Two children learn Yankunytjatjara sounds and letters on a laptop

Children in Australia learn to speak Yankunytjatjara, which belongs to the Pama–Nyungan language group. Credit: The Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation


How one group of languages conquered Australia

The Pama–Nyungan linguistic family might have tagged along with other cultural changes.

A family of languages spoken by ancient and modern hunter-gatherers rapidly replaced other tongues as it swept the Australian continent more than four millennia ago, modelling work suggests.

Australia’s Pama–Nyungan language family includes more than 300 languages, which are spoken across 90% of the continent. Twenty-seven other language families are restricted to the far north. Previous genetic and linguistic studies have led to competing theories about how Pama–Nyungan rose to dominance.

To help resolve this mystery, Quentin Atkinson at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and his colleagues used a statistical method to analyse the shared roots of 200 words across 306 Pama–Nyungan languages. Their findings suggest that Pama–Nyungan spread quickly from north-central Australia to the rest of the continent about 4,500–7,000 years ago.

At roughly the same time, cultural, social and technological changes were surging across Australia, according to the archaeological record. Pama–Nyungan languages may have been part of this package of innovations, the authors say.