Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Australian Aboriginal languages
The Australian Aboriginal languages comprise several language families and isolates native to Australia and a few nearby islands, but by convention excluding Tasmania. The relationships of these languages is not clear at present, although substantial progress has been made to our understanding in recent decades.
The Tasmanian people were nearly exterminated early in Australia's colonial history, and their languages went extinct before much was recorded. They were separated from the mainland at the end of the last ice age, and apparently went without contact with the outside world for 10,000 years. Their languages are unclassifiable with the limited data available, although they seem to have had some phonological similarities with languages of the mainland.
The Pama-Nyungan family covers most of the continent of Australia and is accepted by most linguists. (RMW Dixon is a noted exception.) For convenience, the rest of the languages, all spoken in the far north, are commonly lumped together as "Non-Pama Nyungan ". The Australian languages form a language area , sharing much of their vocabulary and having similarly unusual phonologies (usually with only three vowels, no voicing contrasts, and no fricatives, but with several kinds of r, and with plosives, nasals, and laterals at each of several points of articulation — labial p, m, dental th, nh, lh, alveolar t, n, l, retroflex rt, rn, rl, palatal ty, ny, ly, velar k, ng). Dixon believes that after perhaps 40,000 years of mutual influence, it's no longer possible to distinguish deep genealogical relationships from areal features in Australia, and that not even Pama-Nyungan is a valid language family.
Traditionally, Australian languages have been divided into about two dozen families. Even when Australian languages were on the whole accepted as related, the Tiwi language of the Melville and Bathurst Islands was considered a likely exception.
What follows is a tentative classification of genealogical relationships among the Australian families, following the work of Nick Evans and associates at the University of Melbourne. Although not all subgroupings are mentioned, there is enough detail for the reader to fill in the rest using a standard reference such as Ethnologue. Note when cross-referencing that most language names have multiple spellings: rr=r, b=p, d=t, g=k, dj=j=tj=c, j=y, y=i, w=u, u=oo, e=a, etc. A range is given for the number of languages in each family, as sources count languages differently.
- Enindhilyagwa (Andilyaugwa)
- Ngurmbur (Gunavidji/Gombudj) [perhaps a member of Macro-Pama-Nyungan]
- Minkin [extinct; perhaps a member of Yiwaidjan or Tankic]
- Larakian (2 languages)
- Nyulnyulan (4-8 languages)
- Bunaban (2 languages in two subfamilies)
- Djeragan (3-5 languages in two subfamilies)
- Wororan (7-12 languages in three subfamilies)
- Daly (11-19 languages, now including Murinbata [Murrinh-Patha], in four subfamilies)
Newly Proposed Families:
- Minti, consisting of
- Djamindjungan (2-4 languages)
- West Barkly (3 languages in two subfamilies)
- an Arnhem Land macrofamily consisting of
- Burarran (4 languages, now including [N]djeebbana and Nakkara, in three subfamilies)
- Yiwaidjan (4-8 languages in three-four subfamilies, plus perhaps the Minkin isolate)
- Mangerrian (2-3 languages in two subfamilies)
- the Kakadju (Gaagudu) isolate
- the Umbugarla isolate
- macro-Pama Nyungan, consisting of
- Gunwi˝guan (15-17 languages in six subfamilies, now including the Maran languages and the Kungarakany isolate)
- Tankic (4 languages, plus perhaps the Minkin isolate)
- the Garawa (Karawa) isolate
- Pama-Nyungan proper (approximately 175 languages in 14 extant and numerous extinct subfamilies)
- plus perhaps the Ngurmbur (Gunavidji/Gombudj) isolate
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