The comparative method in Australian linguistics

  • 1. Introduction 4. Dixon’s approach to comparative Australian
  • 2. Early studies and the problem of attestation 5. More recent comparative work
  • 3. The perversity of Australian languages 6. References


Comparative linguistics has finally come of age in Australia, particularly in the past two decades. While this chapter ends with a brief summary of recent studies, it devotes more space to earlier work, which tends to be more revealing of the particular nature of the Australian linguistic area.

Early studies and the problem of attestation

Until recently the comparative study of Australian languages was severely hampered by the extremely poor data available. Even today many of the languages which are no longer spoken are known mainly from early wordlists recorded by interested pastoralists, police constables, and other non-linguists. Such attestation began with Captain Cook’s

visit to Australia in 1770, and by the time of the publication of Grey’s account of an expedition to Western Australia in 1841 it was enough to reveal the diversity and yet widespread similarities among Australian languages (Dixon 1980: 8-11). It hit a peak during the last two decades of that century, which saw the publication of 125-item word lists for some three hundred speech varieties in Curr’s (1886-87) four-volume work on The Australian race. This sort of data provided the basis for the first systematic attempt to classify Australian languages, by Schmidt (1919), who succeeded in recognizing the genetic grouping of many of the languages spoken across the southern half of the continent (see Koch 2004: 18-25).

Tasmanian languages died out especially early, and from the limited data available it is not even clear to what extent they were related to languages of the mainland (see e.g. Crowley and Dixon 1981). They will not be considered further here.

Attestations of languages began to improve as work by the first notable Australian linguist, Arthur Capell, began to appear in the late 1930s. While Capell (1937: 58) recognized the basic unity of Australian languages, his own classification was typological, initially arranging the languages into five groups. Later Capell (1956: 119) recognized a major division between the prefixing languages found across northern and northwestern Australia and the suffixing languages found elsewhere on the continent. While he still believed that the languages stemmed from a common ancestor - a position he would later discard (e.g. Capell 1975: 2) - he did not believe it would be possible to reconstruct it (Capell 1956: 3). Instead he focused on what he called “Common Australian”, i.e. “words and constructions that are found throughout Australia ... ‘common’ to all areas (though not to all languages) but [which] may or may not be ‘original’”. In his study of Common Australian vocabulary, Capell (1956: 83-85) recognized more obvious sound “changes”, and also the less obvious loss of initial consonants or sometimes entire syllables in the Aranda (now Arrernte) language of Central Australia (Capell 1956: 100101). For further discussion of Capell’s work, see Koch (2004: 25-30).

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