University of Western Australia
The view that Australian Aboriginal languages are primitive endured into the twentieth century and is still widespread throughout the Australian community. ‘Primitive languages’ were a means of using linguistic evidence from a language to prove the primitiveness of the associated culture. The assumption was made that primitive languages were spoken by those who belonged to primitive cultures (Henson 1974:9). A number of deficiencies were found with them: a lack of abstract nouns, grammatical categories, numerals and colour terms. One of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century who was ‘steeped in Social Darwinism’ was Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), who claimed that ‘the aborigines of Tasmania had no words representing abstract ideas’ (Errington 2008:130). There were very few actual descriptions of ‘primitive languages’ and ethnographic accounts were lacking in linguistic data, as Sommerfelt (1938:17) noted. It was these sparse accounts of Australian languages which enabled speculative views about ‘primitive languages’ to become widespread. The Aranda language of Central Australia appears to have been that most frequently identified as a ‘primitive language’.
In this post I explore an incident which occurred following the publication, nearly eighty years ago, of an armchair study of Aranda, a language which was primitive in the opinion of a leading intermational scholar. This episode in Australian linguistic history shows how intensive fieldwork, deep understanding of languages and the use of linguistic records could be used to counteract false ideas about Aboriginal languages which persisted even in scholarly publications. Read more ›