3 The Situation Prior to Colonisation in:

Katja Lenz

Lexical Appropriation in Australian Aboriginal Literature, page 23 - 38

1. Edition 2017, ISBN print: 978-3-8288-3964-9, ISBN online: 978-3-8288-6743-7,

Tectum, Baden-Baden
Bibliographic information
23 Part One: Setting the Stage – Old and New Australian Language Ecologies 25 3 The Situation Prior to Colonisation The present chapter is intended to give an overview of the language situation on the Australian continent prior to the country’s invasion by the British. In the following, we shall refer to the complex network of languages and dialects spoken in Australia before the arrival of the colonisers as the pre-colonial or pre-contact ‘language ecology’, using a term originally coined by Einar Haugen in his 1972 work The Ecology of Language. The concept was later adopted by Mühlhäusler who employs it as a metaphor to “explain and describe the complex interplay between languages, speakers and social practice” (1996: i). This already indicates that an outline of the linguistic situation of pre-colonial Australia needs not only to consider the complex relationships between the individual linguistic varieties but also has to include information on the speakers as well as on factors such as bi- and multilingualism and the social functions inherent in the use of particular varieties. Hence, we will begin by describing Australia’s pre-colonial society and the basic principles of its social organisation before we present a sketch of the languages and dialects spoken before European colonisation. We will further discuss different approaches towards a classification of Australian languages and their relation to languages outside Australia and address the relationship between languages, speakers, and land. The impact of colonisation on the Australian language ecology and the emergence of English-based contact varieties will be addressed in the next chapter. 3.1 Australia’s Indigenous Population Before 1788 The history of European colonisation of the Australian continent begins on 22 August 1770, the day Lieutenant James Cook landed on Possession Island off the tip of Cape York, claiming eastern Australia for the British Crown. After landing on Australian soil, Cook and his crew had several encounters with the local Aboriginal population that lived in small groups and had adopted a system of cyclical land occupation which differed from European ideas of land cultivation. As none of the groups Cook and his men encountered comprised more than forty persons, the coastal regions were assumed to be only sparsely populated; the interior was believed to be possibly completely unpopulated. Unlike in New Zealand, Aboriginal society seemed to lack recognisable ‘chiefs’. “No signs of houses, villages, fields, domesticated animals, cultivation nor any system of land ownership or government were apparent” (Flood 2006: 16) to the British. 26 Prevailing European opinion of the eighteenth century was that land which did not show traces of cultivation, and therefore private ownership, was considered ‘common land’, occupation of which was a recognised way of acquiring legal sovereignty. In the later twentieth century, the Latin phrase terra nullius, ‘no man’s land’, was introduced to describe this concept of assumingly uninhabited land which could be legally acquired (Flood 2006:18f). Still, the country was by no means a ‘no man’s land’, but home to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were effectively denied their right as the country’s legitimate owners when on 26 January 1788 the arrival of the First Fleet on Australia’s Eastern coast initiated a process of British occupation of the land. Estimates of the size of the pre-colonial population on the Australian mainland vary from a minimum figure of approximately 300,000 to more than one million inhabitants. Walsh (1997:394) reports that for a long time, the figures postulated by Radcliff-Brown in 1930, who then suggested a native population of 300,000, were widely accepted. However, fifty years later, Butlin (1983) put forward much higher population numbers, claiming that former estimates did not consider the devastating effect of the diseases introduced by the European invaders to its full extent. He suggests that at least 250,000 people lived in south-eastern Australia alone. Butlin’s proposal attracted considerable criticism, amongst other reasons for overestimating the impact of disease and assuming far too high death rates (Walsh 1997:394). Still, even higher figures are postulated by Blake and Dixon (1991) who suggest that the Aboriginal population of Australia may have comprised between one and two million people, an estimate that leads Walsh (1997:394) to remark: “[...] one wonders where this estimate might have come from since no argumentation or references accompany it”. A population of one million is also suggested in one of Dixon’s more recent works (Dixon 2002:3). Leitner (2004a: 68ff) reports that archaeological finds support figures of about 750,000, as a population of that size could have been sustained under the existing conditions. The size and social structure of the pre-colonial Australian society is not only of interest for ethnologists and ethnographers, but can also help linguists to shed some light on questions of linguistic diversity, as the knowledge of the nature of the Aboriginal population’s social organisation is crucial to make assumptions on the number of languages spoken. According to Flood (2006: 17), pre-colonial Aboriginal society was characterised by a three-tier organisational structure: on the most immediate level, we can observe an organisation into ‘bands’, that is, mobile small groups formed by the members of one or more extended families. Bands ranged from 8 to 70 members in size, with an average size of 14 to 33 persons. On a broader level, these smaller ‘residence groups’ were organised into ‘clans’ which Flood describes as ‘country groups’, occupying a fixed area of land. Clans also shared a common iden- 27 tity derived from the concept of a common Ancestral Being. Clans in turn formed larger ‘regional linguistic groupings’, which Flood terms ‘tribal groups’1, the members of which “[shared] a common linguistic identification and hence a common identification with the area with which that language is traditionally identified” (Flood 2006: 17). Between 600 (Dixon 2002: 3) and 700 (Austin 1991b: 55) tribal groups are assumed to have existed in pre-colonial Australia. Their size seems to have been rather variable, since Flood (2006: 18) reports that it ranged from 25 members to several thousands. She suggests a mean of about 450 persons. As with population figures for the mainland, population numbers for pre-contact Tasmania are largely based on estimates which vary considerably. While Ryan (1996: 14) assumes a pre-colonial Tasmanian population ranging from 3,000 to 4,000, the Australian Bureau of Statistics provides an estimate of between 4,000 to 10,000 original inhabitants (ABS 2002). Flood (2006: 67) believes that 5,000 is the most realistic number. Analogous to the structures found on the mainland, the social organisation of pre-colonial Tasmanian population was divided into three levels that are comparable in their function to those described above. According to Ryan (1996: 14), Tasmanian Aboriginal society had nine tribal groups, each composed of between five or six to fifteen bands. The size of the tribes might have ranged from 250 to 700, with a possible mean of around 350 to 470. Torres Strait Islander people constitute Australia’s second Indigenous people, originally situated on the Torres Strait Islands, between Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea. Torres Strait Islander people are assumed to be the descendants of Melanesian peoples from the southern coast of Papua New Guinea (Shnukal 2001: 181). They are thus usually perceived and also perceive themselves as distinct from the Aboriginal population of the rest of the Australian continent and will thus not be in the focus of the present study. However, a linguistic connection to the Aboriginal population of Australia exists: Kala Lagaw Ya, one of the two languages spoken on the Torres Strait islands has been shown to possess features of both Papuan and Aboriginal languages and is generally considered to be a relative of the Aboriginal languages of the mainland. 1 Note that the term ‘tribe’ is rather controversial and that some anthropologists consider it an inadequate description of the complex social organisation of Australian Aboriginal society. Yet, Flood (2006: 17) argues that “belonging to a particular ‘tribe’ or ‘nation’ (strictly a group of tribes) has become central to the identity of Aboriginal people, who use the terms proudly to indicate their origins and ancestral territory or ‘country’”. 28 3.2 The Pre-Contact Language Ecology As for pre-contact population figures, estimates concerning the actual number of languages spoken on the Australian mainland before British invasion vary considerably, and range from approximately 200 to 300 (see for example Koch 2004: 17; Walsh 1997: 397). One of the reasons for these conflicting assessments is the languages’ insufficient documentation. A more definite assessment of the Australian language ecology prior to the European invasion is not feasible, given the speed with which the Aboriginal languages were eradicated from the earliest days of contact and the fact that only few early observers showed any interest in the linguistic landscape of the country. Information on individual Australian languages and dialects was compiled at different periods of time, but even the earliest descriptions date back to a time when much of the linguistic diversity had already been lost. Thus, we must be aware that the picture we are dealing with is incomplete and that some of its details are based on assumptions rather than knowledge. 3.2.1 Our Lack of Knowledge Due to the quick destruction of large parts of the original Aboriginal language ecology and the early observers’ inability to fully comprehend the complex linguistic systems and structures, a lot of knowledge about the linguistic situation in pre-colonial Australia has been lost. More than half of the estimated ca. 250 languages once spoken are now extinct and a reconstruction is difficult since both the quantity and the quality of information available on these varieties varies considerably. The general lack of information on Australian languages can be attributed to the fact that, for a long time, these did not receive much attention from professional linguists. According to Dixon (1980: 17), it was not until the mid-1970s that the description of Australian languages reached a standard comparable to that found on other continents. Dixon reports that today, detailed descriptions for about 95 languages exist, usually in the form of a grammar and a dictionary or wordlists, most of which were compiled by professional linguists after 1960. Still, for about 110 languages, the only existing materials are meagre and of insufficient quality, mostly wordlists put together by earlier untrained observers which frequently include inaccurate information and incorrectly observed language or tribal group names. Other works are descriptions based on information provided by the last remaining (partial) speakers. For some parts of Australia, hardly any or no data at all is available. For about 25 languages, all of which are now extinct, only a few wordlists remain (2002: 2). Yeeman, a language formerly spoken in the Brisbane area is only known by its name (Walsh 1993a: 9). The immense lack of documentation also affects our knowledge on the Tasmanian 29 languages for which only a handful of amateur wordlists exist, apart from a few text fragments and a highly damaged Edison record of songs. The only information about grammatical structures is contained in a corpus of about 100 sentences, which is also of poor quality (Blake 1991: 60). It is thus impossible to make any definite statements on the nature of the pre-colonial language ecology of Tasmania2 and how it relates to that on the mainland. Table 1. Documentation of Australian languages (based on Dixon 2002). Languages Materials 95 languages Detailed information: professional grammars and dictionaries/wordlists, compiled after 1960 110 languages Incomplete documentation: wordlists compiled by untrained amateurs, often including inaccurate information; materials based on information provided by remaining (partial) speakers Approx. 25 languages (all extinct) Materials of poor quality: Small number of wordlists Several other languages Very little or no data at all Unfortunately, Dixon does not detail which materials are available for which variety. AUSTLANG, the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, provides the most comprehensive information on Australian languages; the data available on their website also includes information on existing resources of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and the languages’ documentation. 3.2.2 The Language-Dialect Distinction The majority of the assumed 250 or so languages comprised a number of dialects so that the total number of all varieties spoken before colonisation may have amounted to several hundred. If we recall what has been said about the social structure of the pre-colonial Aboriginal population in the previous 2 Intensive contact between Tasmanian Aboriginal people and European colonisers began in earnest with the establishment of a convict colony in 1804. 30 chapter, we will find that the estimates concerning the number of linguistic varieties correspond to the number of ‘tribal groups’ proposed above: between 600 and 700 distinct varieties are assumed to have existed on the Australian continent, that is, each group presumably had its own, identifiable variety (see for example Austin 1991b: 55; Dixon 2002: 3; Evans 2007: 19; Walsh 1997: 397). Hence, we might also speak of a ‘language group’ rather than a ‘tribal group’. Another factor that sometimes complicates making definite statements on the number of languages that have existed before the British invasion is that it is not always possible to determine whether particular varieties should be considered languages in their own right or dialects of a particular language. While a differentiation into dialects and languages appears rather straightforward, we need to be aware that the assumed 250 languages are what Evans (2007: 38) terms “linguist’s languages”, i.e. sets of dialects that have been grouped according to structural reasons. Further, a distinction between languages and dialects may not be in line with Aboriginal people’s viewpoints, as usually, all those varieties that have been classified as ‘dialects’ by linguists are or were labelled with a particular name by their speakers and perceived as independent tongues. Speakers often feel that the classification of their linguistic varieties as ‘dialects’ involves a downgrading of their forms of speech and insist on them being seen as languages of their own right (McConvell & Thieberger 2001:16). Many of the superordinate labels that exist today, the names of our ‘linguist’s languages’, on the other hand, were put forward by modern-day scholars. These function as head terms for particular groupings of dialects but do not represent languages actually spoken. Examples of such terms introduced from the outside which are now commonly accepted as superordinate language labels include the ‘Western Desert Language’ or the ‘Western Torres Straits language’. In other cases, the name of a particular dialect has been adopted as language name; examples are ‘Dyirbal’ and ‘Murrinhpatha’ (Walsh 1997: 396f). In both cases, however, the naming practice is artificial and relies on labels introduced from the outside, even though Walsh argues that arranging different local varieties under a common language label reflects speakers’ awareness that the dialects of ‘their’ language are more closely related to each other than to those of another language. One approach to distinguish languages from dialects examines the percentage of shared vocabulary: if it is above 70%, the varieties are considered dialects of the same language. This method, however, has several drawbacks, as the cut-off point of 70% may be criticised for being arbitrary; apart from this, some languages may share a considerable amount of vocabulary even though they exhibit entirely different grammar systems and cannot be considered closely related. Therefore, many Australianists usually rely on the criterion of mutual intelligibility, that is, varieties which are mutually intelligible are 31 considered dialects of a particular language (McConvell & Thieberger 2001: 16). This is an approach which may be criticised as too simplistic in many contexts, as often, the language-dialect distinction is influenced by a number of factors, and mutual intelligibility may only serve as one criterion among many. Yet, when discussing Australian languages and dialects, we must also keep in mind that the pre-colonial Australian language ecology is not comparable to other language situations such as the European one where dialects are defined along a number of parameters, e.g. geographically and socially, where regional, social and other dialects stand in contrast to an official standard variety, and where state boundaries often decide what counts as an independent language. Instead, as has been noted above, when talking about ‘languages’ in the Australian context, we are dealing with theoretical constructs that do not correspond to varieties that are actually in use. These are represented by what is described as ‘dialect’. Hence, the use of the terms ‘language’ and ‘dialect’, even though wellestablished among Australianists, is actually somewhat misleading for those unacquainted with the Australian situation. In addition, the application of the mutual intelligibility criterion, too, is not entirely unproblematic as we are dealing with a society in which multilingualism was – and in many areas still is – the norm and the majority of speakers easily understand the variety of the neighbouring group. Apart from that, the resulting distinction is frequently not in line with speakers’ assessments. As we have stated above, speakers of Aboriginal languages perceive the variety used by their group as a separate language, independent of and distinct from the neighbouring group’s variety. A closer look at these two local languages’ structures might reveal a high percentage of shared vocabulary and closely related grammars. In terms of the mutual intelligibility criterion, these two varieties would then constitute two dialects of the same language. However, for the speakers, even small differences in vocabulary and grammar are of considerable importance and show the speaker’s affiliation with one group or another, which supports the two linguistic varieties’ identification as different languages (Dixon 1980: 35f). To illustrate the discrepancy between the speakers’ and the linguists’ interpretation of what constitutes a ‘language’, Dixon (1980: 35) introduces the notions of “language1”, corresponding to what we have so far treated as ‘dialect’, and “language2” which, technically speaking, may be defined as “a chain of mutually intelligible dialects” even though “there need not necessarily be intelligibility between dialects at the extreme of the chain, but each individual dialect must be mutually intelligible with its geographic neighbours”. He uses the linguistic situation in Scandinavia as an analogy to illustrate that the term ‘language’ can have two different interpretations so that, for example, speakers of Danish and Norwegian will perceive themselves as speakers of two closely related but nevertheless separate languages1. The linguist, applying 32 strictly linguistic criteria, will classify the two varieties as dialects of the same language2 which would be called ‘Scandinavian’, given the amount of similarities between them and their degree of mutual intelligibility. This language2, however, is not recognised as a linguistic unit by the speakers of Danish and Norwegian, nor is ‘Scandinavian’ commonly accepted as a language label. This shows that the assessment of what constitutes a language is generally influenced by a lot more than strictly linguistic factors, since in our Scandinavian example, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are considered separate languages, despite the linguist’s claim that the three varieties form a single language2. Each variety is spoken as the national language of a politically independent nation state and their status as individual languages is derived from historical, social, and political factors rather than from differences in their phonology, grammar, and vocabulary. The idea that a separate nation has its own language is also reflected in the attitudes of speakers of Australian languages: each of the originally 600 or more tribal groups can be seen as constituting an independent unit with an own linguistic variety functioning as the group’s language1 in the same way that Danish or Norwegian are perceived as individual languages of sovereign countries. In the majority of cases, neighbouring languages1 are nevertheless dialects of the same language2 when applying the mutual intelligibility criterion. Only in some cases, neighbouring groups’ varieties show so many deviant features that they are assumed to belong to different languages2 (Dixon 1980: 35). 3.2.3 Classification of the Australian Languages The languages of the Australian mainland belong to several language families of variable size. The biggest and most widespread family comprises more than 150 languages and covers more than eighty percent of the country. The remaining families are found in the far north of Australia. The now most widely accepted classification of Australian languages was put forward by Geoffrey O’Grady, Stephen Wurm, and Kenneth Hale, and results from survey work undertaken in the 1960s (O’Grady et al. 1966a). Their genetic classification scheme, which is largely based on lexicostatistic evidence, holds that all Australian languages except for the Tasmanian languages, Meriam Mir of the eastern Torres Strait, Barbaram in the Queensland rainforest, and New South Wales Aniwa3, form one macro-phylum4 (O’Grady et al. 1966a; also in O’Grady et al. 1966b). This superfamily is assumed to comprise 228 distinguishable languages belonging to no fewer than 29 families, with the largest 3 Today the two languages are referred to as Mbaram and Nganyaywana (Koch 2004: 32). 4 In later years, Crowley (1976) and Dixon (1991) attested that Mbaram and Nganyaywana were closely related to their neighbouring languages, radical sound changes being responsible for obscuring cognates (Koch 2004: 32). 33 family spreading widely over the southern parts of the continent, covering seven eights of the Australian land mass, and even including several western islands of the Torres Strait (O’ Grady et al. 1966b: 28f). Its name, ‘Pama Nyungan’, is derived from the terms for ‘man’ or ‘person’ in the languages spoken furthest northeast (Cape York Peninsula) and southwest. In the OWH scheme, the Pama Nyungan family comprised 160 languages which were divided into 33 groups and 67 subgroups. The remaining 68 languages were believed to belong to no less than 28 different families5 subsumed under the heading ‘non- Pama Nyungan’. These are found in the north-western and extreme northern parts of Australia, more precisely in Arnhem Land and the Kimberley region. Map 1. The OHW Pama-Nyungan – Non-Pama-Nyungan division (adapted from Dixon 1980: 20). 5 In 1972, Wurm presented a somewhat revised classification scheme that establishes 27 non-Pama Nyungan language families (1972: 112ff). Non-Pama-Nyungan Pama-Nyungan 34 In contrary to the Pama Nyungan family with its large number of family members, some of the non-Pama Nyungan languages are assumed to be language-isolates. The remaining families usually have few members, never more than eleven (O’ Grady et al. 1966b: 27ff). Even though the scheme put forward by O’Grady, Wurm and Hale was intended to be only preliminary and provisional, it has become widely accepted and continues to be the model most scholars agree upon, R.M.W. Dixon being a noteworthy exception (see Dixon 2002). Within the last decades, there have been several attempts to revise the OWH scheme and re-assessments have reduced the number of non-Pama Nyungan families to about twenty (Evans 2003: 14; Koch 2007: 29). In addition, even though conclusive evidence is still lacking, most linguists today agree that all the mainland languages are in fact genetically related, deriving from an assumed “proto-Australian” ancestor (Walsh 2004: 33). Due to their fast and early extinction and the scarcity of the available data, only very little can be said about the nature of the Tasmanian languages and their connection with each other or with other languages and language families. In the previous chapter, we have stated that the Tasmanian population is believed to have comprised about 5000 individuals who formed nine tribal groups and more than fifty bands. In addition, we have reported that the Tasmanian varieties are not considered to belong to the Australian macrophylum in the OWH classification. Schmidt (1952: 10) who provides one of the most comprehensive, though early, works on Tasmanian languages also rejects the idea of a possible relationship: Anybody can satisfy himself or herself that there exist no connections with the languages of Australia, the nearest continent, neither in vocabulary nor in grammar, simply by reading my Die Gliederung der Australischen Sprachen (Vienna 1919) and my works published in Oceania.[transferred into English, K.L.]. Yet, other scholars do not so readily dismiss a possible connection between the Tasmanian languages and those on the mainland. Dixon (1980: 33), for example, notes that even though such a relationship cannot be shown, the existing information on the Tasmanian languages does not provide any clear evidence that it did not exist: All that we can conclude is this – there is NO evidence that the Tasmanian languages were NOT of the regular Australian type. They have been separated off for so long, and the available materials are so poor, that the likelihood of a genetic connection cannot be confirmed. The genetic affiliation of Tasmanian is, and must remain, unproven. [Emphasis in original] In his 1952 work, Schmidt suggests five different Tasmanian varieties that he assumes to constitute separate languages and arranges into two groups. O’Grady et al. (1966b: 19) take up Schmidt’s proposed five varieties but suggest two separate languages, one of which has four dialects. Based on the results of a lexico-statistic approach, Crowley & Dixon (1981) assume that at 35 least eight different languages may have existed, maybe as many as twelve. Still, due to the scarcity of the data, they (1981: 404) concede: The real answer to the question ‘how many languages were spoken in Tasmania’ is ‘we don’t know’; to say ‘probably somewhere between eight and twelve’ is to hazard an only slightly informed guess. Concerning the grouping of Tasmanian languages into one or more families, they explain that there is evidence for more than one family but that it is nevertheless impossible to clearly state whether two, four or maybe as many as eight families might have existed. They thus conclude that “[...] the data available are so slight that we can scarcely exclude any possibility – such as the languages making up a single family, although there is certainly no evidence in favour of this”. The languages of the Torres Strait, too, have received very little attention, and only few linguists have studied them or published on the subject. As has been indicated above, two mutually unintelligible languages were spoken in the Torres Strait. On the eastern islands, Meriam Mir, a Papuan language was in use, while on the western islands, Kala Lagaw Ya, an Australian language, was spoken. Each language exhibits regional dialects which reflect the cultural differences between the inhabitants of the different islands and may also point towards separate linguistic developments that have taken place in the individual locations: two dialects are recorded for the Papuan Meriam Mir and four dialects (Top Western, Mid Western, Lower Western, and Central) have been distinguished for Kala Lagaw Ya, but dialectal differences were only minor (Shnukal 2004b: 108). The World Atlas of Language Structures Online (Dryer & Haspelmath 2013) provides information on selected structural features of 176 Australian varieties, including two English-based contact languages, Kriol and Torres Strait Creole. Of these 176 varieties, 122 belong to the Pama-Nyungan family, which is divided into Central Pama-Nyungan (16 languages), Northern Pama- Nyungan (33 languages), Western Pama-Nyungan (50 languages), and Southeastern Pama-Nyungan (23 languages). While not all varieties spoken in Australia at the time of British invasion are recorded, the WALS still provides a good starting point for the comparative investigation of a number of Australian languages in current use. The web edition of Ethnologue (Lewis et al. 2015) lists 378 Australian languages, 281 of which belong to the Pama-Nyungan family. The remaining 97 languages listed in this publication belong to 17 non-Pama-Nyungan families, including a small number of isolates. A family tree of Australian languages based on Ethnologue data can be found in the appendix. 36 3.3 The Relation between Language, Language Speakers, and Land In Aboriginal people’s belief, a direct relationship exists between a particular tract of land and the language spoken in the area which was installed there by the ancestral Dreaming beings when they created the land. As a consequence, the language ‘belongs’ to the land. The link which exists between the language and the people that inhabit the land, in contrast, is not a direct one but mediated through the people’s affiliation with a particular place, that is, Aboriginal people are speakers of a particular variety since they have a connection to certain places which, in turn, are connected with a particular language (Dixon 2002: 3; see also Rumsey 1993). Dixon (2002: 3) explains this relationship between the land, its inhabitants, and the language as follows: “[...] Jarwoyon people are Jarwoyon not because they speak Jarwoyon, but because they are linked to places with which the Jarwoyon language is associated. And THUS [emphasis in original] they speak Jarwoyon”. Consequently, maps illustrating the approximate location of Australian languages should not be interpreted as merely showing the distribution of their speaker populations, as Sutton (2004: 50) points out. Rather, such a map [...] is more accurately seen as a religious statement. What it marks are the lands whose owners under Aboriginal customary law were given particular languages during the mythic foundation of the world, the Dreaming, and it plots those land/language associations. It is a general rule in Aboriginal Australia that languages are held to have originated when Dreamings (Ancestral Beings, totemic heroes) invested the land with meaning and human beings. One outcome of this connection between land, language, and people is the concept of ‘language ownership’. A multilingual Aboriginal person may be fluent in a number of varieties. Yet, only if s/he belongs to a particular group that is associated with the tract of land where a certain language is or was spoken, s/he is seen as ‘owning’ this language. Others, however fluent in the respective variety, may not be accepted as speakers of the language (Evans 2007: 28f). At the same time, a person may even ‘own’ a language of which s/he has only very limited knowledge (McKay 2007: 121). Despite the connection between land and language, we should be aware that language areas should not be equated with ‘tribal’ areas, since the former are fuzzy at the boundaries. The languages on the Australian continent were linked via “chains of relationships”, that is, different linguistic varieties have been found to exhibit common features in close vicinity. Such border areas must be seen as marking points of transition which replace clear-cut language boundaries (Leitner 2004b: 11). This enabled Aboriginal people to communicate across great distances. Multilingualism was the norm in Aboriginal society, and since people were usually proficient in the language or dialect of their 37 neighbours, they could easily communicate with more distant speech communities through this neighbouring language. Communication lines could stretch even further than that. A network of trade routes covered the entire continent, and songs, dances, and lexical items were transported into distant areas along with material goods. Harris (2007: 133) even suggests that some kind of lingua franca may have existed to serve communicative functions, yet only very little is known about contact languages in pre-colonial Australia.

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Today, virtually all Aboriginal people in Australia use English in their daily interactions. This is not surprising: in a situation in which many Aboriginal languages are lost beyond retrieval, English, as the official language of education, administration, law, and generally the language of the Australian mainstream society, has become the major medium of communication for the Australian Aboriginal community. Still, Aboriginal English, the variety most commonly spoken by Aboriginal people, often differs in many aspects from what is the accepted linguistic standard in Australia. Adapted to their communicative needs, it allows its speakers to express values, beliefs, and attitudes which are strongly influenced by their socio-cultural background.

Katja Lenz investigates how the lexico-semantics of Aboriginal English provide the means needed to express concepts not shared with speakers of Australian English. Approaching these questions from both the angle of Cultural Linguistics and that of Post-colonial Studies, she further shows how these tools are employed by Australian Aboriginal playwrights, who exploit the lexical resources of AborE for the linguistic construction and assertion of their own and their characters’ Aboriginality.