The One Root of All Australia’s Indigenous Languages

The linguistic journal Diachronica published a study by Mark Harvey of University of Newcastle and Robert Mailhammer from Western Sydney University.  Their paper addresses the linguistic diversity of Australian languages. Around the time of British settlement in 1788, there were over 200 languages spoken on the continent. That number has dwindled to an estimated 120 indigenous languages still existing,  with only about 20 are actively spoken today.

They teased out “recurrent” and “systematic” traits in the sounds of words all these languages. They concluded that the current linguistic diversity within Australia derived from one mother tongue, known as Proto-Australian, that was spoken about 10,000 years ago. Because the greatest diversity is where language originates from, Proto-Australian spread and diversified from a small area in northwestern Australia known as Kimberley Plateau.

Last year we talked about the first Australians arriving some 65,000 years ago. We now have some granularity as there is a 50,000 or so year gap between the arrival of the first Australians and the emergence of Australian Aboriginal languages like Proto-Australian. This discrepancy between the linguistic record and archaeological record needs to be addressed.

2 thoughts on “The One Root of All Australia’s Indigenous Languages

  1. Yes, it would really seem that the aborigines weren’t sitting still all those 70.000-or-so years. There must have been a steady influx throughout that time, possibly including the famed Denisovan ancestry! There’s one or two issues to be sorted out to get past the 20-century concrete paradigms. What, e.g., if the so-called symbolic behaviour originated with the archaics? A real possibillity imo, but one that would relegate all existing handbooks to the scrapheap! Just imagine: our evolutionary success solely due to the fertility of our women! Beyond the pale, isn’t it? But possible nonetheless. If not plausible …

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