Tasmanian Aboriginal people had many dialects

By Joanna Egan 12 October 2012
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New research suggests there were more than a dozen different Aboriginal language groups in Tasmania.

TASMANIA MAY ONCE have been home to at least 12 Aboriginal language groups, according to a new study.

Lead researcher, Australian Clare Bowern, has found that at least a dozen indigenous languages – many more than previously thought – were spoken in Tasmania at the time of European settlement, more than 200 years ago.

The study, published in the UK journal the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, combined linguistic techniques with methods used for studying evolutionary biology to analyse a set of wordlists recorded by explorers, missionaries, convicts and others between 1777 and 1847.

“These are not easy materials to work with,” says Claire, who is an associate professor of linguistics at Yale University, US. The original lists were recorded from many speakers, in a number of different locations during the 70-year timespan. In 1976, they were collated and published by historian Brian Plomley.

“The vocabularies are of very different lengths and don’t contain the same words, which makes them hard to compare,” says Claire.  “There are also lots of mistakes in them. For example, the word given for ‘nose’ in some languages is actually the word for ‘I’; presumably the person recording the language was pointing to their nose and the speaker thought they were asking for the word ‘I’.”

Aboriginal languages more diverse

Prior to the 1976 publication of the lists, twentieth-century researchers speculated just two Aboriginal languages were spoken in Tasmania – one in the state’s north and the other in the south.

Then, in the 1980s, linguists Robert Dixon and Terry Crowley used the lists to theorise there could have been between about five and 12 dialects, but it wasn’t until Claire conducted her study that 12 individual languages were discerned.

“Of course it’s always possible that there were other languages spoken in Tasmania and that these weren’t recorded,” Claire says.

Tasmania’s Aboriginal language history

She examined more than 3200 words from 44 lists and using a series of complex algorithms identified patterns for each language.

“The first task was to work out which wordlists had words from more than one language in them,” Claire says. She used a clustering algorithm adapted from the field of genetics – which identifies anomalies in a dataset – to do this.

Then, using a second set of algorithms, languages containing words with similar sounds and meanings were grouped into clusters. “These correlate well with Tasmania’s geography,” says Claire, who plans to examine the clusters further so as to identify differences between them and learn more about Tasmania’s linguistic history.

The study opens up new possibilities for language research, especially in areas where source data are scarce. “It’s important to show what we can do with old sources and that we shouldn’t give up on old records given the new tools we have,” Claire says.

She also hopes the findings change the way Tasmania’s linguistic history is viewed. “Given that there are clearly five (probably unrelated) language families on the island, any work that relies on there being just one language or family must be incorrect,” she says.

Aboriginal language study needs cultural context

Members of Tasmania’s Aboriginal community agree it’s important to recognise Tasmania’s rich linguistic history, but say that it’s impossible for researchers to understand the context of Aboriginal languages without drawing upon cultural knowledge that exists in communities today.

“There’s so much more to research than reading other people’s work and doing [a study] in isolation of the community whose language you’re talking about,” says Theresa Sainty, an Aboriginal language consultant for the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

She says she and her community feel research not undertaken in partnership with the community is not completely valid. “Language is remembered and used within Aboriginal families and the fact is that Aboriginal people in this community continue to have that knowledge, so looking at the published wordlists alone is just not enough.”