Primitive Languages: linguistic determinism and the description of Aranda eighty years on

David Moore
University of Western Australia

Strehlow Research Centre

Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs. Photo by Alex Nelson.


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.

The Aranda (a designation covering speakers of a number of varieties, including Western Arrarnta, Central and Eastern Arrernte) were a ‘scientifically important people’ (Basedow 1925:xiv). Evolutionary anthropology sought information about humans at an earlier stage of development (e.g. Tylor 1889). The research of ethnographers Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929), Frank Gillen (1855-1912) and the missionary linguist Carl Strehlow (1871-1922) informed the armchair theories of J.G. Frazer (1854-1941) in Britain and Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) and Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1857-1939) among many others in Europe.

Alf Sommerfelt (1892–1965) introduced structuralist linguistics to the Scandinavian countries, and was described by Malkiel (1972:89) as ‘a prominent Norwegian academician who felt very much at home in Paris’. A student of Antoine Meillet (1866–1936), he appears to have been regarded as an exemplary figure within linguistics (Malmberg 1972:232). He made a number of studies of the Celtic languages Welsh, Breton and Irish based upon fieldwork in those languages (Oftedal 1972:1229). Sommerfelt was somewhat isolated in Scandinavia as his orientation toward French linguistics ‘meant that he always remained to some degree in opposition to the prevailingly neogrammarian climate of Scandinavian linguistics’ (Haugen 1966:613). Sommerfelt had a significant influence within linguistics with, for example, seventy citations throughout the multi-volume Current Trends in Linguistics (Sebeok 1976:808). He was described as a ‘defender of structural methods’ (Malmberg 1972:233) and familiar with the writings of American Structuralism which were becoming more widely known in Europe (see, for example, Sommerfelt 1952). However, his evaluative approach to Aboriginal languages showed that his views were based upon the theoretical biases of a pre-structuralist past.

Sommerfelt’s (1938) armchair study of a ‘primitive language’ La langue et la société: caractères sociaux d’une langue de type archaïque is based upon the work of Kempe and Strehlow, Spencer and Gillen (Wilkins 1989:18). He sought to establish a connection between language and society to prove that there were clear differences between Aranda and modern languages. In an attempt to demonstrate that Aranda was a primitive language, Sommerfelt supported his points with false etymologies and claimed that Aranda lacked categories found in Indo-European languages (Alpher 1994:115; McGregor 2008:6). The need to counter these claims was recognised by Donald Laycock (1936–1988), then a Research Assistant in Australian Linguistics at the University of Adelaide. Over two decades after the publication of Sommerfelt’s book, Laycock published his critique. He had access to written sources of Aranda and the advice of T.G.H. Strehlow (1908–1978), Reader in Australian Linguistics at Adelaide and a fluent speaker of Western Aranda, and also a speaker of other Aboriginal languages and dialects. Laycock was able to refer to Strehlow’s Aranda Phonetics and Grammar (Strehlow 1944), henceforth: APG. It was completed in July 1937 (Elkin 1944:1, footnote 4), just before Sommerfelt published his monograph. Capell (1970:676) considered APG to be ‘the first full scale grammatical account of an Australian language’.

While Sommerfelt only read early pre-phonetic sources, Laycock had access to Strehlow’s Aranda phonetics. After learning spoken Aranda as a child and learning a written form of the language at school, Strehlow had been improving his analysis of the language through continual field trips to Central Australia since the 1930s. By the 1950s he distinguished the majority, if not all, of the consonant sounds of the language. His narrow phonetic transcription was used in his Field Diaries of the 1950s and the Aranda New Testament (1956), based upon a state of the art version of the International Phonetic Alphabet. The orthography was developed at Adelaide University (Monaghan 2008). Laycock also had access to other published sources on the Aranda language, particularly those of missionary linguists at Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory who had studied the language since the establishment of the Hermannsburg Mission in 1877. Laycock acknowledged Strehlow ‘for the use of unpublished material and for personal help and criticism’ (Laycock 1960:17). With Strehlow’s support, Laycock would have had substantial insight into the working of the language.

APG was not only a description of Aranda, but an effort to counteract the idea that Aboriginal languages were primitive (Moore 2008:287). In his introduction, A.P. Elkin (1944:2), promised that ‘[i]t will provide a final answer to those questioners who timidly or even cynically ask: “Have Aboriginal languages anything like a grammar or rules?”’ At the very time that the question was posed, it was being answered, mostly in the negative by a linguist who had never heard the language being spoken.

False etymologies

The errors in Sommerfelt 1938 were based upon phonemic under-differentiation in the Mission Orthography (Moore, forthcoming). As noticed by Capell (1939:108), one such etymology involved nama, supposedly meaning both ‘sit’ and ‘grass’. Strehlow distinguished [a] and [ᾳ] ‘a back unrounded vowel’. In APG he distinguished 22 vowel phones. He discriminated between the two distinct words ꞌna:ma (grass) and ꞌnᾳma (to be), with distinct pronunciations (Strehlow 1944:19). These words are represented as neme ‘sit, be’ and name ‘grass’ respectively in the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) orthography (Henderson and Dobson 1994). Capell (1939:108) went close to articulating the phonemic principle when he stated that ‘the phonetic system is much more complicated than he allows, and some of the complications have semantic value’.

Another false etymology is ‘sun’ (a)linga, supposedly composed of (a)la ‘go’ and nka ‘carry’ (Sommerfelt 1938:178). The interdental sound now represented as <lh> had not been identified by the time that the grammar was written (Moore 2008: 282), but it is evident in Strehlow’s 1956 New Testament and later publications as <ļ> as distinct from alveolar <l>. These words are represented in the IAD orthography as alerrnge ‘sun’ and alhe– ‘go’. The word for ‘carry’ is mis-transcribed. It should be aknge– ‘carry’. Sommerfelt’s relates the two words, citing ‘the myth of the sun-woman who walks about with a stick, which she throws down when approaching the end of her walk’. Capell (1939: 107) notes that ‘this becomes rather fantastic’.

A lack of grammatical categories

On the basis of these spurious etymologies, Sommerfelt (1938:189) claimed that ‘[t]he Aranta do not know real grammatical categories comparable to those of more developed languages.’ Further: ‘we saw that the aranta does not know the difference between the noun, the adjective and the verb’ (Sommerfelt 1938:109). Sommerfelt attempted to find the racines ‘roots’ of words. He thought that ‘higher states’ of language would be preceded by states in which the language consisted of roots in which words expressed a ‘fundamental meaning’ which could be combined together to form more complex words. Semantic content was supposedly based upon these roots. These roots were ‘full words’ but as Laycock correctly pointed out, Sommerfelt’s eleven monosyllabic roots would not be recognised by speakers (Laycock 1960:21, footnote 11). Laycock was able to show that Aranda did indeed distinguish grammatical categories.

Influence and reception of La langue et la société

Laycock made his response after his realisation of the pervasive influence of Sommerfelt’s book and its positive reception. It was taken seriously as ‘sociolinguistics’ by Hartmann and Schmidt (1972:44). The contemporary reviews of Hulley (1939) and Tesniére (1942) were surprisingly uncritical and inadequate.  In his obituary for Sommerfelt Haugen defended his work, claiming that, ‘[a]lthough Sommerfelt was sometimes criticized for his too-ready identification of some linguistic structures as “archaic”, for example in his treatment the Aranta language (La langue et la societe, Oslo, 1938), his views on the problem were considerably more sophisticated than his critics’’ (Haugen 1966: 612). Later, the classical philologist Joshua Whatmough (1956:53) asserted that ‘Aranta structure is much less elaborate than that of the simplest of the Indo-European languages’ (Rigsby 1976:30). It was Sommerfelt’s account of Aranda which led Whatmough to make those assertions (Laycock 1960:16).

Sommerfelt’s writings are characterised by a kind of linguistic essentialism which cannot be characterised as ‘Whorfian’, as Whorf’s writings (Whorf 1956) only became known after Sommerfelt’s 1938 monograph. Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) ‘argued that the Hopi view was embodied in such linguistic patterns as the absence of spatio-temporal metaphors, the impossibility of counting units of time, and the absence of tenses of the verb’ (Hill 1988:17). Sommerfelt (1938:175) had earlier articulated views on ‘Aranda time’: ‘Aranda ignores any real division of time as there are no divisions of years, months and weeks.’

He had adopted Whorfian essentialism by 1962, comparing Aranda with the Hopi language and uncritically endorsing the ‘strong’ version of the Whorfian thesis, that of ‘linguistic determinism’ (Hill 1988:15). This is clear from Sommerfelt’s (1962:123) statement that ‘[i]f we now examine how the Aranta expresses notions of time we find that there are great and fundamental differences from our system of expressions.’ But time expressions were recorded early for Aranda. Kempe (1891:12) lists adverbs of time including tmurka ‘yesterday’ and imanka ‘long ago’.

Twenty years on

It was probably his commitment to linguistic determinism which entrenched Sommerfelt’s views about Aranda, even after meeting Strehlow and having the opportunity to change his views about the language. Strehlow visited Oslo in the early 1950s, depositing material in an archive there: ‘We have recently received in Oslo records of the speech of some Aranda men, taken down by the younger Strehlow with his transcriptions and translations, and hope to study them’ (Sommerfelt 1962:122).

Around the time of Strehlow’s visit Sommerfelt claimed, ‘Recent research has shown conclusively that many languages do not distinguish between the same parts of speech as do, for instance, the European languages, or delimit them otherwise’ (Sommerfelt 1952:70). He was aware of Strehlow’s grammar: ‘I made an analysis of this language some 16–17 years ago on the basis of the material which was available then, the texts of Strehlow compared with the description of the Aranta tribe by Spencer and Gillen. Since then Strehlow’s son has published a grammar of the language as it is spoken by the remnants of the tribe’ (Sommerfelt 1962:122).

After failing to observe the meticulous and careful analysis that Strehlow had made in APG, Sommerfelt used ‘structuralism’ to criticise Strehlow’s work: ‘The younger Strehlow’s description of the language, however, is neither phonemic nor structural, but dominated by the European grammatical categories’ (Sommerfelt 1962:122).

Sommerfelt’s view was that ‘the grammatical notes of those who have studied the language in situ simply represent attempts to force the language into European moulds’ (Laycock 1960: 22). Therefore, APG could be ignored. It is apparent then that with more accurate information, no change was made to Sommerfelt’s earlier views.

Social Anthropology

Sommerfelt was not alone in that the dominant model of anthropology in the first decades of the twentieth century used language data to confirm social evolutionary theory. British anthropologists used words from the languages of Oceania and North America to support the view that cultures were arranged in an evolutionary sequence (Henson 1974:28). There were few connections between British anthropology and comparative linguistics at this time. As Henson (1974:39) concludes, ‘in the period as a whole, there was a general ignorance of all the deeper implications of language for a study of culture’. Totem, mana and taboo were terms which were adopted from Algonquian and Polynesian languages. It is not as though anthropologists could not have known better and were progressing to a more informed understanding of the ‘Other’. There are numerous examples of those who played their part in counteracting notions of ‘primitive languages’; for example, A.M. Hocart (1883-1939), R.H. Codrington (1830-1922) and Sidney Ray. Max Müller was a philologist of this kind (Crick 1976). Henson (1974:38) notes that ‘Müller was the only writer of the period who made use of a specifically anthropological theory of language’.

The Victorian era was not followed by a new era of objectivity (Horton 1973: 284) but was rather a continuation of views about ‘primitive languages’, for example, those expressed by Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) in ‘The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages’, originally published in 1923 (Malinowski 1946). Malinowski had a significant role in the development of British Social Anthropology and the ‘London School’ of British linguistics through his idea of the ‘context of situation’, as in his statement: ‘In a primitive language the meaning of any single word is to a very high degree dependent upon its context’ (Malinowski 1946:306). This resulted in an inadequate and misleading theory of meaning (Crick 1976:5).

His statements in ‘The Problem of Meaning’ show that far from being a radical departure from the previous generation of British anthropologists, his ideas were conditioned by traditional thinking (Henson 1974: 45). While his views about the aims of anthropology changed, he remained committed to the view that there were ‘primitive languages’: ‘In a primitive tongue, the whole grammatical structure lacks the precision and definiteness of our own, though it is extremely telling in certain ways (Malinowski 1946:306). The language would hardly be amenable to linguistic analysis because ‘[i]n native languages the distinction is by no means so clear and the function of grammar and radical meaning respectively are often confused in a remarkable manner’ (Malinowski 1946:303).

He writes of the simplicity of the languages and their lack of capacity for expressing thoughts: ‘It is only in certain very special uses among a civilized community and only in its highest uses that language is employed to frame and express thoughts’ (Malinowski 1946:316).

Malinowski’s views changed with his experience of translation which he identified as a fundamental problem (Henson 1974:60). He was a gifted language learner. But he was not in the field long enough to gain real experience in analysing languages and lacked the mindset and training to make a competent description of a non-Indo-European language, as shown by his ethnocentric comments, and his ‘complete dependency upon Indo-European categories’ (Henson 1974: 59).

In the nineteenth century a division emerged between classical philology, which dealt with languages having written literatures, and anthropology, which concerned cultures without written languages. Malinowski made a distinction between the ‘dead languages’ of classical philology and the incommensurable and truly ‘other’ spoken languages which would be handled by the new positivist science of anthropology. Even though he had read some linguistics, he felt that its lessons were not relevant to the situation that he experienced in Kiriwina. Malinowski (1946:297) claimed to have read Müller, Finck, and Steinthal. These scholars opposed the simplistic comparison of languages based upon their formation in the German philosophy of language. But ‘The Problem of Meaning’ reveals how he was out of touch with philology, which was then being applied to non-Indo-European languages by those authors whom he had purportedly read. Malinowski (1946:300) criticised classical philologists while maintaining a bias against unwritten languages: ‘the whole manner in which a native language is used is different from our own’. Critically, he hadn’t read American sources (Henson 1974:44), as it was American linguistics and anthropology which developed the notion of ‘linguistic relativity’ and most devastatingly challenged the notion of the ‘primitive language’. Boas published his ‘Limitations of the Comparative Method’ in 1896, while in England the notion of unilineal evolutionary development was still a part of anthropological orthodoxy. Unfortunately Australian anthropologists followed British anthropology with the result that they were usually untrained in linguistics.


Although Capell identified some of the faults in Sommerfelt’s analysis, Laycock’s strongly worded review of Sommerfelt went beyond those of the other reviewers. Those trained in the tradition of linguistic anthropology such as Laycock (1960) and Rigsby (1976) were able to diagnose the errors as they were trained in traditions of linguistics which originated with J.G. Herder (1744-1803) and the German philosophy of language which became established in the USA through the linguistic anthropology of Franz Boas (1858-1942). There could hardly be a greater contrast between Sommerfelt’s monograph and Strehlow’s APG, a contrast that illustrates how superficial labels such as ‘structural’ are in this debate. Sommerfelt misused linguistic relativity to argue that Aranda was incommensurable with European languages and presented his claims under the guise of ‘structuralism’. His dismissive attitude towards APG as ‘not structural’ was ironic because he himself failed to understand one of the key tenets of structuralism, the need to evaluate languages in their own terms. Another key feature of structuralism that he avoided was fieldwork. By contrast, Strehlow spent four years researching APG (1932-33 and 1935-36) (Elkin 1944:1), building upon nearly seven decades of previous research by missonary linguists in Central Australia. He was not inclined to etymologise. For example, he gives no explanation for lintera ‘white person’ (Strehlow 1944:42). Rather than being Eurocentric, APG was actually based upon his desire to portray the adequacy of the Aranda language. Laycock’s review shows the relative harmony between Strehlow’s phonetic transcription and Laycock’s phonemic approach to the same data, based upon field methods which had only recently been introduced to Australia by the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Strehlow, unlike Sommerfelt in this case, was able to adapt to new ways of interpreting the data.


I acknowledge my colleagues Margaret Smith and Theresa Alice, Arrernte language teachers in Alice Springs, from whom I have learned much of the richness and complexity of Arrernte. I would like to thank Luise Hercus who was a witness to T.G.H. Strehlow’s indignant reaction to Sommerfelt’s writings and made me aware of that episode in Australian linguistic history. Thanks also to Harold Koch who sent me reviews of Sommerfelt (1938). Also to Bruce Rigsby from whom we have learned about the Americanist tradition in Australia. We discussed these topics in Adelaide in August 2016. Australia has been fortunate to have such a tradition of linguistic scholarship. I would also like to thank Olga Radke who has made me aware of the ongoing significance of the Strehlow legacy in the Central Australian community.


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How to cite this post

Moore, David. 2017. Primitive Languages: linguistic determinism and the description of Aranda eighty years on. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Article, Australia, Grammars, History, Linguistics, Missionary Linguistics, Typology
2 comments on “Primitive Languages: linguistic determinism and the description of Aranda eighty years on
  1. David Nash says:

    Coincidentally, a paper on overlapping topics has just been published: Anna Kenny’s ‘Aranda, Arrernte or Arrarnta? The Politics of Orthography and Identity on the Upper Finke River’ in the current issue of Oceania

    • moored03 says:

      Yes, it shows how the Lutheran missionaries were in the field so long that they adapted their orthography from uniform orthography to phonetic orthography to phonemic over a century of language work. Not too many others have been in the field for that long or have done such rich documentation work.

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