Nature paper on the genetics of Aboriginal Australia

Somewhat belatedly, here is a link to new work of mine and colleagues’ on gene-language coevolution in Pama-Nyungan, the peopling of Sahul, and migration and admixture in the Pleistocene. It was recently published in NatureThere’s a lot in this paper, a Genomic History indeed. There has been some media attention, particularly Michael Erard’s piece on Pama-Nyungan phylogenetics and how important computational work has been to recent advances in Australian language history. There’s also a summary piece in The Conversation, particularly about the genetic side of the paper.

Video of conference talk on Grammar Boot Camps

I run a grammar boot camp every year, where a small group of students write a grammar of a language in a month. Last year it was Ngalia, and this year (starting in a few weeks) it’ll be Cundalee Wangka and Kuwarra. I also ran a year-long grammar group to pilot the idea in 2013, using materials from Tjupan. All four languages are varieties of the Wati subgroup of Pama-Nyungan and all the books are based on fieldwork conducted by Sue Hanson.

At the recent Wanala Conference run by the Goldfields Language Centre, Anaí Navarro, Matthew Tyler and I did a video presentation about the boot camp, its aims, methods, and results. Here’s a link to the video: https://drive.google.com/a/yale.edu/file/d/0ByIoQcheKNw2RGx4amVjNjhLOUk/view. Warning that it’s 190mb and 22 minutes long.

Tasmanian language data

The CHIRILA database contains materials from the Aboriginal languages of Tasmania. The excel spreadsheets contain all the records from Plomley’s (1976) Tasmanian language data, and additional spreadsheets contain explanatory data about the speakers represented in the text, the regions where data were recorded, and who the recorders were. This is the data used in Bowern (2012).

A word of warning is warranted here. This is not easy data to use; there’s a steep learning curve both for understanding the original transcription conventions, Plomley’s groupings, and the abbreviations.

Download

Tasmanian Data 600kb 25 downloads

The following files are the complete extant records for the languages of Tasmania,...

Introducing CHIRILA

I am very pleased to announce that the first phase of CHIRILA (Contemporary and Historical Resources for the Indigenous Languages of Australia) has been released. This represents approximately 180,000 words from 155 different Australian languages. It is a subset of the full database (of approx 780,000 items); eventually I hope to be able to release most of the data. Currently, the first phase is that for which we have explicit permission, or which is already in the public domain.

The material is hosted at pamanyungan.net/chirila; please see the web site for more information about the contents of the database, how to download data, what formats are available, and the like. We do not provide a web interface to the data; you download it and use excel or a database program to read the files.

We hope the data will be useful to researchers, community members, and others with an interest in Australia’s Indigenous language heritage.

pamanyungan.net/chirila also includes access to the preprint of a paper describing the database (both the online and full versions).

Latest Paper: Quantifying uncertainty in the phylogenetics of Australian numeral systems

Earlier this month, the Yale Pama-Nyungan Lab’s Dr. Claire Bowern and Kevin Zhou published a paper titled “Quantifying uncertainty in the phylogenetics of Australian numeral systems” in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. You can read the paper here.

Using Bayesian phylogenetic methods, Dr. Bowern and Zhou study and analyze the numeral systems of Pama-Nyungan languages in order to reconstruct how those systems may have looked thousands of years ago. What they discover is that the finite numeral systems of Pama-Nyungan languages change over time, losing and gaining numbers as they go. According to the authors, this demonstrates a potential for adaptability and flexibility in languages commonly stereotyped as simple, limited, and incapable of expressing new concepts. They also find that there is tremendous variation over time between the behavior of numeral systems limited at the number five and those with higher limits.

Here is the paper’s abstract:

Researchers have long been interested in the evolution of culture and the ways in which change in cultural systems can be reconstructed and tracked. Within the realm of language, these questions are increasingly investigated with Bayesian phylogenetic methods. However, such work in cultural phylogenetics could be improved by more explicit quantification of reconstruction and transition probabilities. We apply such methods to numerals in the languages of Australia. As a large phylogeny with almost universal ‘low-limit’ systems, Australian languages are ideal for investigating numeral change over time. We reconstruct the most likely extent of the system at the root and use that information to explore the ways numerals evolve. We show that these systems do not increment serially, but most commonly vary their upper limits between 3 and 5. While there is evidence for rapid system elaboration beyond the lower limits, languages lose numerals as well as gain them. We investigate the ways larger numerals build on smaller bases, and show that there is a general tendency to both gain and replace 4 by combining 2 + 2 (rather than inventing a new unanalysable word ‘four’). We develop a series of methods for quantifying and visualizing the results.

Languages coded for phylogenetics

I am starting a series of posts on map data from the Pama-Nyungan project. To begin, here is a map showing the languages for which I have coded wordlists suitable for phylogenetic analysis. Note that for some reason, viewing the page in Chrome on OSX results in a jquery error. It can be viewed in Firefox, or on Chrome on a PC.

The points are coded by how much data are available. The least well attested languages have white points; the middling ones are marked by plain red, while the languages with the most complete datasets have red markers with a square inside.

Some of the points appear to be at sea. This is an irritating result of how google earth fails to account for zoom correctly; the points are close to the close but not actually under water.

 

Yale’s Public Voices

Claire has joined Yale’s Public Voices Fellowship program for the 2014-2015 year. The Public Voices Program aims to increase the role of academics in policy and public debate, for example by providing training in the writing of Opinion pieces for major media outlets.

Grammar Boot Camp

I will be holding a summer ‘grammar boot camp’ from June 1 to June 26, 2015. The idea is to have up to four advanced undergraduate students work intensively on existing high-quality archival field notes and recordings with the aim of producing a publishable sketch grammar. Students will receive a stipend and travel expenses to come to Yale.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program; as such, applicants are limited to US citizens or permanent residents. Students who have graduated in Spring 2015 will be eligible to apply. The targeted cohort is undergraduates who will have just finished either their junior or senior year.

The materials to be worked on will be from an Australian Aboriginal language from Western Australia and will include both print materials and audio files. It is probable that the ‘print’ materials will already be digitized and in Toolbox.

Students will meet twice a day as a group with me to discuss analyses and writing. They will spend the rest of the time working with the materials in the Linguistics department. They will receive regular detailed feedback on the analysis and writing. Familiarity with Australian languages is not required but I would expect that successful applicants would do some reading of grammars of related languages prior to the start of the boot camp.

Applications for the boot camp are now open. The deadline for applications is January 15, 2015, and applicants will be notified of the result in mid-February.

To apply, please send the following materials electronically:

. a letter of application, describing your experience in linguistics, including research experience, your future plans, and why you’d like to join the boot camp.
. a writing sample, such as a linguistics term paper
. course transcript (this can be an unofficial transcript)

Please send materials as file attachments to bootcamp@pamanyungan.net, cc’ed to claire.bowern@yale.edu. Applications will be acknowledged within 2 days – if you don’t get an acknowledgment, please let me know.

Please also arrange for one or two letters of recommendation/support from faculty to be sent to the same email addresses, also by January 15.

Students will need to show some evidence of prior research experience (e.g. through an RA-ship or by having a senior thesis in progress) and some familiarity with language documentation procedures (e.g. through having taken a field methods class or equivalent, such as having attended CoLang or a LSA Institute class). Applicants will need to show attention to detail and ability to focus on a project for a sustained period. Students will need to be able to travel to New Haven for the entire period of the boot camp and should expect to work solely on this project during that time.

Please forward to anyone you think would be interested and feel free to contact me with any questions.