Most Aboriginal languages come from Burketown region

The area around Burketown is the ancestral home to most Aboriginal languages.
The area around Burketown is the ancestral home to most Aboriginal languages.

New research has found that most Aboriginal languages across Australia originally came from the Burketown area in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The languages are descended from a single ancestor language that spread across the continent to all but the Kimberley and the Top End.

Research published this month in the scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests the family arose just under 6000 years ago around what is now Burketown.

The scientists say their findings suggest this language family spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate.

In an article in The Conversation, researcher Claire Bowern, Professor of Linguistics at Yale University said Burketown was the home of Australia’s largest language family called Pama-Nyungan which comprises 300 language and covered 90% of the country before colonisation.

“Our findings suggest this language family spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate,” Prof Bowern said. “Our research adds further evidence to Australia pre-1788 being a dynamic place, where people moved and adapted to a changing land.”

Prof Bowern said they used data from changes in several hundred words in different languages from the Pama-Nyungan family to build up a tree of languages, using a computer model adapted from those used originally to trace virus outbreaks.

“We found clear support for the origin of Pama-Nyungan just under 6000 years ago in an area around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown,” she said.

“We found no support for the theories that Pama-Nyungan spread earlier.”

Prof Bowern said there were around 145 Aboriginal languages with speakers today, including languages from outside the Pama-Nyungan family though many were spoken by only a few people, often elderly.

“There are also new languages, such as Kriol spoken across Northern Australia,” she said.

The lost Kalkatunga language is in the Pama-Nyungan family and it was resurrected in 2017 as part of a historic language revival project in Mount Isa. 

The 2017 NAIDOC theme ‘Our language matters’ inspired Sheree Blackley of Kalkadoon Native Title Aboriginal Corporation to re-introduce the language to its people.

North West Star

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