About: Language as a Window on Prehistory

One of the human beings’ defining characteristics is the command of language. Little is known, however, about the changing of language over time or the ways that society might change alongside language. In many areas, language has preserved evidence for past contacts, migrations, and cultural change, and in many cases, language surpasses even archaeology and genetics with regard to its value in investigating the past. Languages have been shown to change in regular ways, and it is also know that languages reflect certain aspects of their speakers’ cultures. The relationship between language and society is integral to understanding why the world’s 7,000 languages look the way they do.

The Pama-Nyungan family of languages in particular is poorly understood. This assortment of languages covers nearly the entirety of the Australian mainland, but little is known about the relationships among its internal subgroups. A comprehensive understanding about the history of language change within the Pama-Nyungan family—as well other Australian language families—is hampered by a number of complicating factors. It has long been believed that the extent of language contact in Australia has muddied the “true” genetic relationships between different languages, and that the existing data are too poor to be of any use. Thanks, however, to new research, it is now known that Australian languages actually make for a good testing ground for linguistic hypotheses. Systemic comparisons require a plethora of data, and the comprehensiveness of Pama-Nyungan’s is now comparable to that of Indo-European and Austronesian.

Crucial to this research project is a database of Australian lexical material hosted at Yale. This database contains more than 750,000 lexical items and data from thousands of references. Such a vast repository of information on Australian languages has been vital to Bowern’s research over the past few years, and it has also served as a resource for Aboriginal communities in Australia working on their own languages. Prominent among the goals of this project is to make this highly useful database more widely available to linguistic researchers, as well as to use it on this project.

This project will include a number of sub-projects. First among these is the task of data entry. As mentioned earlier, there exists a grand database of Australian lexical terms from both Pama-Nyungan languages and non-Pama-Nyungan languages. This sub-project will feature the collection of new information and the eventual completion of this database. A second sub-project is to reevaluate phonological generalizations about Australian languages. Other sub-projects include the reconstruction of certain Australian languages and the dissemination of the database on Australian lexical items.

This project is intended to stretch across three years, and it will be staffed by a number of undergraduate and graduate students from Yale University, as well as exchange students from the University of Queensland. Students of linguistics participating in the venture will gain a fantastic amount of experience in research techniques and statistics. Much of the work done by the students will be done largely independently, albeit with supervision by Bowern. This team will be engaging in ground-breaking research in the field of Australian languages. The details of how these languages have changed over time—especially in the period before European colonization—are largely unknown, but this project should provide us with some answers to those questions.