Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development

Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development

Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development

Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development


Aboriginal people have been in Australia for at least 40,000 years, speaking about 250 languages. Through examination of published and unpublished materials on each of the individual languages, Dixon surveys the ways in which the languages vary typologically and presents a profile of this long-established linguistic area. The areal distribution of most features is illustrated with more than 30 maps and an index of languages and language groups is provided.


I began the preface to The languages of Australia (LoA, published 1980) by stating that it was, in several ways, premature. By this I meant that more descriptions of languages would be forthcoming during the 1980s and 1990s (as, indeed, they have been), which would provide a surer basis for generalisation. I now realise that LoA was most importantly of all, conceptually premature.

I had learnt the principles of historical linguistics from my teachers Warren Cowgill and Calvert Watkins, and from reading Meillet, Benveniste and others. And I had assumed that the methodology which applies so well for the languages of Europe and North America and Oceania would also be appropriate for the linguistic situation in Australia. It is not, but it took me a long time to realise this.

I sometimes wondered whether my lack of success in applying the established methodology of historical linguistics to the Australian linguistic situation was a feature of that situation, or a reflection on my abilities. Then, in the 1990s, I did intensive field work on Jarawara, spoken in southern Amazonia, and undertook a comparative study of the six languages of the Arawá family, to which it belongs. I found that here the established methodology worked perfectly (it was like a dream, after my struggles with the Australian situation). I was able to establish correspondence sets, compare their distributions, and then to reconstruct the phoneme system, more than four hundred lexemes, quite a bit of morphology, and some of the syntax for proto-Arawá. This easy success with Arawá emphasised to me the unusual - and probably unique nature of the language situation in Australia.

The languages of Australia show recurrent similarities, such that almost everyone who has studied several of them (beginning with Grey 1841) has inclined towards the opinion that they must all be related. Related how? Well, presumably in the way languages in other parts of the world are related, as one language family. I belonged to this band. There was, we assumed, likely to have been an ancestor language, protoAustralian. LoA was the first serious attempt to put forward a hypothesis concerning proto-Australian. But the procedure followed was flawed. I used a selection of data from the clearest and most accessible descriptions available, most of these being of non-prefixing languages. (In the late 1970s, when the book was completed, there were only a handful of descriptions available for prefixing languages; these were all made . . .

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