Explaining the Linguistic Diversity of Sahul Using Population Models Academic Article uri icon


  • The region of the ancient Sahul continent (present day Australia and New Guinea, and surrounding islands) is home to extreme linguistic diversity. Even apart from the huge Austronesian language family, which spread into the area after the breakup of the Sahul continent in the Holocene, there are hundreds of languages from many apparently unrelated families. On each of the subcontinents, the generally accepted classification recognizes one large, widespread family and a number of unrelatable smaller families. If these language families are related to each other, it is at a depth which is inaccessible to standard linguistic methods. We have inferred the history of structural characteristics of these languages under an admixture model, using a Bayesian algorithm originally developed to discover populations on the basis of recombining genetic markers. This analysis identifies 10 ancestral language populations, some of which can be identified with clearly defined phylogenetic groups. The results also show traces of early dispersals, including hints at ancient connections between Australian languages and some Papuan groups (long hypothesized, never before demonstrated). Systematic language contact effects between members of big phylogenetic groups are also detected, which can in some cases be identified with a diffusional or substrate signal. Most interestingly, however, there remains striking evidence of a phylogenetic signal, with many languages showing negligible amounts of admixture.

publication date

  • November 1, 2009