The 25 Aboriginal languages still being passed to new generations make up one of the last and most diverse great hunter-gatherer linguistic groups left. So understanding how they and their extinct relatives diversified could open a window on how language itself emerged among small social groups in the distant human past. "We need to look at places like Australia, which offer models of language diversification closest to the earliest state that shaped humankind, " Evans says.
Back in 1963, linguist Ken Hale of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge identified what he considered to be a new Australian language family. He named it Pama-Nyungan ("pama-nahyoongan") for two distinct words for "person, " drawn from the geographical extremes of the family's range, which extends across most of Australia. If Hale was right, then Pama-Nyungan, with more than 200 identified languages, would be one of the world's largest language families—larger than Indo-European and almost as large as Sino-Tibetan.
Not everyone agrees that Pama-Nyungan is one family, however, for, like other Australian language families, it presents a puzzling pattern of similarities and differences. Linguists had long noted that most languages across Australia draw from the same set of sounds, and that their verbs and pronouns share similar patterns of construction.
Given these similarities, linguists would expect the languages to share many cognates, or words derived from a common ancestor. (The English word "knee, " ancient Greek "gónu, " and Sanskrit "jānu" are all cognates, descended from the Proto-Indo-European word "ǵénu.")
But Australian languages have few cognates. For example, the sentence "you eat fish" in the Aboriginal languages Iwaidja and Gundjeihmi shares only one cognate element, a grammatical particle that marks the tense of verbs. In Russian ("ty esh rybku") and Elizabethan English ("thou eatest fish"), the sentence shares three—"ty" and "thou, " "e-" with "eat, " and "-sh" with "est." Yet Moscow and London are much farther apart than the areas where the two Aboriginal languages are spoken.
Perhaps because of these puzzling patterns, linguists have diverged sharply over basic questions such as whether and how Australian languages are related to each other and to languages in nearby New Guinea, likely the source of the first settlers. Some suggested that the Pama-Nyungan family, if it exists, entered the continent in a separate migration, whereas others argued that it split off from other Aboriginal languages only a few thousand years ago.
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