Darwin-L Message Log 2:9 (October 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<2:9>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Fri Oct  1 18:51:25 1993

To: LARRYS@psc.plymouth.edu
Subject: Re: Heritability and cultural evolution
Date: Fri, 01 Oct 93 19:55:00 -0400
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

Larry Spencer asks if enough is known about the Tasmanian language
to find out whether it changed in the same way as the culture.  One
problem is that it'd be hard to compare lg. change to culture change
of the sort Larry exemplifies.

  The other problem is that in fact very little is known about
Tasmanian languages (sic).  Here's what Colin Yallop says about

p. 31: "The status of the Tasmanian languages (possibly only two
in number and now extinct) is not clear.  They appear to have
differed from mainland languages in certain respects, and it has
been argued that these differences reflect a distinct ancestry
rather than a relatively isolated development from the mainland

pp. 38-39: "At least five different dialects are thought to have
been spoken [in Tasmania] but they have been extinct since the
early twentieth century.  The five dialects are tentatively grouped
as two languages, either [Western vs. Eastern] or [Northern vs.
Southern].  The relationship between Tasmanian and mainland
languages is uncertain."

pp. 70-71: "3.6.  A note on the Tasmanian languages
 "What little we can reconstruct of the pronunciation of Tasmanian
languages is not conclusive evidence as to their relationship with
mainland languages.  Their consonantal system was comparable to one
of the simpler mainland languages, with perhaps four points of
articulation for plosives and nasals....There seems not to have been
any distinction of voicing...and there were no fricatives other
than possibly _gh_ or _h_.  But there may have been an unusually high
number of vowels in comparison with mainland languages...."

 And here's what S.A. Wurm, in his 1972 book LANGUAGES OF
AUSTRALIA AND TASMANIA, says about them (p. 168; his entire
section on Tasmanian lgs. is on pp. 168-174, mostly consisting
of a few comments on grammatical features):

 "In pre-European times, an estimated five to eight thousand
Tasmanian aborigines who were racially different from the
Australians were living in Tasmania....the last full-blood
Tasmanian died in 1877.  The languages...survived in fragments
until around the turn of the century....
 "Only limited and generally quite unreliable notes and
materials, mostly word-lists and some sentence materials, had been
collected in the Tasmanian languages, from which only a superficial
picture of them can be obtained."

 So, although Wurm concludes that the Tasmanian languges probably
are not related to Australian languages, it isn't at all clear that
there is enough material on Tasmanian lgs. to determine their
genetic relationships (or lack of them) with other groups.  They do
indeed share some vocabulary with Australian lgs. (which are believed
to be related to each other); but that could be borrowed vocab., in
one direction or the other.  And it doesn't look as if there's
enough evidence to find out about changes in Tasmanian, in spite
of that tentative grouping into two languages.

  Sally Thomason

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