Ancient Words

Ancient Words

These words were spoken in Australia 10 thousand years ago.

Linguists have reconstructed some words in Proto-Australian, the ancestor of all First Nations languages. Some of these words are still used in many Australian languages today, though sometimes the form of these words has changed a bit.

Are there words similar to one of these Proto-Australian words in your language?

All First Nations languages across the continent are related, according to recently published research. Read more about it over at…/all-australian-language…/

A recently published article by linguists Mark Harvey and Robert Mailhammer shows that all languages on the Australian continent are probably related. They appear to have developed from an ancient language which is called Proto-Australian.

Indigenous people across the country are united in a common struggle for rights. Indigenous peoples are also united by a common heritage that goes back a very long time. One example is that people have found that some words are similar over thousands of kilometres. The word for “we two” can be something like “ngali” in Cape York Peninsula languages and in the Central Desert.

But we have also known that many languages, from Broome to Mornington Island approximately, are quite different. They appeared unrelated at first glance. Is that disappointing? Not necessarily. If there are great similarities between languages (like words being the same), their common ancestor was probably spoken quite recently, maybe a few millennia ago. But if we find similarities that are limited BUT certain to be inherited, the common ancestral language must have been spoken a very long time ago indeed.

Mark Harvey and Robert Mailhammer have found that the Proto-Australian ancestral language had “noun class prefixes”. Words were divided into classes: Human Male, Human Female, Animal, Plant. There were prefixes on words showing the class. If people said “the little girl” in the Proto-Australian language, they probably put the prefix “tyiny-” on their word for “little”. But if they said “the little boy”, they probably used the prefix “tyi-” instead. Many languages from Broome to Mornington Island still have such prefixes.

There is a large language family called Pama-Nyungan spanning ninety per cent of the continent from Cape York to Perth. Pama-Nyungan languages do not have these prefixes today. Except one: Yanyuwa in the Gulf Country. If one Pama-Nyungan language has prefixes and is related to the northern languages in The Kimberley and northern NT, then all Pama-Nyungan language are! It’s just that most Pama-Nyungan languages have stopped using prefixes.

Such a remote relationship shows a common heritage that goes back a very long time.

(The scientific paper is “Reconstructing remote relationships” in the journal Diachronica, no. 4 2017. The article does not show that every single language on the continent is related, because a few languages do not have the detail that was investigated (prefixes for classes of words). But the hypothesis that all languages are related stands stronger, because the languages that have developed from Proto-Australian are spoken in every part of the country.)


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