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, 279 (1747), 4590-5

The Riddle of Tasmanian Languages


The Riddle of Tasmanian Languages

Claire Bowern. Proc Biol Sci.


Recent work which combines methods from linguistics and evolutionary biology has been fruitful in discovering the history of major language families because of similarities in evolutionary processes. Such work opens up new possibilities for language research on previously unsolvable problems, especially in areas where information from other sources may be lacking. I use phylogenetic methods to investigate Tasmanian languages. Existing materials are so fragmentary that scholars have been unable to discover how many languages are represented in the sources. Using a clustering algorithm which identifies admixture, source materials representing more than one language are identified. Using the Neighbor-Net algorithm, 12 languages are identified in five clusters. Bayesian phylogenetic methods reveal that the families are not demonstrably related; an important result, given the importance of Tasmanian Aborigines for information about how societies have responded to population collapse in prehistory. This work provides insight into the societies of prehistoric Tasmania and illustrates a new utility of phylogenetics in reconstructing linguistic history.


Figure 1.
Figure 1.
The island of Tasmania, showing tribal boundaries inferred from ethnographic sources.
Figure 2.
Figure 2.
Structure analysis of wordlist data (35 individual vocabularies, five populations and 3339 characters), grouped by location of wordlist origin.
Figure 3.
Figure 3.
Neighbor-Net of wordlists with high levels missing data and admixture removed, showing five language clusters.
Figure 4.
Figure 4.
Fifty per cent consensus tree based showing posterior probabilities of internal nodes, based on a Bayesian maximum-likelihood analysis of 2777 data points from 26 non-admixed vocabularies.

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