Seminar Series

Robert Mailhammer and Mark Harvey, "All Australian languages are genetically related:Linguistic and non-linguistic implications for the prehistory of Australia"

25 May, 2018

Department of Linguistics research seminar series presents:

All Australian languages are genetically related: Linguistic and non-linguistic implications for the prehistory of Australia

A/Prof Robert Mailhammer (Western Sydney University) A/Prof Mark Harvey (University of Newcastle)

Harvey & Mailhammer (2017) attribute a reconstructed noun-class prefix system to the grammar of a common ancestor of all Australian languages: Proto-Australian. This reconstruction follows the standard methods in historical linguistics, and has significant linguistic and non-linguistic ramifications that will be discussed in this seminar. First, it supports the applicability of the established set of criteria for genetic relatedness to remote genetic relationships (Campbell & Poser 2008). That is, remote genetic relationships are in principle no different than less remote relationships, even though the data signal is more faint (which nevertheless has some methodological consequences). Second, the fact that key parts of a grammatical system and a tangible set of demonstrably cognate roots can be reconstructed for Proto-Australian means that it is unlikely that Proto- Australian was in the mix of languages that was spoken at the time of the original settlement of Australia, approximately 60,000 years ago. It is more likely that Proto-Australian is either the only surviving lineage, or is a more recent arrival that spread much later, possibly around 12,000-10,000 years ago. Third, the fact that all existing Australian Aboriginal languages can be traced back to Proto-Australian means that this lineage must have spread across the entire continent; any prior diversity was completely wiped out. This is both remarkable and puzzling, given that such a thorough elimination is relatively rare in history. It certainly did not happen in places like Europe, where at least one ancient lineage represented by Basque is still spoken despite the spread of Indo-European, Uralic and Semitic (Mailhammer 2015). It is also difficult to explain from the perspective of pre-contact cultural and economic practices in Aboriginal Australia: the tight connection between land, language and people seems difficult to reconcile with large- scale and thorough spread of languages. It is thus likely that there were some distinctive environmental and economic factors that played a significant role in triggering the spread of Proto-Australian.

Entry is free and all are welcome.

Location: Rogers Room N397, John Woolley Building A20, Science Rd, University of Sydney

Contact:Robert Crompton
Phone:+61 2 9351 1012