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Review of  Australian Languages

Reviewer: Stephen R. Anderson
Book Title: Australian Languages
Book Author: Claire Bowern Harold Koch
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Book Announcement: 16.1891

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Date: Fri, 17 Jun 2005 16:11:02 +1000
From: Stephen Anderson <>
Subject: Australian Languages: Classification and the comparative

EDITORS: Bowern, Claire; Koch, Harold
TITLE: Australian Languages
SUBTITLE: Classification and the comparative method
SERIES: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 249
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004

Stephen R. Anderson, Professor of Linguistics, Psychology and
Cognitive Science, Yale University


A reader unacquainted with the history of comparative linguistics in
Australia might well be excused for thinking of this collection of papers
dealing with subgrouping and comparative reconstruction within one
proposed family of aboriginal languages as directed at rather narrow
and specialized interests, one having at most limited appeal to a non-
Australianist audience. Such a reader would be greatly mistaken:
there are very big issues in play here.

At the outset of the late Ken Hale's first class at MIT on the structure
of "Walbiri" (Warlpiri), which I had the privilege of attending in the fall
of 1967, Ken laid out the position of the language in comparative
terms as basic background. Virtually all of the languages of Australia,
we learned, probably formed a single genetic unit at some level. But
within such a comprehensive grouping, there were some twenty-odd
distinct families plus a few language isolates. Remarkably, one of
these families -- "Pama Nyungan," named after the word for 'man,
person' at the extreme points of its range, and including Warlpiri as
one member -- occupied more than 80% of the land area of Australia,
with nearly all of the others crammed into a fairly small area at the top
of the continent. In Alpher's formulation from the volume under
review, "'Pama-Nyungan' includes all [the languages] of the southern
three quarters of the Australian mainland, together with those of the
Northeast (Cape York Peninsula and the Western Torres Strait
Islands) and those (the Yolngu languages and Yanyuwara) of two
noncontiguous areas in the far North" (p. 93).

This view of Australian comparative linguistics had emerged only
shortly before (O'Grady, Wurm and Hale, 1966; O'Grady, Voegelin
and Voegelin, 1966; see also Simpson et al. 2001), but it has
continued to dominate the views of Australianists and non-
Australianists alike in the years since. Most of them, anyway: For a
number of years, R. M. W. Dixon has challenged this picture, and the
validity of "Pama-Nyungan" as a genetic unit, in increasingly strong
and strident terms (Dixon 1980, 1997, 2002, among others). A central
premise of his most recent comprehensive survey of Australian
languages, indeed, is that "[t]he 'Pama-Nyungan' idea [...] is totally
without foundation, and must be discarded if any progress is to be
made in studying the nature of the linguistic situation in Australia"
(Dixon 2002:xx).

Strong words, but hardly atypical of academic discourse in general,
and perhaps indicative only of a narrow disagreement on detail among
specialists. But no: Dixon's rejection of Pama-Nyungan is grounded in
a much broader set of claims, to the effect that linguistic relationship in
Australia, as a result of the long term isolation of that continent, is
quite different from that typical of, say, the Indo-European family. The
model of linguistic "Punctuated Equilibrium" expounded in Dixon 1997
suggests that under the specific conditions of human history in
Australia, mutual borrowing and spread innovations of the sort usually
associated with "wave models" of linguistic change have resulted in a
situation where family relations of the "Stammbaum" variety are no
longer valid. As a result, not only Pama-Nyungan in particular, but
any large scale genetic units are in principle impossible to establish
here. The only comparison of the traditional sort that can be done
involves quite small, obviously related groups whose time depth is
much shallower than that supposed for Pama-Nyungan (or the
subgroups of a family like Indo-European).

Well, so what? Only that if we accept this conclusion for Australia,
then just as Bloomfield said in regard to the proposal that "the usual
processes of linguistic change are suspended on the American
continent[, ... i]f there exists anywhere a language in which these
processes do not occur (sound change independent of meaning,
analogical change, etc.), then they will not explain the history of Indo-
European or of any language. A principle such as the regularity of
phonetic change [...] is either a universal trait of human speech or
nothing at all, an error" (Bloomfield 1925:130). The cost of accepting
the suggestion of exceptionalism for Australia (or anywhere else) is
ultimately the loss of a much broader explanatory foundation in
historical linguistics.

Of course, it might well be that that foundation is indeed highly flawed,
as Dixon at least believes. But for those who might wish to retain it,
how is one to go about answering Dixon's claims about Australian,
and about Pama-Nyungan in particular? The answer, as discussed at
a Workshop at the International Conference on Historical Linguistics in
Melbourne in 2001, would be to present the kind of detailed history of
Pama-Nyungan comparisons that Dixon argues could not exist. Show
that Pama-Nyungan itself is characterized (in relation to the other, non-
Pama-Nyungan languages of Australia) by a coherent set of
innovations in phonology, grammar and lexicon, and that its sub-
families in turn have a similar coherence. And that is just what the
contributors to this volume have set out to do. (Note that the
complementary task, that of establishing similar coherence for the non-
Pama-Nyungan families of Australian languages, is a much larger one,
addressed only to a limited extent here but more extensively in other
work such as that collected in Evans 2003b).

In this connection, I cannot resist quoting what must stand as Hale's
last words on the controversy, from O'Grady and Hale's paper in the
work under review: "For decade after decade, Dixon [references] has
persisted in the same wrong-headed assessment of the phylogenetic
status of the large Pama-Nyungan group of Australian Aboriginal
languages. His claim, which is extravagantly and spectacularly
erroneous, is that it has no genetic significance in the wider Australian
linguistic context. Moreover, he denies that the Comparative Method
can be applied to Australian languages. This approach is so bizarrely
faulted, and such an insult to the eminently successful practitioners of
Comparative Method Linguistics in Australia, that it positively demands
a decisive riposte. So here we go!" (p. 69)

Work at the requisite level of detail, involving large number of quite
specific comparison sets across a wide range of languages, is not
exactly page-turning reading, and accordingly not the sort of thing for
which publishers strive to out-bid one another. The excellent solution
adopted here, maintaining substance within a format manageable for
publication, has been to provide a supplementary CD-ROM containing
the bulky stuff (maps, paradigms, comparison sets and other
appendices), while (largely) limiting the published pages to exposition.

The papers in the volume fall into four general sets. The first two
contributions establish the background for the rest of the collection.

1. Claire Bowern and Harold Koch ("Introduction: subgrouping
methodology in historical linguistics") set the scene by discussing and
comparing the traditional methods of establishing genetic units in
historical linguistics. Criteria for sub-grouping and for assuming the
unity of groups at various levels (listed in an appendix on the CD-
ROM), as employed by the participants in the workshop from which
the volume grew, are laid out. These include all areas of grammar,
synchronic and diachronic: lexicon, morphology, phonology, syntax
and semantics. This is followed by a summary of the chapters to

2. Harold Koch ("A methodological history of Australian linguistic
classification") discusses the classification schemes that have been
used historically in organizing Australian languages, including William
Schmidt's 1919 classification, Arthur Cappell's classifications based on
various criteria over nearly half a century, the initial lexico-statistically
based classification of O'Grady, Wurm and Hale (1966) and its
subsequent modifications and evolution, and Dixon's proposals from
1970 through the present. Specific points are detailed on which the
original provisional classification of O'Grady, Wurm and Hale has been
modified, or for which reclassification of particular languages has been
proposed. Lack of agreement among various investigators as to the
bases for classification provides a further motivation for the present

The next three papers look at the "Pama-Nyungan idea," examining
the status of the family, its reconstruction, and the methodology on
which it rests.

3. Luisa Miceli ("Pama-Nyungan as a genetic entity") deals with the
question of whether Pama-Nyungan ought to be regarded as a sub-
group of some larger genetic entity (an "Australian" family) or justified
as a self-standing family. She concludes that whatever the relation of
Pama-Nyungan to other languages of Australia may turn out to be, no
larger unit is presently well enough established to justify treating
Pama-Nyungan as a subgroup, and thus that the criteria relevant to its
justification are those of a family.

4. Geoff O'Grady and Ken Hale ("The coherence and distinctiveness
of the Pama-Nyungan family within the Australian linguistic phylum")
provide a spirited defense of the original bases of the Pama-Nyungan
proposal. They note that this was based on a number of studies, with
the lexico-statistical analysis employed only as one "blunt but useful
instrument" in arriving at a large scale picture of comparative historical
relationships within Australia. Typological similarities -- deprecated by
Dixon as unrevealing of genetic connections in the Australian context -
- also served as indicators of what relationships to pursue, but not as
the basis for positing those relationships. Ultimately the evidence for
Pama-Nyungan consists in the detailed comparison sets and the
associated specific histories of sound change and morphological
innovation that are the meat and potatoes of the traditional
comparative method, including comparisons in all areas of grammar.
While the bulk of the article is devoted to presenting detailed
comparative material of this kind in standardly clinical formulations, the
tone of its expository parts is at least as outspoken as anything one
will find in Dixon's condemnations of Pama-Nyungan.

5. Barry Alpher ("Pama-Nyungan: phonological reconstruction and
status as a phylogenetic group") provides the central argument of the
book, in form of massive and detailed comparison and reconstruction
within the Pama-Nyungan family, accumulated over many years. The
34 pages of the printed paper are merely the tip of the iceberg,
illustrating the kind of comparison that can be made. On the CD-ROM
are found nearly 200 additional pages of comparison sets, detailed
sound changes and specific phonological histories of a number of
Pama-Nyungan languages. Obviously some of the comparisons are
more secure than others, but as one looks through the list, it is hard
not to be struck by its overall weight and by the meticulousness with
which it has been assembled. No (or at least very few) far-fetched
semantic relationships, no invocation of a phonological deus ex
machina to rationalize inclusion of forms in a set simply in order to
extend that set to a wider range of languages. This is exemplary
historical linguistics of the classical sort -- just the sort of analysis
Dixon has maintained is impossible for Australian languages.

The next set of six papers then examine the status of particular
subgroups within Pama-Nyungan, and evidence for their unity.

6. Harold Koch ("The Arandic subgroup of Australian languages")
discusses an important set of languages whose close connection was
first suggested by Cappell and which were proposed as a sub-group
of Pama-Nyungan by Hale. The genetic connection of the varieties
grouped as "Aranda" is obvious and uncontroversial. Their relation to
Kaytetye as an "Arandic" unit is specifically rejected as a genetic
connection by Dixon, who considers the relations between Aranda
and Kaytetye a matter of the diffusion of features within an area.
Koch assembles a range of evidence in favor of Arandic as a
subgroup, including specific comparisons, changes and shared
innovations in vocabulary, phonology, and morphology.

7. Patrick McConvell and Mary Laughren ("The Ngumpin-Yapa
subgroup") present a case of another sort. Two groups of languages
spoken in the South Kimberley in Western Australia and the Tanami
Desert in the Northern Territories are individually recognized as
genetically related subgroups, the Ngumpin and Yapa (or Ngarga)
languages (the latter including Warlpiri). This article provides
evidence for a number of common innovations in phonology and
grammar justifying the claim that these two groups together form a
larger genetic subgroup within Pama-Nymugan. They show
specifically that this relationship does not hinge on simple typological
resemblance, criticized by Dixon as indicative of areal diffusion rather
than genetic connections.

8. Jane Simpson and Luise Hercus ("Thura-Yara as a subgroup")
discuss the internal organization of the Thura-Yara languages of
South Australia, a subgroup recognized in most classifications. They
argue for the inclusion of Wirangu as a (divergent or "outlier") member
of this group, contrary to previous views. The bases for their
classification again include shared innovations in phonology,
vocabulary, morphology and grammar.

9. Luise Hercus and Peter Austin ("The Yarli languages") treat the
classification of Malyangapa and a few other poorly documented
languages of southeastern central Australia. These languages have
generally been considered part of the Karnic subgroup. Hercus and
Austin show, however, that they do not share a number of innovations
characteristic of the Karnic languages (while nonetheless sharing
properties with one another). Their conclusion is that these
languages constitute an independent "Yarli" subgroup within Pama-

10. Gavan Breen ("Evolution of the verb conjugations in the Ngarna
languages") provides evidence for the relatedness of the Ngarna
(or "Warluwarric") languages from a shared innovation in the
development of a system of verbal conjugations in these languages.
This is a group whose unity has been widely accepted on the basis of
other evidence, largely vocabulary. It is particularly interesting
because it is one of the very few subgroups of Pama-Nyungan --
possibly the only one, in fact -- that is geographically discontinuous.

11. Paul Black ("The failure of the evidence of shared innovations in
Cape York Peninsula") considers the subgrouping of the languages of
a region in which most of the languages have undergone considerable
phonological change, often of a very dramatic sort. One might hope
that these phonological innovations would serve as bases for the
establishment of genetic subgroup relations within the area, but Black
argues that this is not the case. Phonological changes common to a
number of these languages cannot be regarded as single, shared
innovations, and their sub-classification remains obscure in the
absence of further evidence of various sorts.

Finally, three papers investigate non-Pama-Nyungan languages.

12. Claire Bowern ("Diagnostic similarities and differences between
Nyulnyulan and neighboring languages") examines the relations
among the members of a small family of six to ten closely related
languages of the western Kimberley coast. She shows that their
distinctive characteristics set them apart both from Pama-Nyungan
languages and from other non-Pama-Nyungan languages spoken in
neighboring areas. She concludes that they constitute a distinct family
for which there is no evidence of any genetic connection with the
surrounding languages.

13. Ian Green and Rachel Nordlinger ("Revisiting Proto-Mirndi")
discuss the Mirndi languages, widely accepted as a genetic unit and
indeed one of only two geographically discontinuous units that is
accepted as genetically based by Dixon (2002). They show that the
evidence for this unit is actually much weaker than generally assumed.
Connections among these non-Pama-Nyungan languages are thus in
need of much more investigation.

14. Brett Baker ("Stem forms and paradigm reshaping in
Gunwinyguan") looks at the internal structure of the Gunwinyguan
languages of Arnhem land, another non-Pama-Nyungan family
including a set of closely related languages described in considerable
detail by Evans (2003a). He finds evidence from the inflectional
morphology of verbs for a close connection between Ngalakgan and
Rembarrnga, and on this basis suggests the existence of a ("Jala")
subgroup within the Gunwinyguan family.


This book provides solid evidence of the sort demanded by classical
historical and comparative linguistics for a variety of genetic groupings
among Australian languages. The evidence involved comes from a
range of areas, including shared vocabulary, but centrally based on
shared innovation in phonology and grammar accompanied by
reconstruction of the changes involved. It demolishes quite effectively
the notion that Australian languages cannot be dealt with by the
standard Comparative Method. As such, it reinforces the generality of
Bloomfield's conclusion cited above that this is based on quite general
properties of language and not on the contingent characteristics of a
few families such as Indo-European.

The book also provides impressive support for the specific proposal of
a Pama-Nyungan group of genetically related languages, whether or
not this is related to other families within a larger "Australian" family. If
Pama-Nyungan and its subgroups are not yet as well established and
understood as Indo-European and a few others, it is hardly the case
that the relation rests on speculation or methods of dubious evidential
value. Whatever doubts one might have had about these questions
are set aside most effectively by this volume. And that is a matter of
considerable importance to anyone interested in the universal
properties of human language, not just to specialists in the languages
of Australia.


Bloomfield, Leonard (1925). On the Sound-System of Central
Algonquian. Language 1:130-156.

Dixon, Robert M. W. (1980). The Languages of Australia. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, Robert M. W. (1997). The Rise and Fall of Languages.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, Robert M. W. (2002). Australian Languages. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Nicholas (2003a). Bininj Gun-Wok : a Pan-Dialectal Grammar
of Mayali, Kunwinjku and Kune. Pacific Linguistics 541. Canberra:
Australian National University.

Evans, Nicholas (2003b). The Non-Pama-Nyungan Languages of
Northern Australia. Pacific Linguistics 552. Canberra: Australian
National University.

O'Grady, Geoffrey, C. F. Voegelin and F. M. Voegelin (1966).
Languages of the World: Indo-Pacific Fascicle 6. Anthropological
Linguistics, 8:1-199.

O'Grady, Geoffrey, Stephen A. Wurm and Kenneth L. Hale (1966).
Aboriginal Languages of Australia (A Preliminary Classification).
Victoria, B.C: Department of Linguistics, University of Victoria.

Simpson, Jane, David Nash, Mary Laughren, Peter Austin and Barry
Alpher [eds.] (2001). Forty Years on: Ken Hale and Australian
Languages. Pacific Linguistics 512. Canberra: Australian National


Stephen R. Anderson received his Ph.D in 1969 from MIT, where he
studied with Ken Hale among others. Prior to coming to Yale in 1994,
he taught at Harvard University, UCLA, Stanford, and The Johns
Hopkins University. His interests span phonetics, phonology,
morphology and syntax, as well as the cognitive science of language
and a number of languages belonging to several families. His most
recent books are "Doctor Dolittle's Delusion: Animals and the
Uniqueness of Human Language" (Yale University Press, 2004)
and "Aspects of the Theory of Clitics" (Oxford University Press,
2005). He is currently engaged in fieldwork on the Surmiran form of
Swiss Rumantsch.