Australia’s Linguistic Profile

Rebuilding Australia’s Linguistic Profile: Recent Developments in Research on Australian Aboriginal Languages

Alice Gaby.

The more than 250 languages spoken in Australia prior to the nineteenth century exhibit both striking similarities to one another and remarkable variation. The exponential increase in what linguists have learned about these languages since the 1960s has been sadly in inverse proportion to the number of people learning them as a mother tongue. This article will review some of the most exciting recent developments in Australianist linguistic research, while also acknowledging the context of language loss and disenfranchisement within which they are situated. The message it offers is ultimately optimistic, however. For the languages still spoken regularly, research into the previously neglected components of the multimodal communicative system that is language in use is adding new depth to the existing documentation. For the majority of Australia’s indigenous languages – where economic, social and political pressures have taken their toll – a different set of concerns has emerged. Linguists are now grappling with a range of theoretical and empirical questions regarding the mechanisms of language contact and attrition, even as they continue to contribute new insights into the traditional ‘core’ fields of phonetics and phonology, morphosyntax, semantics and historical linguistics. Moreover, an increasing consciousness of the respective roles of outsider researcher and speech community is changing not only the methodologies of linguists ‘in the field’, but also the research itself. All of these factors will shape the directions of future Australianist linguistic research, as well as the number and nature of languages that remain to be studied.