How many languages were spoken in Australia?

For years, I’ve been using the figure of approximately 250 Aboriginal languages spoken at the time of European settlement, of which roughly 150 were Pama-Nyungan. I recently had the chance to clean up my list of standard language names, which means that I finally got a fairly accurate estimate of how many languages there actually were. This includes some “languages” that we would probably treat as mutually intelligible varieties if we were being very strict, but on the “Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are separate languages” model, I am comfortable treating languages like Dhuwal and Dhuwala as distinct. Some of the decisions are a bit arbitrary, though.

Here are the figures:

  • 363 languages in Australia, 364 if we include Meryam Mir, which is a Papuan language spoken in Australian territory. The number goes up by 7 if we include Tasmanian languages, but my database only includes the mainland.
  • 275 of those languages are Pama-Nyungan.
  • I am working with 30 primary subgroups and 5 isolates, within Pama-Nyungan.

You are free to use it for your own (non-commercial) purposes, and I would be very happy to hear about corrections, additions, subtractions, etc. If you want a list of languages, this is, if I say so myself, a far better list to use than the Ethnologue’s. Edited: you now need to contact me for permission to use the list. Sorry about that.

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8 responses to “How many languages were spoken in Australia?

  1. Pingback: languagehat.com: HOW MANY AUSTRALIAN LANGUAGES? | TheLlanguagesX Blog

  2. Great job at trying to put the list together. A few quick queries: how come you spell it ‘Meryam’? I’ve always seen it written as ‘Meriam’ – mostly from Meriam speakers themselves. And any reason why Bininj Gunwok is not split into the separate languages that speakers will always refer to? And I was also wondering why Dalabon is in a different family to Rembarrnga and Ngalakgan. They seem so similar.

    But good work yapa! And Merry Christmas!

  3. Great stuff Claire! I’ll certainly be citing this figure at dinner parties, the pub, etc., as I’ve also been saying “about 250″ for ages. Just wondering though, is this on the conservative side? That is, does it clump dialects rather than splitting? I’m assuming so since Bininj Gunwok isn’t split up.

    • Aidan, one other thing about the conservative side – on the whole, probably not, except in Gunwinyguan and probably Northern Cape York. Those were the two areas I had most trouble with.
      I have a longer list that had about 630 names in it. I’d regard that as the upper bound, it has a bunch of clan varieties, unidentified Curr names, and a few other alternative names. Then there’s the full variety list, which has as many spellings, names, etc, as sources, almost – 1400 or so. But that includes things like Jarnango, Yan-nhaŋu, Yan-nhangu.

  4. Hi Wäwa and Aidan,
    I got Meryam from Nick Piper’s thesis, but will change it if Meriam is preferred.
    For Bininj Gun-wok, that’s definitely an error, but then the question is what varieties to name. For Yolŋu Matha, I ended up with 6, I think. I used the Nhaŋumirr, Dhuwalmirr, Dhuwalamirri, etc, levels of names, rather than the clan names. For some of the other areas, I used the names that are best known these days (so Pitta-Pitta and Wangka-yutyurru, but not Ngulupulu, Ringa-ringa, Rangwa, Kunkalanya). What do you reckon? Kuninjku, Kune, Mayali, Gun-Djeihmi, any others?
    For Rembarrnga and Ngalakgan, I probably screwed up there, but it seems like there’s a lot of back and forth about what goes into Gunwinyguan, and then if we take Rebecca Green’s Arnhem hypothesis, that’s not -I think- directly compatible with what Nick says about Gunwinyguan.

  5. I’ve uploaded a new list with corrections. It’s available from pamanyungan.sites.yale.edu

  6. Hi Claire! I’m working on a project involving the use of your most recent paper for the upcoming ALW and I’d appreciate the chance to look at your master list. Let me know at claresmanning at gmail dot com. Thank you and great work!

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