Australian languages                                                                                                back to home page           

I did three years of fieldwork in Australia, chiefly at Numbulwar Mission in eastern Arnhem Land, on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. I was in this region for two years in 1972-74 when I was a graduate student at University of Chicago, and again for one year in 1975-76 after receiving my PhD. I was entirely funded by the then Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS), now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Studies (AIATSIS), in the Australian capital Canberra. I was generally in the field for 9 months/year, and at AIAS in Canberra the other three months.

Due largely to the galvanizing influence of Bob Dixon, Ken Hale, S.A. Wurm, and Michael Silverstein, channeled through the Institute as well as the Australian National University (ANU), and riding the wave of a major increase in funding from the newly elected Labour government of Gough Whitlam, there was a golden age of Australian fieldwork in the 1970s. I shared this Camelot with linguists like Francesca Merlan, Frank Wordick, Peter Austin, Alan Rumsey, Patrick McConvell, Peter Sutton, Barry Alpher, Barry Blake, David Nash, Jane Simpson, Graham McKay, Bruce Rigsby, Bernard Schebeck, Neil Chadwick, Margaret Sharpe, and Geoff O’Grady, along with numerous social anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, ethnoarcheologists, and others.

About half of my effort was devoted to the Nunggubuyu language, which is called Wubuy in more recent literature (nuN- is a gentilic prefix). My three-volume grammar-text-dictionary trilogy on this language is my flagship work from this period.

To avoid confusion, the language names I have used (in publications and/or manuscripts, and in this website), along with variant spellings and alternative names, are listed below. “—” means same as one of the names to its left. “PN” means Pama-Nyungan (a subfamily of Australian that covers most of the continent, plus the Yuulngu enclave in northeast Arnhem Land), “non-PN” is a loose term for the other Australian languages that stretch across north central and northwestern Australia. Glottolog names are as of October 2017. “Code” is ISO-639-3 and “gcode” is glottocode, both read off the Glottolog site. An asterisk after the ISO code means “in part,” i.e. the ISO code refers to a broader unit (e.g. this and one other language/dialect).

         Heath                      ISO        gcode                  Glottolog            other

         Nunggubuyu       nuy       nung1290        Wubuy                 Yingkwira
         Ngandi                    nid         ngan1295         —                            —
         Anindilyakwa    aoi         anin1240          —                            Anindilyaugwa, Enindhilyakwa, Anindhilyagwa
         Ngalakan               nig         ngal1293          —                            —
         Warndarang       wnd      wand1263       Wandarang       Warndarrang
         Mara                        mec       mara1385        —                            Marra
PN (Yuulngu enclave)
         Ritharngu             rit          rita1239           Ritarungo          Ritharrngu, Ridharrngu
         Dhuwal                  duj         dhuw1249      —                            —
         Dharlwangu        dax*      dhal1246          Dhalwangu        —
PN (Barkly Tablelands and Central Australia)
         Jingili                       jig           djin1251           Jingulu                  Djingili, Djingulu
         Ngarnga                 nji*        ngar1283         —                            Nganga, Ngarngu
         Warumungu       wrm     waru1265       —                            —
         (~ Warramunga)
The idiosyncratic spelling “Ritarungo” seems to be of recent vintage through the SIL network (Ethnologue). I do not recall ever seeing it in the published literature. It is not clear why or by whom it was proposed, or why Glottolog has accepted it. Other spelling variants are due to a) alternative romanizations of [ɾ] as “r” or “rr,” and b) alternative romanizations of stops and affricates, which do not usually follow the English voiced/voiceless opposition as in d/t and g/k.

For specifics on these languages, including links and/or references to publications and manuscripts, click on the following, in descending order of importance:
Nunggubuyu (Wubuy) & Ngandi & Anindilyakwa & Ngalakan
Mara & Warndarang
Ritharngu & Dhuwal & Dharlwangu
Jingili (Djingulu) & Ngarnga & Warumungu

Publications involving multiple Australian languages, and articles and reviews based on works by others, are listed below.

      1978b         Linguistic diffusion in Arnhem Land. Canberra: AIAS.

      *1997b        Lost wax: abrupt replacement of key morphemes in Australian agreement complexes, Diachronica 14(2):197-232.
      1991b         Pragmatic disguise in pronominal‑affix paradigms. In: Frans Plank, ed., Paradigms: The economy of inflection, 75-89. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
      1990            Verbal inflection and macro‑subgroupings of Australian languages: The search for conjugation markers in non‑Pama‑Nyungan. In: Philip Baldi, ed., Linguistic change and reconstruction methodology, 403-417. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
      1987b         Story of *-n-: *CV- vs. *CV-n- noun-class prefixes in Australian languages. In: Donald Laycock & Werner Winter (eds.), A world of language: Papers presented to Professor S.A. Wurm on his 65th birthday, 233-43. (Pacific Linguistics, C-100). Canberra: Australian National University, Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies.
                                    DOI:10.15144/PL-C100 (volume)
                                    (soon to be online,, search under title = World of, scroll to p. 233)
      *1981a        A case of intensive lexical diffusion: Arnhem Land, Australia. Language 57(2):335‑67.
                                    DOI: 10.2307/413694
      1980a          Dyirbal ergativity: Counter‑rejoinder to Dixon. Linguistics 18(5-6):505‑21.
      *1979a        Is Dyirbal ergative?. Linguistics 17(5-6):401‑63.
      1979b         Diffusional linguistics in Australia: Problems and prospects. In: S. Wurm, ed., Australian linguistic studies, 395‑418. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
      1976e          Substantival hierarchies: Addendum to Silverstein. In: R. M. W. Dixon, ed.,  Grammatical categories in Australian languages, 172‑90. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
      1976f          Ergative/accusative typologies in morphology and syntax. In: R. M. W. Dixon, ed.,  Grammatical categories in Australian languages, 599‑611. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
      1976g          Simple and compound verbs: Conjugation by auxiliaries in Australian verbal systems: northeast Arnhem Land. In: R. M. W. Dixon, ed., Grammatical categories in Australian languages, 735‑40. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

      2015            Ponsonnet, Maia. The language of emotions: The case of Dalabon (Australia). Anthropological Linguistics 57(2):225-228.
      2004            Harvey, Mark. A Grammar of Gaaguju. Anthropological Linguistics 46(1):121-2.
      2002            Simpson, Jane, David Nash, Mary Laughren, Peter Austin, & Barry Alpher, eds. Forty years on: Ken Hale and Australian languages. Anthropological Linguistics 44(2):200-1.
      1991            Alpher, Barry. Yir-Yoront lexicon: Sketch and dictionary of an Australian language. Anthropological Linguistics 33(1):94-6.
      1988            Blake, Barry. Australian Aboriginal grammar. Journal of Linguistics 24:257.
      1984            Dixon, R. M. W. & Barry Blake, eds. Handbook of Australian languages, II.  Language 60(2):465‑66. [book notice]
                                    DOI: 10.2307/413679
      1984            von Brandenstein, Carl G. Names and substance of the Australian subsection system. Language 60(2):466‑67. [book notice]
                                    DOI: 10.2307/413679
      1982            Dixon, R. M. W. The languages of Australia. Journal of Linguistics 18:189‑94.
      1982            Dixon, R. M. W. & Barry Blake, eds. Handbook of Australian languages, I. Journal of Linguistics 18(1):194‑97.
      1979            Dixon, R. M. W. A grammar of Yidiɲ. Language 55(3):706-8.


[last update Nov 2017]

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