The languages that were once spoken on Tasmania

Tasmania, the southernmost state of the Australian Commonwealth. It has been inhabited by indigenous Australians since first arriving around 40 000 years ago, but it was not until the 18th century when first contact with European explorers was established. But less than a century later, every indigenous language once spoken on this island would go extinct, with one of them surviving until the early 20th century. This leaves us, looking in through the lens of the 21st century, with a mystery. How many languages were spoken on Tasmania shortly before European contact or colonisation? What did these languages generally sound like? How did these languages work?

Because of the relatively poor understanding of Australian language sounds, and by extension, Tasmanian language sounds, or anything about their languages during that time, the amount of resources we could work with today are extremely scarce. Around 35 word lists, and a wax cylinder recording survive to this day, with the latter a rather poor quality one.

There is essentially no data on grammar, and with no texts and almost no recordings. Yet, people, particularly the Tasmanians, are interested in recovering the languages they lost. This set off some attempts to classify what little evidence there is into language families, and to estimate how many languages would have been spoken on Tasmania before European contact.

We probably would not know how the languages of Tasmania are related to other languages. While both Australia and Tasmania have long histories of human habitation, this may not necessarily mean that the languages spoken in this region are more closely related than the languages spoken in other regions. This is related to a proposal by linguist Joseph Greenberg in the 1970s, where he proposed the Indo-Pacific language superfamily, and that included the Tasmanian languages along with the Papuan languages, and curiously, the Andamanese languages. This external classification was rejected by other linguists, and so this hypothesis did not really get rather far.

Among these languages proposed, we can only see how they are geographically classified, and not quite establish and genealogical relationships between them. There could have been anywhere from five to sixteen languages spoken on Tasmania, split into four language families. There also could have been a bridging language, a lingua franca of sorts, to connect each of these languages together, but even that died out pretty much almost unknown, with the last speaker of Flinders Islands Lingua Franca passing away in 1905.

In 1952, the first distinguished languages of Tasmania were proposed by Wilhelm Schmidt, which were five languages split between the Eastern and Western Tasmanian languages. This data were further analysed by Dixon and Crowley, and proposed that there were probably more languages that just five, rather, there were six to eight languages, and probably two more varieties there were inconclusive. The word lists and recordings simply lacked sufficient data.

But in the 21st century, further problems in the data were pointed out by Claire Bowern, apart from the scarcity. For one, some word lists mix data from different locations, or simply did not report the location at all. This required further computational methods to evaluate language admixture. Among the unmixed word lists, 12 varieties were identified which fell into five clusters, which were Western Tasmanian, Northern Tasmanian, Northeastern Tasmanian, and Eastern Tasmanian, which consisted of Oyster Bay and Bruny (or Southeastern Tasmanian) languages. She identified only 24 words out of the 3412 were common among these five clusters, most or all of which were loanwords from either introduced items in relatively recent times, or mythological terms which could have been relatively easily borrowed. This formed the basis for her to conclude the lack of evidence to suggest a so-called “Tasmanian language family”, and also suspected that there were likely no relationships between the languages of Tasmania and the languages of Australia, unless other languages on Australia existed before being wiped out by expansion of other languages.

Now that we have a rather vague idea on how the languages of Tasmania could have been classified, another question was, how did it actually sound like? Fortunately, there are wax cylinder recordings of one of the last speakers of the Flinders Island lingua franca, that of Fanny Cochrane Smith, with one from 1903 available to listen. However, even this proved difficult, not only because of the poor durability and fidelity of wax cylinders after multiple playbacks, but also due to the poor quality of transcriptions of Tasmanian words by linguists and anthropologists back then. Some used anglicised systems of transcriptions, while others could have used French transcription systems, both of which would have produced different results with the same Tasmanian word.

But it was likely that the Tasmanian languages could have had the usual voiceless stops /k/, /t/, and /p/, together with their voiced counterparts. These sounds would also probably have a palatalised version. Nasal sounds included /m/ and /n/ with their palatalised versions, and the /Ε‹/ sound. Interestingly, the Tasmanian languages likely lacked the sibilant sounds like /s/ and /z/, a strange similarity with the Australian languages. However, the existence of retroflex consonants that appear in many Australian languages was not attested in the Tasmanian languages. The Tasmanian languages also probably had five vowel sounds distinguished by length, in contrast to the two or three vowels in many Australian languages.

So, where does this leave us? Bowern’s study applied phylogenetic methods conventionally used in evolutionary biology to attempt to discern the languages of Tasmania, and to reconstruct linguistic history. While it certainly offered new insights into the the languages of Tasmania, many more questions remain. What phonemes existed in these languages, how did these languages work, and would there have been a system of avoidance speech as we see in many Australian languages?

Nevertheless, this drive to discover what the people of Tasmania have lost did spur the Palawa kani project, a language revival initiative that began in 1992 which sought to retrieve as much Tasmanian culture as possible, which included the languages the state lost. This project by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center birthed the constructed language called palawa kani (yes, written entirely in lowercase letters), reconstructed using the very word lists and other accounts used to dive deeper into the languages of Tasmania. It is certainly impressive how much information, and the history behind discovering that information, anthropologists, linguists, and other people have deduced from what is essentially an extremely limited set of surviving evidence of lost languages.

Further reading

  • Bowern, C. (2012). The riddle of Tasmanian languages. Proc. R. Soc. B.2794590–4595
  • Berk, C.D. (2017. Palawa KaniΒ and the Value of Language in Aboriginal Tasmania. Oceania, 87: 2-20.Β

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