Category Archives: Other

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]

All bets are off…

In 1998-1999 I was a summer undergrad research scholar at ANU’s RSPAS. My project was to make some sense of Josef Meier’s Titan materials. Titan’s an Admiralty Islands (Oceanic) language which, to my knowledge, hasn’t had anything done on it since the Meier materials from 1905-1911, with one exception.

The exception was Reo Fortune and Margaret Mead, and Fortune’s fieldnotes were at the time inaccessible to me. They are in the National Library of New Zealand, and at the time the collection wasn’t catalogued, and so I just worked from the materials I could get hold of.

I thought to check on the status of the collection again recently (as part of writing a proposal for research leave for next year) and it turned out that the collection was now catalogued, and that photocopies could be ordered over the web! So a nice thick wad of typescript and semilegible* fieldnotes arrived in my mailbox this morning. 471 pages to be precise.

I had an awful shock when I opened it, because the first few pages are English translations in typescript of mythology, but two pages further on there’s Manus/Titan data. Lots of it, too.

So, it looks like I might finally finish the project that I started in 1998…

*The archive cognoscenti know, of course, that the correlation between legibility and usefulness of the data is parabolic; highly legible data is usually useless, and completely illegible data is not usually worth the effort of decoding it. Semi-legible stuff is usually a pain and worth the effort.

John Doe, Joe Bloggs and Bruce the Battler

I happened to find this list and since it’s vaguely amusing, you can all read it while I continue to be puzzled by Yolŋu glottalisation (not part of my NWAV paper in theory but puzzling because I need to decide how to code glottalised vowels). You’ll be hearing all about glottalisation before too long.

Here is a list of the equivalent of ‘Joe Bloggs’ in various languages.

The pronunciation of ‘Yale’

The senior administrative pronunciation of Yale appears to be [jɛl], definitely monosyllabic (not sequisyllabic) and the [l] doesn’t seem to be particularly velarised to me. My senior administrative sample is the President, the Dean of Yale College, the Dean of the Graduate School, the vice-Provost for Science and Technology and at least one professor of economics (most from different US dialect areas). The  Provost says [jaɪl] as a sesquisyllable but he also has an Oxford accent. My sampling will continue at faculty meetings throughout the year.

This is cool.

Gardening is apparently potentially academically useful!