Australian Indigenous languages descended from one common ancestor, researchers say

By AG Staff 28 March 2018
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Findings from the research will have a significant impact on Australia’s cultural and linguistic history.

A NEW STUDY has found that Australian Indigenous languages may come from one common ancestral language, which the researchers have dubbed ‘Proto-Australian’.

The three year project to uncover the origins of Australia’s Indigenous languages was a collaboration between the University of Newcastle (UON) and Western Sydney University (WSU), funded under the Australian Research Centre 2014 Discovery Project Grant.

It has previously been theorised that Australia’s indigenous languages descended from one common ancestor, but UON Chief Investigator and historical linguist Mark Harvey said the evidence published in the journal, Diachronica this week are definitive.

“Until now, it was speculated that Australia was significantly more linguistically diverse than somewhere like Europe, because it had not been proven that all Australian languages actually stemmed from the same lineage,” he said.

“This is the first demonstration that all Australian languages are part of the same language family. This language family spread across all of Australia, presumably from a small area in Northern Australia.

See more: Saving Indigenous languages

“This spread is likely to have been carried out by at least some population movement whose material and genetic traces have remained somewhat elusive.”

Findings from the project showed recurrent systematic differences and similarities across a set of languages that are spread out in a “geographically discontinuous way,” which suggests that is unlikely that the similarities are the result of language contact.

See more: A guide to Aboriginal astronomy

“While a multitude of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken at the time of European settlement, the findings also imply that Indigenous Australian languages only spread after the end of the last ice age, some 10-12,000 years ago,” WSU Chief Investigator Robert Mailhammer said.

“These findings show that Indigenous Australian languages were not the likely languages spoken by the first inhabitants of Australia, raising more questions around how the languages spread and how the linguistic findings connect to the genetic findings,” he added.

The investigators said that future research would be focused on understanding why one language spread and why it superseded all of the other languages that were there.