Category Archives: Other

Tasmanian language data

The CHIRILA database contains materials from the Aboriginal languages of Tasmania. The excel spreadsheets contain all the records from Plomley’s (1976) Tasmanian language data, and additional spreadsheets contain explanatory data about the speakers represented in the text, the regions where data were recorded, and who the recorders were. This is the data used in Bowern (2012).

A word of warning is warranted here. This is not easy data to use; there’s a steep learning curve both for understanding the original transcription conventions, Plomley’s groupings, and the abbreviations.

See for downloads.


I maintain, which provides references to recent publications on Australian languages. I’ve recently gone through the backlog of draft posts, so expect to see more activity on the site over the next few weeks. Suggestions for papers to post … Continue reading

domain name update

The domain is now defunct. (I registered it in 2005 through yahoo “small business” as part of my Houston home phone account, and now can’t recover the account information. It’s somewhere in internet limbo.) My blog is still available from, though. At some point I may even have time to write some more contentful posts.

How many languages? (2)

I’ve updated the list of how many languages were spoken in Australia at European settlement. Thanks to Barry Alpher, Greg Dickson, Aidan Wilson and JC Verstraete for comments.

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.

Bardi baby talk

In previous trips I haven’t been able to get any information about Bardi baby talk, but this time the women were using more Bardi to toddlers. I haven’t recorded any of this, and for ‘official’ Bardi people felt that baby talk wasn’t to be encouraged, but they were happy to talk about it. Here are some features of the register:

  • It’s faster and higher than regular speech (unsurprising)
  • It has a lot more repetition (also unsurprising);
  • there’s some r > l substitution (roowil > loowil ‘walk’);
  • Preverbs can be used without their light verb, which is not true for the regular language;
  • There are some lexical substitutions (e.g. nyamnyam for aarlimay ‘food’);
  • The ergative case marker seems to be omitted quite a bit.

Languages and ‘new words’

One of the recurring supposed arguments against the widespread use of Aboriginal languages in the curriculum is that “they don’t have a word for X” (an ironic twist on the exoticism argument that such languages also have Ywords for snow/trees/animals/etc).

There are three or four ways that languages get new words. One is by borrowing from neighbouring languages. English didn’t have any words for koala, wombat, pindan, kangaroo, etc, and so the early settlers to Australia borrowed these words from Dharuk, Bardi, Guugu Yimidhirr, and other Aboriginal languages. (More than 50% of current English vocabulary comes from other languages originally.) Sometimes the word itself isn’t borrowed, but the meaning of a word is translated (this is called a calque). The Icelandic word for computer is tölva, which means basically ‘counter, reckoner, computer’.

A second means for expressing new meaning is by extending the meaning of an existing word. So in English when we burn a CD we aren’t putting it on a fire (the earlier meaning of ‘burn’ – speakers have extended the meaning of the verb to cover new actions). Highways and freeways and commons all originally meant something different from what they mean now.

A third way is to coin a new word out of existing resources in the language, such as by making a compound (e.g. baby-sit) or a blend, or an acronym. A fourth is to make up a word from scratch (although these seem to be pretty rare in my experience).

What do speakers of Aboriginal languages do when they want to make up new words? All of the above, just like speakers of other languages! Here are some examples from Yolŋu Matha.

Borrowings: daybul ‘table’, banikin ‘cup, pannikin’, djorra’ ‘paper’ (from Arabic via Makassar)

Extension of meaning:mukthun ‘be quiet’ (also used for when the power goes off; e.g. giṉiŋgarr mana mukthun ‘the power’s off’ giṉiŋgarr is another example of this). Bulunydjuma ‘rub out’ (e.g. erase something from a blackboard) is another example of this.

Coining new words: e.g. maŋutjibu ‘glasses’ (lit ‘something for the eyes’); waḏapthanaraway ‘soap’ (lit stuff used for washing’)

[link via Hoyden about town]