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Are there any sciencific/linguistic/historical theories about reasons of absence of sibilants in some Australian languages? As far as I know, sibilants are common accross world languages. Since sibilants are common, it would be nice to hear/read any theory about lacking of sibilant sounds in Australia.

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    Anyone remember that anthropological study that was going around a few months ago, claiming labiodental fricatives were caused by agriculture? Except that it stopped being statistically significant as soon as you omit Australia, which famously has almost no fricatives, and a lot of land not very suited for agriculture… – Draconis May 13 at 15:37
  • Australia is exeption for lacking fricatives caused by agriculture. You are right, that Australian land isn't very suited for agriculture. – Rock May 13 at 15:40
  • @Draconis You are referring to something related to this article linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/30896/… ? – jknappen May 13 at 16:26
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    Another related question: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/7029/… – jknappen May 13 at 16:29
  • @jknappen Yep! (Mind, I'm not saying the paper answers the question here—I'm saying that an answer to this question would be relevant to falsifying that paper's conclusions.) – Draconis May 13 at 16:41
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The problems with attributing this fact to otitis media are (a) that given this study, the causes of the condition may be modern environmental and not genetic and (b) it also afflicts populations that don't have the sibilant gap. One could conjecture that OM is a minor contributing factor. A founder effect combined with areal diffusion seems the most plausible explanation. The weakness of the founder effect is that there are dozens of language families and isolates in Australia, though again that may be because the original language was spoken so long ago that we can't prove monogenesis.

Areal diffusion refers to the fact that people in contact who speak different languages tend to adopt features of each other's languages (perhaps asymmetrically depending on social relationships). This is evident in southern Africa, where the "Khoisan" language hypothesis seems to have been based on typological similarity. An example of an areally-connected gap is the lack of otherwise linguisticaly-universal nasals in Twana and Lushootseed (Salishan), Quileute (Chemakuan) and Makah and Ditidaht (Southern Wakasah). It is also reported that one finds lack of [s] but presence of [θ/ð] is Dinka, Lango, Didinga and Kikuyu – the latter is Bantu, the former are Nilo-Saharan. However, these languages are in reasonable proximity and this fact might be attributed to an areal phonetic property.

I should point out that the factual generalization is a little bit overstated for Australia at least at the phonetic level. I noticed a number of papers in the O'Grady festschrift (Boundary rider) report fricatives as allophones of stops in a number of Australian languages. Sibilantization of θ,ð is possible albeit not common. I should also point out that sibilants are not common in the world's languages. Stop are common. It is correct that most languages have a sibilant consonant, and sibilant-free languages are uncommon. It's good practice to state the generalization correctly.

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I remember reading about a hypothesis that Australian languages may have been influenced by high-frequency hearing loss caused by otitis media. High frequencies are supposed to be more important for accurately perceiving certain kinds of fricatives, perhaps sibilants in particular (as described in this answer--I can't give an explanation myself because I don't know phonetics).

You can see that idea mentioned by Andrew Butcher on the following web pages:

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    Any idea why Australian Aboriginals have such a high rate of chronic otitis media? I realize it's probably in the body of the paper we can only read as an abstract, but I'm asking anyway just in case... – LjL May 13 at 13:57
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I think that a phenomenon known in biology as founder effect is responsible here: When the proto-language lacks fricatives, its descendants probably continue with this particular feature. In addition, on the isolated continent there was no contact with other languages that could give raise to fricatives.

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    This makes sense, but a lot of languages develop fricatives through lenition: Greek, Germanic, and Hebrew all independently created /f θ x v ð ɣ/ by leniting their stops in certain environments, for example. It seems hard to believe that this would never happen in any of the hundreds and hundreds of Australian languages. – Draconis May 13 at 15:41
  • All Indogermanic languages I know have at least one fricative at any time, namely /s/, and often a second one, typically /h/. They are also surrounded by other languages with fricatives (Turkic, Uralic, Etruscan, or Kaukasian languages) – jknappen May 13 at 16:19
  • The time depth of the original occupiers is so great (tens of thousands of years) that founder effect doesn't really make sense. And there was contact, with. the languages of Papua New Guinea and some Austronesian languages in the last millennium or so. – Gaston Ümlaut May 14 at 1:28
  • @Draconis you're quite correct, some Australian languages have innovated phonemic fricatives, eg Kala Lagaw Ya has /s/ and /z/, while Adnyamathanha has /v/, while Ngan'gityemerri has /f/, /s/ and /sy/. – Gaston Ümlaut May 14 at 1:41

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