Prehistory and Internal Relationships of Australian Languages

Patrick McConvell and Claire Bowern


Australian linguistic prehistory has lagged behind equivalent endeavours on other continents in part because of the dearth of grammars and dictionaries until recent times, when there has been a great deal of high quality work done. Australianist linguists have tended not to use the standard comparative method. In some cases, this was because it was prematurely judged inapplicable in Australia, due to supposed very high levels of diffusion, which did not allow cognates to be distinguished from loans. This view is losing ground as more solid reconstruction work is being done on the Pama-Nyungan family, Pama-Nyungan subgroups and Non-Pama-Nyungan families. As these results accumulate, together with studies of the linguistic stratigraphy of loanwords, they provide a more solid basis for hypotheses about the sociocultural and environmental prehistory that can then be tested against the results of other disciplines. Gradually a more detailed picture is emerging of an eventful and dynamic last 10,000 years; linguistic evidence is crucial here. This is challenging the former view of relative stasis and equilibrium after the initial human colonisation 40,000–50,000 years ago.