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Linguistic complexity

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  • Piotr Gasiorowski
    The dingo is a living proof of relatively recent contacts, too. It s thought to arrive in Australia ca. 3,500 years ago, and it certainly didn t dog-paddle
    Message 1 of 2 , Nov 5, 2000
      The dingo is a living proof of relatively recent contacts, too. It's thought to arrive in Australia ca. 3,500 years ago, and it certainly didn't dog-paddle across the straits without human help.
      ----- Original Message -----
      Sent: Sunday, November 05, 2000 7:46 AM
      Subject: [tied] Re: IE & linguistic complexity

      MArk, this used to be part of conventional wisdom but it has more
      recently been thrown out of the water by latest Australian findings.

      Firstly, Australia has not been that difficult to reach from
      Sundaland.  The summer monsoons all blow from South East Asia to
      Northern Australia, while the winter monsoons allow a safe reverse
      trip (blowing out of Australia back to Sundaland).  This has enabled
      groups of seafaring Austronesians to regularly travel to northern
      Australia in search of beche la mer (sea cucumber), turtles, dugong,
      trochus and conch shells and other delicacies of great delight in
      China and South East Asia, and not locally available.  The age of
      these trade routes must not be underestimated.  They have been open
      at least since 3,500 BP if not much earlier.  The dingo travelled
      down with these contacts and there is much evidence of to-and-fro
      movements.  Aboriginal Australians have been living in Macassar for
      hundreds of years, taken as servants and settling in Indonesia as a

      There is also new evidence that Eastern Australia was reached by
      Polynesians, who seem to have an impact on some cultural features in
      North Eastern Australia.  Certainly the Maori knew of the presence of
      a big land to the west.  Trade routes also ciss-crossed from the Cape
      York Peninsula, across the Torres Strait to Papua New Guinea.  There,
      however, the PNG bow and arrow, was recognised as no match for the
      Abroiginal hunking or killing "spear" and womera whose distance and
      accuracy compared with the early firearms of the Dutch and
      Portugese.  Indeed it has now deen confirmed that the Wik people of
      Cape York drove out a Dutch settlement there, and it would seem that
      the people north of Derby, Western Australia may have repulsed a
      Portugese settlement from Timor pror to 1606.


    • Piotr Gasiorowski
      With all due respect to Stephen Wurm, there is only one good reason why a grouping of languages is called a phylum : the evidence of common descent is not
      Message 2 of 2 , Nov 5, 2000
        With all due respect to Stephen Wurm, there is only one good reason why a grouping of languages is called a "phylum": the evidence of common descent is not sufficient to reconstruct the protosystem, the intermediate stages corresponding to the nodes of the putative "family tree", and the regular changes needed to derive the attested modern systems. Nobody calls Austronesian or Semitic a phylum; the term is reserved for loose and controversial groupings like Penutian, Khoisan or Niger-Congo (purists might want to add Altaic and Afroasiatic).
        NG holds more than 60 relatively well-established "Papuan" (= non-Austronesian) families, though even this division is tentative: much more work is required on documenting local languages (some are still known from word-lists alone) and disentangling genetic and areal similarities. Wurm and his ANU team did a vast amount of really careful fieldwork and came up with a classificatory scheme that distinguishes as many as six major phyla and leaves a residue of thirty-odd isolates and languages grouped into itsy-bitsy families (2-8 members each). A Herculean labour indeed, but scarcely one that solves all problems.
        Trans-NG (more than 500 members), Sepik-Ramu (ca. 100 members), Torricelli (ca. 50 members), etc., are typical portmanteau groupings, based on a protocol of typological and lexical agreements, not on a rigorous reconstruction. Archaeological evidence doesn't mend matters, as an early expansion of agriculture need not have involved speakers of just one language ("Proto-Trans-NG"). The phyla in question group languages that are no doubt "related" in some way, but the nature of the relationship is far from clear, as in the case of IE and Uralic.
        ----- Original Message -----
        Sent: Sunday, November 05, 2000 7:32 AM
        Subject: [tied] Re: IE & linguistic complexity

        John wrote
        [on the impossibility of reconstructing large families in NG]:

        This is not really true.  What is required however, is a very
        intimate detailled knowledge of a large number of local languages.  I
        was able to follow "trees" linking Enga, Huli, Angal Heneng, Kewa,
        Samberigi and Wiru languages in the Southern and Western Highlands
        (Central West Highlands Family of the Trans Papuan Phylum of Stephen
        Wurm), and Bosavi, Biami, Foi'i and Fasu languages of the Western
        Family of the same Phylum, in 1980-83.

        Your explanation of "micro-explosions" is very real, however, and
        seems to have been linked with the introduction of waves of new
        cultivars and the effective exploitation of these.  The first one
        mentioned above seems to have been due to the origins of new cold
        resistent crops in the Enga Region of the Papua New Guinean highlands.

        The extent of the Trans Papua Phylum (and to related interior
        languages in New Britain, New Ireland, and elsewhere) seems due to a
        very early expansion of agriculture, extending outwards from New
        Guinea into the Solomon Islands to the East and into Timor and
        Halmahera to the west.  This seems parallel (and even earlier) to the
        Middle Eastern Explosion associated with post glacial grain
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