Pama–Nyungan languages

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most of mainland Australia, with the exception of northern parts of Northern Territory and Western Australia
Linguistic classification: Macro-Pama–Nyungan
  • Greater Pama–Nyungan
    • Pama–Nyungan
Proto-language: Proto-Pama–Nyungan
Glottolog: pama1250[1]
Pama–Nyungan languages (yellow)
Other Macro-Pama–Nyungan (green and orange)

The Pama–Nyungan languages are the most widespread family of Indigenous Australian languages,[2] containing perhaps 300 languages. The name "Pama–Nyungan" is derived from the names of the two most widely separated groups, the Pama languages of the northeast and the Nyungan languages of the southwest. The words pama and nyunga mean "man" in their respective languages.

The other language families indigenous to the continent of Australia are occasionally referred to, by exclusion, as non-Pama–Nyungan languages, though this is not a taxonomic term. The Pama–Nyungan family accounts for most of the geographic spread, most of the Aboriginal population, and the greatest number of languages. Most of the Pama–Nyungan languages are spoken by small ethnic groups of hundreds of speakers or fewer. Many, but not all, are considered endangered, and many have recently become extinct.

The Pama–Nyungan family was identified and named by Kenneth L. Hale, in his work on the classification of Native Australian languages. Hale's research led him to the conclusion that of the Aboriginal Australian languages, one relatively closely interrelated family had spread and proliferated over most of the continent, while approximately a dozen other families were concentrated along the North coast.


Evans and McConvell describe typical Pama–Nyungan languages such as Warlpiri as dependent-marking and exclusively suffixing languages which lack gender, while noting that some non-Pama–Nyungan languages such as Tangkic share this typology and some Pama–Nyungan languages like Yanyuwa, a head-marking and prefixing language with a complicated gender system, diverge from it.[3]


Proto-Pama–Nyungan may have been spoken as recently as about 5,000 years ago, much more recently than the 40,000 to 60,000 years Indigenous Australians are believed to have been inhabiting Australia. How the Pama–Nyungan languages spread over most of the continent and displaced any pre-Pama–Nyungan languages is uncertain; one possibility is that language could have been transferred from one group to another alongside culture and ritual.[4][5] Given the cognatic relationships between groups, it seems that Pama-Nyungan has many of the characteristics of a sprachbund, indicating the antiquity of multiple waves of culture contact between groups.[6] Dixon in particular has argued that the genealogical trees found with many language families, just do not fit in the Pama-Nyungan family.[7]


In addition to Hale's 1982 list of words unique to Pama–Nyungan, and in addition to pronouns and case endings they reconstruct for the proto-language, Evans and McConvell report that while some of their roots are implausible, O'Grady and Tryon, nevertheless provide "hundreds of clear cognate sets with attestations throughout the Pama–Nyungan area and absent outside."[3]


Proto-Pama–Nyungan's phonological inventory, as reconstructed by Barry Alpher (2004), is quite similar to those of most present-day Australian languages.


Front Back
High i iː u uː
Low a aː

Vowel length is contrastive only in the first (i.e. stressed) syllable in a word.


Peripheral Laminal Apical
Bilabial Velar Postalveolar Alveolar Retroflex
Plosive p k c, t rt
Nasal m ng ñ n rn
Lateral λ l rl
Rhotic rr r
Semivowel w y

Proto-Pama–Nyungan seems to have had only one set of laminal consonants; the two contrasting sets (lamino-dental and lamino-alveopalatal or "palatal") found in some present-day languages can largely be explained as innovations resulting from conditioned sound changes.

Nevertheless, there are a small number of words where an alveopalatal stop is found where a dental would be expected, and these are written *. There is no convincing evidence, however, of an equivalent nasal *ñʸ or lateral *λʸ.


Pama–Nyungan languages generally share several broad phonotactic constraints: Single-consonant onsets, a lack of fricatives, and a prohibition against liquids (laterals and rhotics) beginning words. Voiced fricatives have developed in several scattered languages, such as Anguthimri, though often the sole alleged fricative is /ɣ/ and is analyzed as an approximant /ɰ/ by other linguists. The prime example is Kala Lagaw Ya, which acquired both fricatives and a voicing contrast in them and in its plosives from contact with Papuan languages. Several of the languages of Victoria allowed initial /l/, and one—Gunai—also allowed initial /r/ and consonant clusters /kr/ and /pr/, a trait shared with the Tasmanian languages across the Bass Strait.


At the time of Australia Discovery, there were some 300 Pama–Nyungan languages divided across three dozen branches. What follows are the languages listed in Bowern (2011); numbers in parentheses are the numbers of languages in each branch. These vary from languages so distinct they are difficult to demonstrate as being in the same branch, to near dialects on par with the differences between the Scandinavian languages.[8]

Traditional conservative classification

Down the east coast, from Cape York to the Bass Strait, there are:

Continuing along the south coast, from Melbourne to Perth:

Up the west coast:

Cutting inland back to Paman, south of the northern non-Pama–Nyungan languages, are

Encircled by these branches are:

  • Wati (15), the large inland expanse in the west
  • Arandic (9), in the north centre
  • Karnic (18), in the west
  • Yardli (Yarli) (3), in the west
  • Muruwari (1)
  • Baagandji (Darling; inland of Lower Murray) (2)

Separated to the north of the rest of Pama–Nyungan is

Some of inclusions in each branch are only provisional, as many languages went extinct before they could be adequately documented. Not included are dozens of poorly attested and extinct languages such as Barranbinja and the Lower Burdekin languages.

A few more inclusive groups that have been proposed, such as Northeast Pama–Nyungan (Pama–Maric), Central New South Wales, and Southwest Pama–Nyungan, appear to be geographical rather than genealogical groups.

Bowern & Atkinson

Bowern & Atkinson (2012) use computational phylogenetics to calculate the following classification:[9]

External relations

According to Nicholas Evans, the closest relative of Pama–Nyungan are the Garawan languages, followed by the small Tankic family. He then proposes a more distant relationship with the Gunwinyguan languages in a macro-family he calls Macro-Pama–Nyungan.[10] However, this has yet to be demonstrated to the satisfaction of the linguistic community.


Dixon's skepticism

In his 1980 attempt to reconstruct Proto-Australian, R. M. W. Dixon reported that he was unable to find anything that reliably set Pama–Nyungan apart as a valid genetic group. Fifteen years later, he had abandoned the idea that Australian or Pama–Nyungan were families. He now sees Australian as a language area (Dixon 2002). Some of the small traditionally Pama–Nyungan families which have been demonstrated through the comparative method, or which in Dixon's opinion are likely to be demonstrable, include the following:

He believes that Lower Murray (5 families and isolates), Arandic (2 families, Kaytetye and Arrernte), and Kalkatungic (2 isolates) are small Sprachbunds.

Mainstream rejoinders

However, the papers in Bowern & Koch (2004) demonstrate about ten traditional groups, including Pama–Nyungan, and its sub-branches such as Arandic, using the comparative method.

In his last published paper from the same collection, Ken Hale describes Dixon's skepticism as an "extravagantly and spectacularly erroneous" and "wrong-headed" phylogenetic assessment which is "so bizarrely faulted, and such an insult to the eminently successful practitioners of Comparative Method Linguistics in Australia, that it positively demands a decisive riposte."[11] In the same work Hale provides unique pronominal and grammatical evidence (with suppletion) as well as more than fifty basic-vocabulary cognates (showing regular sound correspondences) between the proto-Northern-and-Middle Pamic (pNMP) family of the Cape York Peninsula on the Australian northeast coast and proto-Ngayarta of the Australian west coast, some 3,000 km apart, (as well as from many other languages) to support the Pama–Nyungan grouping, whose age he compares to that of Proto-Indo-European.

See also


  1. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Pama–Nyungan". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, William J. Frawley, p 232,
  3. 3.0 3.1 Nick Evans and Patrick McConvell, "The Enigma of Pama–Nyungan Expansion in Australia" Archaeology and language, Volume 29, Roger Blench, Matthew Spriggs, eds., Routledge, 1999, p176
  4. Hale & O'Grady, pp. 91–92
  5. Evans & Rhys
  6. Nichols, Johanna (1997), "Modeling Ancient Population Structures and Movement in Linguistics" (Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 26, (1997)), pp. 359-384.
  7. Dixon, R. M. W. 1997. "The rise and fall of languages". (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  8. Bowern, Claire. 2011. "How Many Languages Were Spoken in Australia?", Anggarrgoon: Australian languages on the web, December 23, 2011 (corrected February 6, 2012)
  9. Claire Bowern and Quentin Atkinson (2012) "Computational phylogenetics and the internal structure of Pama-Nyungan", Language 88: 817–845.
  10. McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Evans. (eds.) 1997. Archaeology and Linguistics: Global Perspectives on Ancient Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press
  11. "the Coherence and Distinctiveness of the Pama–Nyungan Language Family within the Australian Linguistic Phylum" Geoff O'Grady and Ken Hale, p 69, Australian Languages: Classification and the Comparative Method, Claire Bowern and Harold Koch, eds., John Benjamins Pub. Co., Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 2004


  • Claire Bowern & Harold Koch, eds. (2004) Australian Languages: Classification and the Comparative Method. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Evans. (eds.) 1997. Archaeology and Linguistics: Global Perspectives on Ancient Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press
  • Dixon, R. M. W. 2002. Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development. Cambridge University Press
  • Evans, Nicholas. (eds.) 2003. The Non-Pama–Nyungan Languages of Northern Australia. Comparative studies of the continent's most linguistically complex region. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics

External links