News & Events

 February 3, 2012

How Many Tasmanian Languages Were There?

Claire BowernThe languages of Tasmania have been something of an enigma. The data are difficult to work with; they were recorded from multiple speakers in multiple locations, with little accompanying analysis. They are non-phonemic and recorded by non-speakers of the languages (and in the absence of other phonemically recorded data they are difficult to interpret). We are unsure currently of how many languages were spoken in Tasmania at the time of European settlement, how many groups (or families) they fall into, and how those groups should be subgrouped.

Previous work on Tasmanian languages has varied in the number of languages assigned to the island. Wurm (1972) suggests that there were just two languages, one in the Northern part of the Island and another in the south. Dixon and Crowley (1981) tentatively state that there were perhaps five, but perhaps as many as twelve. Horton (1994) has 6 areas, but the source of his information is not known. No previous work has made full use of Plomley's (1976) compilation of extant resources on the languages of Tasmania.

In this paper I present the results of a phylogenetic analysis of the languages in order to discover 1) how many languages are represented in the data, 2) how many families they are likely to belong to, and 3) how these categorizations relate to the more than 40 tribal and band groupings, which are fairly well described in the literature. I show how techniques from population biology can be used to classify wordlists of unknown origin.

Lattimore 513

Presented by: Claire Bowern, Yale University