern territory; (2) The failure to distinguish adequately between the level of phonological contrast and the level of phonetic parameters underlying the contrast.

The lexicography of indigenous languages in Australia and the Pacific

by Nick Thieberger.

Read Dr. Thieberger’s paper here. The following is its abstract:

The Australia and Pacific region is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s languages. Wordlists of a few of these languages date back to the first European explorers, while detailed dictionaries have been prepared for somewhere less than 5 % of them. Where an indigenous language is the official language of a country of this region it is more likely to have a dictionary and ongoing administrative support for lexicographic work, and, in a few cases, a corpus from which terms can be sourced. For most indigenous languages dictionaries are prepared in the course of language documentation efforts by researchers from outside of the speech community, using modern lexicographic database tools and resulting in structured lexicons. As a result, it is possible to produce various output formats of these dictionaries, including print-on-demand, multimodal webpages, and mobile devices as increasingly popular methods of delivery. A major use of these dictionaries can be to support vernacular language programs in schools. This region was a test bed for computational bilingual lexicography, and is home to the two largest comparative lexical databases of indigenous languages.

Associated motion with deictic directionals: A comparative overview

by Aicha Belkadi.

Read Dr. Belkadi’s paper here. Enjoy the following selection from its introduction:

This paper focusses on deictic directionals and their rarely discussed function as markers of Associated Motion (henceforth AM). AM is a term generally used to refer to a category of verbal affixes exhibited by a number of indigenous Australian, North American and South American languages, whose function is to indicate that the event encoded by a verb is framed with respect to a motion co-event (Koch, 1984; Wilkins, 2005; Guillaume, 2009 amongst others). The most characteristic systems of AM involve complex paradigms, where affixes are each paired with specific and quite sophisticated types of motion. Specifications may encode information about the direction and orientation of the motion event, a defined temporal relation with the verb’s event, and particular aspectual notions.

Amazonian linguistic diversity and its sociocultural correlates

by Patience Epps.

Read her chapter here. Despite its focus on non-Australian languages, those interested in Australian topics might find some of what Dr. Epps has to say very interesting. The following is a selection from its first section:

The Amazon basin is one of the most linguistically diverse regions on earth. With some 300 indigenous languages corresponding to over 50 distinct lineages, the diversity of language families in Amazonia is some ten times higher than that of Eurasia and Africa, and is rivalled only by New Guinea.

Explaining these variable patterns of diversity poses a major challenge to scholars of human prehistory. Since South America was the last continent to have undergone extensive human settlement, its linguistic diversity cannot be linked straightforwardly to time-depth of habitation (cf. Nichols 1990, Nettle 1999). Geographic factors are also not an obvious explanation, since South American diversity is concentrated in the lowlands, where natural obstacles are few (both rivers and interfluvial zones are as likely to serve as conduits as they are barriers; cf. Nichols 1992). Nor does an appeal to agriculture as a major reason for language spread provide a clear solution; a comparison of the Amazonian linguistic patchwork (where virtually all groups practice at least small-scale agriculture) to the far-reaching spread of Pama-Nyungan hunter-gatherers in Australia indicates that agriculture is in itself neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for language spread, although it may be implicated in some cases (cf. Bellwood 2001, Heggarty & Beresford-Jones 2010). Continent-internal linguistic distributions present additional puzzles, most notably relating to the concentration of diversity in the west (see e.g. Dahl et al. 2011, who suggests a correlation with initial migration routes), and the non-contiguous distributions of the few language families that are geographically widespread (see e.g. Hornborg 2005 and the papers by Walker and Heckenberger, this volume, on the Arawak diaspora).


Change and Succession in Australian Aboriginal Claims to Land

Read David Trigger’s chapter in Strings of Connectedness: Essays in Honour of Ian Keen (2015), edited by Peter Toner. The following is a selection from the chapter’s introduction:

Since the advent of land rights legislation, and then native title laws, Aboriginal people in Australia have grappled with presenting tradition-based claims in light of cultural change to their lifestyles and customary relations with land and waters. While arguments are reasonably made that the legislative requirement to prove continuing customary law places unwarranted burdens on claimants (Strelein 2006; Pearson 2009: 100–32), it is also important to note that commitment to the idea of continuing cultural traditions retains its significance across Indigenous Australia. If Aboriginal associations with land have been ‘pushed in a culturalist direction’ by essentialist assertions about Indigenous ‘consubstantiality’ with place (Merlan 2007: 129–36), this has surely arisen from core beliefs among Aboriginal people themselves at least as much as from romanticism across the wider Australian public. The emergence of ‘the economic Aborigine’ is rightfully recognised as key to contemporary Indigenous life (Langton 2013: 59–80), but a major challenge for the courts and those sectors of Australian society embroiled in the language of land and native title claims is to understand how Indigenous cultural traditions underpinning assertions of rights both continue and change over time.

Long-Distance Diffusion of Affinal Kinship Terms as Evidence of Late Holocene Change in Marriage Systems in Aboriginal Australia

Read Patrick McConvell’s chapter in Strings of Connectedness: Essays in Honour of Ian Keen (2015), edited by Peter Toner. The following is a selection from the chapter’s introduction:

Ian Keen has made significant contributions to the comparison of Australian Aboriginal societies, and specifically to the relationship between types of marriage, kinship systems and other aspects of society and economy. He  has maintained a commitment to the rigorous study of kinship systems and to comparative anthropology, or ethnology, when these orientations became unpopular in sociocultural anthropology. One of his major works (2004) systematically compared representative groups throughout Australia, emphasising how aspects of social organisation linked to economies. On a smaller scale was his brilliant study of how the scale of polygyny differed in two neighbouring areas of Arnhem Land, seeking the explanation in matrilateral cousin marriage and networks, age structures and economy (1982).

In recent times he has also joined forces with linguistics in investigating the prehistoric development of these relationships of kinship, marriage and other aspects of social organisation, in the AustKin project (Dousset et al. 2010). One study looked at how asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage developed, with 13 Strings of Connectedness 288 crucial evidence supplied by the change in meaning of kinship terms. Notably the change in marriage type played a strong role in changing meanings of terms. The kinship terms in this case are inherited words within the Pama-Nyungan language family and its subgroups (McConvell and Keen 2011; Keen 2013b).

However, another striking phenomenon is the preponderance of affinal (in-law and spouse) terms among loanwords in kinship vocabulary. Consanguineal terms tend not to be borrowed widely unless they also function as affinal. Apart from affinal terms, kinship terms are rather rarely borrowed. Affinal terms, however, include some of the most long-distance travelling loanwords (Wanderwörter). Why is this so? One might readily guess that words related to marriage are among those that tend to be shared in wide areas since exogamous marriage between language groups is a most salient and frequently discussed topic. Further than this, though, it may be that these new words for spouses and in-laws were first introduced because they were key elements in new marriage practices that were diffusing. This opens a window on changes in the nature of societal and intersocietal alliance in the last few thousand years in the late Holocene in Australia.