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.

A continental narrative: Human settlement patterns and Australian climate change over the last 35,000 years

by Alan N. Williams, Peter Veth, Will Steffen, Sean Ulm, Chris S. M. Turney, Jessica M. Reeves, Steven J. Phipps, Mike Smith

Read the paper here. Below is the abstract:

Drawing on the recent synthesis of Australian palaeoclimate by the OZ-INTIMATE group (Reeves et al., 2013a), we consider the effects of climate systems on past human settlement patterns and inferred demography. We use 5044 radiocarbon dates from ∼1750 archaeological sites to develop regional time-series curves for different regions defined in the OZ-INTIMATE compilation as the temperate, tropics, interior and Southern Ocean sectors to explore human–climate relationships in Australia over the last 35,000 years. Correlations undertaken with improved palaeoclimatic data and archaeological records indicate that the regional time-series curves are robust, and can be used as a proxy for human behaviour. However, interrogation of the datasets is essential with artificial peaks and taphonomic over-correction being critical considerations. The time-series curves are interpreted as reflecting population growth, stasis and even decline in phase with terminal Pleistocene/early Holocene climatic fluctuations. This coupling, however, decreases during the last 5000 years, most likely due to increased population levels, greater territoriality, technological solutions to stress, and social and ideational innovation. Curves from all sectors show exponential population growth over the last 5000 years. We identify future research priorities, highlighting the paucity of archaeological records across several parts of Australia (<1 dated site/4,000 km2), especially around the fringes of the arid zone, and the need for improved taphonomic correction techniques. Finally, we discuss how these time-series curves represent a first-order framework, not dissimilar to global climate models, which researchers can continue to test and refine with local, regional and continental records.

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.

Pama-Nyungan phylogenetics

Bowern and Atkinson (2012): Computational phylogenetics and the internal structure of Pama-Nyungan. Language 88(4): pp. 817-845 (DOI: 10.1353/lan.2012.0081)

We present the first proposal of detailed internal subgrouping and higher-order structure of the Pama-Nyungan family of Australian languages. Previous work has identified more than twenty-five primary subgroups in the family, with little indication of how these groups might fit together. Some work has assumed that reconstruction of higher nodes in the tree was impossible, either because extensive internal borrowing has obscured more remote relations, or because the languages are not sufficiently well attested (see, for example, Bowern & Koch 2004b, Dixon 1997). With regard to the first objection, work by Alpher and Nash (1999) and Bowern and colleagues (2011) shows that loan levels are not high enough to obscure vertical transmission for all but a few languages. New data remove the second objection. Here we use Bayesian phylogenetic inference to show that the Pama-Nyungan tree has a discernible internal subgrouping. We identify four major divisions within the family and discuss the implications of this grouping for future work on the family.

Borrowing in hunter-gatherer languages

Bowern C, Epps P, Gray R, Hill J, Hunley K, et al. 2011 Does Lateral Transmission Obscure Inheritance in Hunter-Gatherer Languages? PLoS ONE6(9): e25195. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025195

[Heavy focus on data from Australian languages. NB, this is open access.]

In recent years, linguists have begun to increasingly rely on quantitative phylogenetic approaches to examine language evolution. Some linguists have questioned the suitability of phylogenetic approaches on the grounds that linguistic evolution is largely reticulate due to extensive lateral transmission, or borrowing, among languages. The problem may be particularly pronounced in hunter-gatherer languages, where the conventional wisdom among many linguists is that lexical borrowing rates are so high that tree building approaches cannot provide meaningful insights into evolutionary processes. However, this claim has never been systematically evaluated, in large part because suitable data were unavailable. In addition, little is known about the subsistence, demographic, ecological, and social factors that might mediate variation in rates of borrowing among languages. Here, we evaluate these claims with a large sample of hunter-gatherer languages from three regions around the world. In this study, a list of 204 basic vocabulary items was collected for 122 hunter-gatherer and small-scale cultivator languages from three ecologically diverse case study areas: northern Australia, northwest Amazonia, and California and the Great Basin. Words were rigorously coded for etymological (inheritance) status, and loan rates were calculated. Loan rate variability was examined with respect to language area, subsistence mode, and population size, density, and mobility; these results were then compared to the sample of 41 primarily agriculturalist languages in [1]. Though loan levels varied both within and among regions, they were generally low in all regions (mean 5.06%, median 2.49%, and SD 7.56), despite substantial demographic, ecological, and social variation. Amazonian levels were uniformly very low, with no language exhibiting more than 4%. Rates were low but more variable in the other two study regions, in part because of several outlier languages where rates of borrowing were especially high. High mobility, prestige asymmetries, and language shift may contribute to the high rates in these outliers. No support was found for claims that hunter-gatherer languages borrow more than agriculturalist languages. These results debunk the myth of high borrowing in hunter-gatherer languages and suggest that the evolution of these languages is governed by the same type of rules as those operating in large-scale agriculturalist speech communities. The results also show that local factors are likely to be more critical than general processes in determining high (or low) loan rates.

Book Launch

We had a very pleasant book launch at the Annual Meeting of the Australian Linguistic Society.

About half the papers in Morphology and Language History are on Australian languages

This volume aims to make a contribution to codifying the methods and practices linguists use to recover language history, focussing predominantly on historical morphology. The volume includes studies on a wide range of languages: not only Indo-European, but also Austronesian, Sinitic, Mon-Khmer, Basque, one Papuan language family, as well as a number of Australian families. Few collections are as cross-linguistic as this, reflecting the new challenges which have emerged from the study of languages outside those best known from historical linguistics. The contributors illustrate shared methodological and theoretical issues concerning genetic relatedness (that is, the use of morphological evidence for classification and subgrouping), reconstruction and processes of change with a diverse range of data. The volume is in honour of Harold Koch, who has long combined innovative research on understudied languages with methodological rigour and codification of practices within the discipline.