Prehistory of the Boab

Patrick McConvell, Thomas Saunders and Stef Spronck: Linguistic Prehistory of the Australian boab.

Boabs, a close relation of the African baobabs, are found only in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and a region close by in the Northern Territory. Here several of the words for the boab tree and its parts are examined with special emphasis on loanwords which cross language family boundaries going in a west-east direction. It is proposed that this linguistic diffusion may reflect dispersal of the tree into new areas on the east, in relatively recent times. On the other hand another recent diffusion from the west of new salient functions of the boab fruit spread a new term to central Kimberley where boabs are known to have been present and used by humans for many thousands of years

Dreaming the Keepara

Dreaming the Keepara: New South Wales indigenous cultural perspectives, 1808-2007

Kelly, Raymond

Institution:University of Newcastle. Academic Division, The Wollotuka Institute

This interdisciplinary study investigates the Aboriginal intellectual heritage of the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, through a combination of family history, oral tradition, and audio-recorded songs, stories, interviews, discussions, and linguistic material. This research has uncovered an unsuspected wealth of cultural knowledge, cultural memory, and language heritage that has been kept alive and passed down within Aboriginal families and communities, despite the disruptions and dislocations endured over the past seven generations. This study’s findings are presented in three interrelated forms: a dance performance that incorporates traditional and contemporary songs, stories, and lived experiences of an Aboriginal extended family; an oral presentation within the framework of Aboriginal oral transmission of knowledge and this written exegesis, which is itself an experiment in finding pathways for the expression and progression of Aboriginal knowledge within the context of academic discourse. The theoretical framework of this work is grounded in my personal experience of Aboriginal traditions of knowledge production and transmission, maintained through everyday cultural activities, family memories of traditional education, and our traditional and present-day language forms and communicative practices. The performance, oral and written components connect this intellectual and cultural heritage with historical and photographic documentation, linguistic analyses, and audio recordings from my grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ generations. The written component establishes the background to the study, and reviews relevant literature with a prioritisation of Aboriginal voices and sources of knowledge, both oral and written. It explores aspects of my family history from the early 1800s to the present, including my childhood and early educational experiences and leads on to a detailed look at the work of my late father, Raymond Shoonkley Kelly in documenting and maintaining out intellectual and cultural heritage through the NSW Survey of Aboriginal Sites. The final part of this study focuses on language, which is central to all of the preceding investigation. This work demonstrates how operating from an Aboriginal knowledge base allows us to see beyond surface differences in spelling and pronunciation, to reach a deeper understanding of the cultural meanings and ways of speaking that have allowed us to preserve and maintain out cultural integrity. This knowledge base also enables the linguistic unpacking of previously unanalysable song material from the audio recordings. Indigenous people in New South Wales are continuing to engage in a cultural and political struggle to maintain and protect our identity in the face of an ever-present threat of assimilation by the mainstream Australian society. The success of our struggle will depend significantly on our ability to keep our language and our intellectual heritage alive.

Keywords dreamingKeeparaAboriginal Reservesindigenous cultural perspectivesAboriginalAborigineDreamtimerace relationsAborigines protection boardAboriginal Welfare BoardAboriginal Missions

Phylogenesis of the Dreamtime

by David Rose. [unpaywalled version here]


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.

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.

Quantifying uncertainty in the phylogenetics of Australian numeral systems

by Kevin Zhou and Claire Bowern

Read the paper here. Below is the abstract:

Researchers have long been interested in the evolution of culture and the ways in which change in cultural systems can be reconstructed and tracked. Within the realm of language, these questions are increasingly investigated with Bayesian phylogenetic methods. However, such work in cultural phylogenetics could be improved by more explicit quantification of reconstruction and transition probabilities. We apply such methods to numerals in the languages of Australia. As a large phylogeny with almost universal ‘low-limit’ systems, Australian languages are ideal for investigating numeral change over time. We reconstruct the most likely extent of the system at the root and use that information to explore the ways numerals evolve. We show that these systems do not increment serially, but most commonly vary their upper limits between 3 and 5. While there is evidence for rapid system elaboration beyond the lower limits, languages lose numerals as well as gain them. We investigate the ways larger numerals build on smaller bases, and show that there is a general tendency to both gain and replace 4 by combining 2 + 2 (rather than inventing a new unanalysable word ‘four’). We develop a series of methods for quantifying and visualizing the results.

Correlational Studies in Historical Linguistics

Correlational Studies in Typological and Historical Linguistics

By D. Robert Ladd, Seán G. Roberts, and Dan Dediu

We review a number of recent studies that have identified either correlations between different linguistic features (e.g., implicational universals) or correlations between linguistic features and nonlinguistic properties of speakers or their environment (e.g., effects of geography on vocabulary). We compare large-scale quantitative studies with more traditional theoretical and historical linguistic research and identify divergent assumptions and methods that have led linguists to be skeptical of correlational work. We also attempt to demystify statistical techniques and point out the importance of informed critiques of the validity of statistical approaches. Finally, we describe various methods used in recent correlational studies to deal with the fact that, because of contact and historical relatedness, individual languages in a sample rarely represent independent data points, and we show how these methods may allow us to explore linguistic prehistory to a greater time depth than is possible with orthodox comparative reconstruction.

Geography in Historical Linguistics

Geography and Spatial Analysis in Historical Linguistics

By Hannah J. Haynie

Spatial patterns associated with language contact, language spread, and isolation have been included, albeit peripherally, in traditional theories of historical linguistics. The development of mapping and spatial analysis tools, combined with innovations in quantitative approaches to diachronic linguistics, has introduced a new era in linguistic geography. Geographic research in historical linguistics, however, is largely carried out in the separate traditions of various linguistic subfields. Many commonalities exist between the questions asked and the methods applied in each of these subfields, and increased interaction across dialectometry, phylogenetics, and areal linguistics has the potential to reinvigorate linguistic geography and accelerate progress on questions about geography and the spatial outcomes of language change and language expansion.