Category Archives: Historical

Pama-Nyungan language locations

As noted in a previous post, I’ve started to put some of the results of my Pama-Nyungan prehistory grant on my lab web site, at One of the recent updates is a language map. The data are not new; this map was released in about 2011 (though with updates since). It is released through a wordpress plugin on the site, which allows easy embedding of maps into sites. I highly recommend it for its ease of use, except for the fact that it doesn’t seem  to render in Chrome on a Mac (at least, not on my mac).

Comments on language locations, names, etc, on the map are very welcome. Please use the comment form on the map’s page.

Phylogenetics of kinship

[Update: materials are now available at]

I am presenting work at the upcoming LSA meeting with a former undergraduate student and a postdoc (Amalia Skilton and Hannah Haynie). We have been working on kinship structures in Australian languages, using a combination of the comparative method and phylogenetic trait analysis.

The basic idea is that we can use our hypotheses of family tree relationships among Australian languages to reconstruct aspects of linguistic and cultural systems. In this case, we’re using the structure of sibling systems; that is, how many distinctions speakers of different languages make when referring to siblings. English just has two basic terms: ‘brother’ and ‘sister’; Bardi, however, has three terms: oombarn for older brother, bola or babili for ‘younger brother’, and marrir for ‘sister’ (Note that the Bardi system is asymmetrical, with two terms for brothers but only one for sisters.) Yan-nhangu also has a three-term system, but their system has a distinction for ‘older brother’ (waawa) vs older sister (yapa), but one term for ‘younger sibling’ (yapayapa). There are four fairly common systems in Australian languages (two, a four-way system and the Yan-nhangu-type three-term system, are the most common).

We reconstructed the sibling terms probabilitistically and then compared them to reconstructions of kinship lexical items, using the comparative method. We found that where the terms could be reconstructed, there was a great deal of congruity between the probabilistic state reconstruction and the comparative method reconstruction. However,

This sort of work isn’t well motivated for all systems. For example, it would not make a lot of sense to work on phoneme inventories in this way, because the inventories do not change independently of the lexical items in which they appear. That is, just because two languages both have a phoneme /p/, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those /p/s are “cognate” (because /p/ in one language could be cognate with /w/ in another, for example).

Congratulations to the ANU!

A big congratulations to Jane Simpson, Nick Evans, Simon Greenhill, and the linguistics team at ANU on their successful ARC application for a Centre of Excellence in language change!

Tasmanian Languages

I have a new paper out today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biology). It’s based on a project that I’ve been working on for some time now (most of it, though not this paper, is joint work with my student Tyler Lau). I’ve been aware of the Tasmanian wordlist data in Plomley (1976) for many years, of course, but it was only after getting more familiar with computational phylogenetics that ideas for work with the dataset came up.*

The paper has some (now) fairly standard phylogenetic analyses using tools that will be familiar to most people who know this area. NeighborNets are now a common sight in historical linguistics, and Bayesian frameworks for tree building are also increasingly well known (if not always accepted). But admixture models are less well known, so let me explain a bit about them here. One criticism commonly leveled at work that straddles evolutionary biology and linguistics is that the tools are adopted wholesale, without regard for whether they are appropriate for analyzing linguistic data; I would like to avoid that claim here.

Continue reading

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.

Letter to Science: Forster and Renfrew

Keith Hunley (University of New Mexico) and I recently wrote a letter to Science magazine regarding Forster and Renfrew’s rather extraordinary article which states that male immigration is required for language shift. Science declined to publish it, so we’re including it here.

Here is the letter:

Drawing on haploid genetic data from six locations, Forster and Renfrew conclude that language transmission in occupied regions requires immigrant males. There are numerous counter examples to this male-transmission hypothesis in the remaining 99.9% of the world’s languages. For example, while Athabaskan speakers in the American southwest received both Y-chromosomes and mitochondrial genomes from Northern North American, the latter are considerably more widespread in the southwest today (1). Polynesia is also particularly interesting because a mix of East Asian mtDNAs and Melanesian Y-chromosomes comprise current Polynesia groups (2). Even a cursory examination of the anthropological literature would reveal numerous additional examples that paint a considerably more nuanced picture of language spread (3). Even their example Viking is problematic. While it is true that Vikings transmitted both Y-chromosomes and Scandinavian languages to Iceland, only their Y-chromosomes survived in England and Russia.

These examples belie the complex nature of biological and linguistic change and, more importantly, the fact that language change is social, not genetic. Moreover, their view of language change is decidedly non-evolutionary. Husbands do not pass their languages unchanged to offspring, and languages are not transmitted in a single generation following initial contact. Instead, language change occurs over multiple generations, with continual exchange between migrant and indigenous languages. Language borrowing in turn affects the lexicon and grammar of both sets of languages, contributing to a pace of change that far outstrips that in genetics.

We reject the sweeping male-centric view presented by Forster and Renfrew and advocate a more thoughtful examination of the nature, causes, and meaning of biological and linguistic evolution and co-evolution.

1.                  R. S. Malhi et al., Am J Phys Anthropol 137, 412 (Dec, 2008).
2.                  M. Kayser et al., Current Biology 10, 1237 (Oct 19, 2000).
3.                  L. Campbell, American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford University Press, New York, 1997)

And here is Science’s response. Of the many reasons for not publishing this letter, saying that they only publish “positive” responses is damning. How can a serious scientific publication maintain such a policy?

Dear Dr. Bowern,

Thank you for submitting an E-letter to Science responding to the Perspective, titled “Mother Tongue and Y Chromosomes.” We have read over your contribution, but will not be able to publish it. We are currently only posting those letters most likely to promote positive and stimulating discussion online.  We are letting you know as a courtesy in case you wanted to seek another outlet for your letter. 

Please do not reply to this email, as it will not be read by Science. Unfortunately the volume of submissions precludes specific discussions about individual submitted E-letters. 


The Editors
Science Magazine

Australian Language Polygons and new Centroid files

I’ve finished a *draft* google earth (.kmz) file with locations of Australian languages, organised by family and subgroup.

Some things to note:

  • You may use these files for education and research purposes only.
  • NO commercial use under any circumstances without my written permission.
  • NO republication any any circumstances without my written permission.
  • You may quote from these files. Please use the following citation: Bowern, C. (2011). Centroid Coordinates for Australian Languages v2.0. Google Earth .kmz file, available from
  • These files represent my compilation of many available sources, but are known to be deficient in a number of areas. Some sources are irreconcilable. This work is unsuitable for use as evidence in Native Title (land) claims.
  • Please do not repost or circulate these files. Send interested people to this page. I will be updating the files from time to time.
  • Please let me know of errors! The easiest way to do this is to change the polygon or centroid point for the language(s) you are correcting, and send me that item as a kml file.
  • If you use derivatives of this file (e.g. you calculate language areas from it, convert it to ArcGIS, etc), that’s fine, but please send me a copy of the derivative file