Aboriginal Languages of Australia

Aboriginal Languages of Australia

Aboriginal Languages of Australia Map Celebrates 50th Birthday

16th March 2017

A ground-breaking map on Aboriginal languages, produced in 1966 is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The map, “Aboriginal Languages of Australia”, held in the Asia-Pacific Map Collection is managed by CartoGIS at ANU.

The map was produced at the University of Victoria (British Columbia) by Geoffrey N. O’Grady, with fellow linguists Stephen A. Wurm of ANU, and Kenneth L. Hale then at U. Illinois.

ANU Linguistics Professor, Nicholas Evans says the map was revolutionary for its time.

“This map is a giant symbolic rebuke to the ill-founded notion of terra nullius,” says Professor Evans.

“Two things made the O'Grady, Wurm and Hale map special. First, it was comprehensive and pretty accurate with regard to the number and location of languages, even if here and there we now know of missing or misplaced languages.”

“Second, it broke new ground by showing the groupings of languages as well as the languages themselves. The map is just the tip of a very large iceberg, which is their research into how languages can be grouped together into subgroups and families. Even though there have been revisions since then, it was an immensely bold and visionary enterprise and still stands up pretty well today,” says Professor Evans.

Professor Evans says the map not only challenged terra nullius but was also influential for the discipline of Linguistics.

“We are now moving into an era where linguists are setting themselves the ambitious goal of a global phylogeny – a grand family tree of all the world's languages – as well as trying to pool data from all around the world on where languages are spoken and how they are related. This map was the first attempt to do something like this for Australia.”

Another reason why the map is so well regarded by scholars is because data collection in the 1960s was far more challenging than it is today.

“Many features of how Australian languages functioned, right down to transcribing their sounds accurately, had to be worked out properly. That made getting the base data much more difficult. Deciding which languages grouped into families involved comparing word-lists, something easily done now with databases, but in those days they had to work with cards and typed lists.”

“On the other hand, there were still speakers of many languages alive at that time, who have sadly passed away in the intervening decades.” says Professor Evans.

In honour of the map, Professor Evans and Professor Simon Haberle, Director of ANU School of Culture, Language and History in collaboration with CartoGIS are planning a project that will be just as “ambitious and momentous”

In the meantime, to view the map or find our more, please contact CartoGIS.

This story originally appeared on the College of Asia and the Pacific website

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster