an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘Australian Aborigines’ Category

How did we get language?

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a most persuasive hypothesis

                                          a most persuasive hypothesis

According to National Geographic there are, or were, at least 7000 languages globally. That was a few years ago and they say the numbers are dwindling, so who knows. There may also be a lumpers v splitters issue here – are they all unique languages or are some just variants of the same language?
There are organisations out there dedicated to preserving rare and endangered languages via recordings and analyses, but is this such a vital project? After all, when a language dies out it’s not because their speakers have gone dumb, it’s because they’ve died and their offspring are speaking one of the more common, viable languages of their region. And this of course raises the question of whether language diversity is a good in itself, in the way that species diversity is seen to be, or whether we’d be better off speaking fewer languages globally. It’s actually quite a dangerous topic, since language is very much a cultural artefact, and cultural suppression, often of the most brutal kind, is currently going on in various benighted parts of the world.

The diversity of language also raises another fascinating question – did it evolve once or many times? Was there an ‘ur-language’ or proto-language from which all these diverse languages sprung? Take for example, the Australian Aboriginal languages. Anthropologists claim that there were some 250 of them around when Europeans arrived with their much smaller number of languages. And Aborigines arrived here about 50,000 years ago. But how many, and with how many different languages? These are perhaps the unanswerable questions that Milan Kundera liked so much. However, linguists have been studying surviving Aboriginal languages intensively for some time, and are mostly agreed that they can be ‘lumped together’ in a small number of dispersed family groups with distinctive features, which suggests that, on arrival, the number of languages was much smaller.

Added to this evidence (if you can call this evidence), is the recent understanding that our species, Homo sapiens, spread out from the African continent in separate waves, from 250,000 years ago to 70,000 years ago. So it seems to me more likely that there was a proto-language, developed in Africa and moving out with one of those waves, and taking over the world, through breeding or cultural exchange, and diversifying with those migrations and their growing cultural diversity. Then again, maybe not.

We used to to describe the world before the emergence of writing as ‘prehistoric’, which seems rather arrogant now, and the word has fallen out of favour. And yet, there is some sense in it. Writing (and drawing) always tells us a story. It provides a record. That’s its intention. It’s the beginning of the modern story, and so, history, in a sense. All of what comes before writing, in the story of humans, is unrecorded, accidental. Scraps of stuff that require a lot of interpretive work. That’s what makes the development of writing such a monumental breakthrough in human affairs. It happened in at least three separate places, only a few thousand years ago. Human language itself, of course has a much longer history. But how much longer? Eighty thousand years? A hundred thousand? Twice that long? Currently, we haven’t a clue. The origin of language is regarded by many authorities as one of the toughest problems in science. It isn’t just a question of when, but of how, where and why. Good luck with answering that lot.

Written by stewart henderson

December 17, 2019 at 11:37 pm

who really discovered this land?

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a chart of early human migrations – and discoveries – based on mitochondrial DNA

I recently heard some rather absurd but unsurprising remarks by the conservative commentator Georgina Downer, defending an inscription on a statue of Captain Cook which states that he was the discoverer of Australia. Downer claimed that this is patently, unarguably true, since he was the first person to map the country (or part of it).

But let me be quite precise about the issue. The statue has the inscription: “discovered this territory 1770”. Unfortunately I can’t find video online of Downer’s words, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist of it: to her it was obviously true that Cook was the country’s discoverer – because he mapped it.

As a teacher of English and a person interested in linguistics and the meanings of words, let me just take a look at the verb ‘discover’. A quick googling brings up these two most pertinent meanings: find unexpectedly or during a search; be the first to find or observe. Three other less relevant meanings are given, but of course none of them mention mapping or anything like it. It would certainly be a shocker if mapping was mentioned, in defining the discovery of a territory. Having said that, ‘discover’ is ambiguous in this context. We can be enticed by adverts to discover the Greek Islands, or the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. This is in line with one of the other definitions, which now maybe seems more relevant: be the first to recognize the potential of (or in this case the more personal to recognise the potential (or beauty) of something for the first time. That’s my own definition, but I think it’s generally acceptable). In this sense it would be fair to say Cook discovered Australia in 1770, but then it would also be fair to say my parents discovered Australia in 1962, when they first arrived here, just as I discovered David Bowie as a sixteen-year-old in 1972. Clearly that’s not the sense of ‘discovered’ intended by the inscription, or by Downer.

But before I continue down that rabbit-hole, let’s look at the inscription’s other keyword. The word ‘territory’ is a little ambiguous here. The statue is in Sidney’s Hyde Park – does the discovery refer to the whole of Australia, the territory in the neighbourhood of the statue, or the part of Australia that Cook mapped (less than a quarter of the country’s coastline, and none of the interior)? Dictionaries won’t be of much help here, so I’ll just hope to be on safe territory in assuming the whole kit and caboodle is intended, i.e. the land now known as Australia.

Downer’s comments added a tiny wind to the storm of controversy raised by the respected Aboriginal journalist and commentator Stan Grant. I find his essays (linked below) on the subject of our history and monuments to be thought-provoking and valuable. What he writes about the hubris of colonising Europeans in earlier centuries is undoubtedly true, though we only see it in hindsight, for what would my attitude have been as a good citizen of Europe from the 16th through to the 19th century?

But I’m not, I’m a more or less global citizen of the 21st century, painfully aware of the thoughtless arrogance of the terra nullius idea and the white colonisation system of the past, not confined of course to this territory. That’s not to say that I can put myself into the minds of those whose ancestors have been in this land for tens of thousands of years, when they read the above-mentioned controversial inscription. I can, though, see clearly that what happened in 1788 was a land-grab, as I’ve already written here and here, and I well understand why two High Court justices have described the consequent dispossession as ‘a legacy of unutterable shame’. So it amazes me that people like Downer can be so cavalier in claiming that Cook’s ‘discovery’ was unarguable. Cook did not discover this territory. The human who did discover it, that first person, will never be known to us. That discovery was made long long before records were kept. It was certainly a momentous discovery, though, for it brought many people to this vast territory, which may then have been very different from the parched land we know today. They spread throughout its vast extent, adapted to and interpreted its varied and changing climate and landscapes, created homes and tools and songs and stories and rituals and languages and knowledge, and endured here – more than endured – for some 60,000 years.

Cook was a very important, indeed decisive figure in Australian history, and he should be remembered as such, but not as the discoverer of this territory. As the cliché goes, if we don’t know our history we’ll be doomed to repeat it.


Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2017 at 9:01 am