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Study Unravels Tasmania’s Historic Languages

A technique normally used by biologists is providing new insight into the diversity of Tasmania’s aboriginal population more than 200 years ago.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B , has found the island was home to 12 different languages – more than the one or two previous suspected.

Australian researcher Associate Professor Claire Bowern of Yale University says studying Tasmania’s aboriginal language history is difficult because there are no known native speakers and relatively few sources of information.

“We don’t have any independent witnesses of the vocabulary, which makes it quite a difficult classification problem,” says Bowern.

“Luckily there are tools in biology that have been developed to sort this out.”

To determine how many languages may have existed, Bowern analysed 3200 unique words recorded in 44 lists, from between 1777 and 1847.

“The first thing I did was work out which of the word lists belonged to the same language and which of them had words from more than one language in them,” says Bowern.

“Because we don’t know how many groups there are in the data, we test this iteratively. We start by hypothesising two groups and then see how the data falls out to see how good a fit that model is for the data. We keep doing until the number of groups is 20.”

The results suggest 12 languages, clustered into five groups – northeastern, southeastern (Bruny Island), Oyster Bay, northern and western.

Bowern says the result sits well with anthropological studies, which suggest that there was limited contact between Tasmania’s aboriginal tribes.

“The island is reasonably small, but it is quite rugged,” she says.

“We’re also talking about a small population – the total population of Tasmania before European settlement was around 6000 people.”

Bowern admits the use of computational methods in linguistics is still “somewhat controversial”.

“There’s quite a bit of backlash from some quarters for using these techniques.”

Bowern hopes her study will help researchers view Tasmania’s aboriginal population as a diverse rage of people, rather than taking a ‘one-island’ view.

“Tasmanians are sometimes treated as [identical] when it comes to making inferences about the anthropological records. For example, some claim that Tasmanians didn’t fire or they all had a simple tool kit,” she says.

“There is diversity there if we want to see it.”

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