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

Societies of intimates

The journal Narrative Inquiry has a special issue of papers about narrative in Australian languages. From the introduction:

When the Australian writer Richard Flanagan accepted the 2014 Man Booker Prize for fiction, he said that “As a species it is story that distinguishes us”. While the prize was given for a literary work written in English, Australia and the surrounding regions are replete with a rich diversity of oral traditions, and with stories remembered and told over countless generations and in many languages. In this article we consider both the universality and the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic diversity of various forms of narrative. We explore the question of what a linguistic typology of narrative might look like, and survey some of the literature relevant to this issue. Most specifically, we ask whether some observed differences in narrative style, structure, or delivery could derive from social features of the communities which produce them: their social density, informational homogeneity, and the high degree of common ground they share.

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.

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.

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.

Clamor Schürmann’s Barngarla grammar

The work of the German missionaries on South Australian languages in the first half of the nineteenth century has few contemporary parallels for thoroughness and clarity. This commentary on the grammatical introduction to Pastor Clamor Schürmann’s Vocabulary of the Parnkalla language of 1844 reconstructs a significant amount of Barngarla morphology, phonology and syntax.

It should be seen as one of a number of starting points for language-reclamation endeavours in Barngarla, designed primarily for educators and other people who may wish to re-present its interpretations in ways more accessible to non-linguists, and more suited to pedagogical practice.

Read or purchase Mark Clendon’s latest opus here.

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.