ABC Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor has a short but thoroughly fascinating programme on how human pre-history and cultural change can be uncovered through the study of languages. It’s an eye-opening insight into how patterns in our language are relics of our past and how they can be a window into the interplay of societies.
The presenter is linguist Claire Bowern who does most of her research in the field. Bowern particularly studies the languages of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and how they’ve interacted with each other and with English.
She gives the example of various ‘loan words’, such as koala or kangaroo, used in English but adopted from native speakers.
Loan words like this show us that there were enough contacts between Aboriginal people and settlers for the settlers to learn the names of local animals in those languages, rather than making up their own names. However, the loans are mostly confined to plants, animals and environment terms, and this tells us something about the depth and type of contact between the two groups. The European settlers did not adopt Aboriginal kinship terminology, for example, or other cultural terms.
We might compare this to the English wholesale adoption of French legal terms like judge, jury and trial, following the Norman Conquest. Many of the loans of Aboriginal words in English come from the Sydney region; it’s therefore reasonable to assume that this was the place that European settlers first came into contact with animals like koalas and dingos.
It really is like archaeology for language as she often has to uncover quirks of languages that are spoken only in remote places and then builds of picture from feint traces left by past generations.
Link to Ockham’s Razor on ‘Language and prehistory’.