The earliest detailed records of Australia’s indigenous languages date from approximately two hundred years ago, and therefore our only access to the prehistory of Australia’s indigenous past is through reconstruction in archeology and linguistics. While we know that humans have lived in Australia for more than 40,000 years, we do not know how speakers of the 250 currently attested languages came to live where they do today. This project uses linguistic evidence to trace the history of Aboriginal people in prehistoric times. Systematic similarities between words in these languages can be used to reconstruct various properties of prehistoric languages. These techniques will be used to determine the structure of the Pama-Nyungan language family, which will shed light on prehistoric population movements.
Australia’s linguistic prehistory is important for several reasons. It has been claimed that methods developed for Europe and the Americas do not work in Australia. If true, such a finding would be highly important, since these methods are based on properties of language change which until now have been assumed to be universal. However, preliminary work indicates that Australian languages show the same characteristics that we find elsewhere. Small speech community size, widespread multilingualism, and other factors have obscured relationships between these languages. These languages are an excellent laboratory for modeling what language change might have been like before the spread of agricultural communities. If we are ever going to be able to model accurately what prehistoric global language spread might have looked like, we need to understand how it operated in Australia.
Claire Bowern (PI) has posted a draft google earth (.kmz) file with locations of Australian languages, organised by family and subgroup