Presentation Open Access

Standard Average Australian

Bowern, Claire

Slides given at the #lingtyp Association for Linguistic Typology session on Australian languages.


Standard Average Australian?

Claire Bowern, Yale University

There has long been a tradition in the descriptive literature on Australian languages to refer to a core of common features: that is, to describe the grammar of a language in terms of what we might call “Standard Average Australian.” Works such as Wurm (1972) and Dixon (2002) have established generalized notions about the features of Australian phonol- ogy, morphology, syntax, and semantics that have continued to inform both the practices and priorities of the descriptive Australianist literature, particularly for Pama-Nyungan, the largest family on the continent. It is not uncommon to find examples such as those given in (1).

(1) a.

b. c.

“Mantjiltjara, along with other languages of the Wati subgroup, has a great concen- tration of Common Australian characteristics” (Marsh 1976:11);

“Word order is remarkably free in most Australian languages.” (Dixon 1979:435);

“Use of the root ’big’ for ’mother’ is widespread in Australian languages” (Evans 1990:163)

Methodologically, Australian grammatical descriptions tend to emphasise the unity and homogeneity of languages. The idea of an average or typical Australian language can also be seen in grammatical descriptions where the author claims that the language represents prototypical exemplars of the Australian continent, as exemplified in (2).

(2) a. b. c. d.

Yidiny: phonology (Dixon 1977:1);

Kayardild: phonology (Evans 1995:585);

Dyirbal: general morphological type (Blake 1976);

Gooniyandi: stance verbs as existential predicates (McGregor 1990:396)

Yet even those with a cursory knowledge of Australian languages will recognize substan- tial differences between all these languages claimed to be ‘typical’. Yidiny’s and Kayardild’s phonological similarities, for example, do not even extend to inventory. In recent years, some authors have questioned the implicit uniformity assumed and emphasised by much earlier work (see, e.g. Nordlinger 2006).

In such a spirit, this paper evaluates the claims of homogeneity made throughout the literature . We collect such claims by combing grammars for phrases such as “As in many Australian languages. . . ” (and, conversely, “. . . rare for Australian languages. . . ”). The goals of this study are three: (i) to inform, adjust, or debunk prior claims about Standard Average Australian; (ii) to identify potential unconsidered widespread features; and (iii) to highlight problems of ‘confirmation bias’ in grammatical description. At stake are the continued ac- curacy of new research in these languages and a proper understanding of what Australian languages bring to regional and worldwide cross-linguistic studies.

I test 70 claims in phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. For the clear majority of cases, the claim is either incorrect at face value or misleading. For example, most claims about the structure of numeral systems (as universally lacking concepts beyond three, or where numerals ‘three’ and above have obligatory reference) are simply false, as shown by the summary of Bowern and Zentz (2012). Claims about semantics require further testing too. For example, Evans’ claim in (1) above cannot be substantiated outside of Eastern Arn- hem Land with current data. Another example comes from word lengths. According to Dixon (2002:553), “most Australian languages have no monosyllabic words at all (outsideinterjections). Others show a few. . . ” Yet Gasser and Bowern (2014) found that nearly half the languages (48%) in the sample had robustly attested monosyllabic words.

Other claims are, if not incorrect, misleading, relying as they do on a definition of ‘many’

or ‘widespread’. As an example, consider the claim that ‘[m]ultilevel case marking is widespread in Australian languages’ (Dench and Evans 1988:1). There are 20 languages out of a sample

of 100 (where sufficient data were available), where case stacking such as in (3) is found.

(3) Wuraal, kartu nhawungarra-ma-rninyji nganaju-u muyi-i? all.right, 2SG.NOM look.after-CAUS-FUT 1SG.GEN-ACC dog-ACC

“Can you look after my dog?” (Dench 1995:80)

These languages, with a few exceptions, are clustered in the Pilbara and a region from the Gulf of Carpentaria south into central Australia. Calling such a phenomenon ‘widespread’ , when similarly commonly attested and more evenly distributed phenomena (such as pres- ence of contrastive fricatives in the phoneme inventory) are labeled ‘rare’ (cf. Blevins 2001:44), highlights problems with descriptive methodology. To be sure, some early generalisations were based on inadequate descriptions. However, I argue that the continued emphasis on uniformity of Australian languages is counterproductive to typology at best, and at worst a type of confirmation bias that damages prospects for high quality language documentation.


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