Revisiting Phonotactic Generalizations in Australian Languages

Emily Gasser, Claire Bowern


Australian languages are famous for their uniform phonological systems. Cross-linguistic surveys of (or including) Australian languages have reinforced this view of Australian inventories and phonotactics. Such uniformity is surprising and unusual given the phylogenetic diversity in the country (28 phylic families). Moreover, although Australianists have assumed that uniformity in phonemic inventory is coupled with unity in phonotactics, this has not been tested.  Here we statistically test the generalizations current in the literature on Australian languages by deriving inventory information from lexical data (rather than grammatical descriptions).  We utilize a comparative database of lexical items from predominantly Pama-Nyungan languages in order to test published generalizations about phoneme inventories, phonotactics, and other phenomena (such as root internal vowel harmony patterns). By using lexical materials to derive inventories and segment frequencies, we are able to assemble a nuanced picture of the diversity of systems present among the languages. Inventory studies confirm, to some degree, the impression of uniformity. However, phoneme frequencies vary substantially across the sample even among languages with similar inventory types. This work is of particular importance to phonological typologies of Australian languages, but it has implications for wider phonological theory as well. The survey used here is the largest comparative database of a single language family. Rarely do we have the opportunity to conduct a large-scale typological investigation of related languages in this way. We also make a contribution to the role of typology in Optimality Theory. A large-scale survey of markedness patterns (in related languages) allows us to study occurring and non-occurring grammars. Finally, we can investigate the predictions of competing theories.


Australian languages; typology; neutralization; phoneme inventories

Full Text:



Alderete, John (1995). Faithfulness to prosodic heads. Available as ROA-94 from the Rutgers Optimality Archive. Alpher, Barry (1990). Some Proto-Pama-Nyungan paradigms: a verb in the hand is worth two in the phylum. O’Grady,

G.N. & D.T. Tryon (eds.), Studies in comparative Pama-Nyungan, Pacific Linguistics, vol. C-111, 155–171. Alpher, Barry (1991). Yir-Yorront lexicon: sketch and dictionary of an Australian language, vol. 6 of Trends in

Linguistics: Documentation. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin.

Alpher, Barry (2004). Pama-Nyungan: Phonological reconstruction and status as a phylogenetic group. Bowern, Claire &

Harold Koch (eds.), Australian languages: Classification and the comparative method, John Benjamins, Amsterdam,

chap. 5, 105–142.

Anderson, Victoria & Ian Maddieson (1994). Acoustics of tiwi consonants. UCLA Working Papers in Linguistics 87. Beckman, Jill N. (1998). Positional Faithfulness: An Optimality Theoretic treatment of phonological asymmetries. Ph.D.

thesis, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Bhat, D. N. Shankara (1973). Retroflexion: An areal feature. Working Papers on Language Universals 13, 27–58. Bowern, Claire (1998). The Case of Proto-Karnic. B.A. Honours Thesis, Australian National University, Canberra. Bowern, Claire (2006). Another look at Australia as a linguistic area. Matras, Yaron, April McMahon & Nigel Vincent

(eds.), Linguistic Areas, Palgrave Macmillan, 244–265.

Bowern, Claire (2012). A Grammar of Bardi. Mouton Grammar Library, Mouton, Berlin.

Bowern, Claire & Quentin Atkinson (2012). Computational phylogenetics and the internal structure of Pama-Nyungan.

Language 88:4, 817–845.

Bowern, Claire, Patience Epps, Russell D. Gray, Jane Hill, Keith Hunley, Patrick McConvell & Jason Zentz (2011). Does

lateral transmission obscure inheritance in hunter-gatherer languages? PloS One 6:9, p. e25195.

Bowern, Claire, Joyce McDonough & Katherine Kelliher (2012). Bardi. Journal of the International Phonetic Association

:3, 333–51.

Breen, Gavan (2007). Reassessing Karnic. Australian Journal of Linguistics 25:1, 175–199.

Busby, P A (1980). The distribution of phonemes in Australian Aboriginal languages. Papers in Australian linguistics,

no 14, Pacific Linguistics, Canberra, vol. A60, 73–139.

Butcher, Andrew (2006). Australian aboriginal languages: Consonant-salient phonologies and the place-of-articulation

imperative. Harrington, J.M. & M. Tabain (eds.), Speech production: Models, phonetics processes and techniques,

Psychology Press, London, 187–210.

Casali, Roderic F. (1997). Vowel elision in hiatus contexts: Which vowel goes? Language 73:3, 493–533.

Clements, G. Nick (1988). The sonority cycle and syllable organization. Dressler, Wolfgang U, Hans Luschu ̈tzky, Oskar

Pfeiffer & John Rennison (eds.), Phonologica 1988: Proceedings of the 6th International Phonology Meeting,

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 63–76.

Clendon, Mark (2000). Topics in Worrorra grammar. Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia. Clendon, Mark (2001). Provisional Worrorra dictionary. Kimberley Language Resource Centre, Halls Creek.

Dart, Sarah (1991). Articulatory and acoustic properties of apical and laminal articulations. UCLA Working Papers in

Phonetics 79.

De Lacy, Paul (2006). Markedness: Reduction and preservation in phonology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

De Lacy, Paul (forthcoming). Evaluating evidence for stress systems. van der Hulst, Harry (ed.), Word stress and typological issues, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Dixon, R.M.W. (1972). The Dyirbal language of North Queensland, vol. 9 of Cambridge Studies in Linguistics. Cambridge University Press, London.

Dixon, R.M.W. (1980). The Languages of Australia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Dixon, R.M.W. (2001). The Australian linguistic area. Aikhenvald, Alexandra & R.M.W. Dixon (eds.), Areal Diffusion and Genetic Inheritance: Problems in Comparative Linguistics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, chap. 4, 64–104.

Dixon, R.M.W. (2002). Australian languages: their nature and development. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Dixon, R. M. W. (1997). The rise and fall of languages. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Gasser, Emily & Claire Bowern (2013). Phonological generalizations in australian languages. Manuscript in preparation,

Yale University.

Glasgow, Kathleen (1994). Burarra-Gun-nartpa dictionary with English finder list. SIL.

Goddard, C. (1985). A grammar of Yankunytjatjara. Institute for Aboriginal Development.

Greenberg, Joseph H (1966). Language universals, with special reference to feature hierarchies, vol. 59 of Janua

Linguarum Series Minor. Mouton, The Hague.

Hamilton, Philip James (1996). Phonetic constraints and markedness in the phonotactics of Australian Aboriginal

languages. Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics .

Hercus, Luise (1972). The prestopped nasal and lateral consonants of Arabana-WaNgaNuru. Anthropological Linguistics

, 293–305.

Hunley, Keith, Claire Bowern & Meaghan Healy (2012). Rejection of a serial founder effects model of genetic and

linguistic coevolution. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279:1736, 2281–2288.

Kirton, J.F. & B Charlie (1996). Further aspects of the grammar of Yanyuwa, northern Australia. Canberra: Pacific


Kite, S. & S.A Wurm (2004). The DuuNidjawu language of Southeast Queensland: Grammar, Texts and Vocabulary.

Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

Koch, Harold (1996). Reconstruction in morphology. Durie, M. & M Ross (eds.), The Comparative Method Reviewed;

regularity and irregularity in language change, Oxford University Press, New York, chap. 8, 218–263.

Koch, Harold (1997). Comparative linguistics and Australian prehistory. McConvell, Patrick & Nicholas Evans (eds.), Archaeology and linguistics: Aboriginal Australia in global perspective, Oxford University Press, Oxford, chap. 3,


Kofod, Frances (1978). The Miriwoong language. Ph.D. thesis, UNE, NSW.

de Lacy, Paul (2000). Markedness in prominent positions. Matushansky, Ora, Albert Costa, Javier Mart ́ın-Gonza ́lez,

Lance Nathan & Adam Szczegielniak (eds.), HUMIT 2000: Proceedings of the first Harvard-MIT student conference

in language research, MIT Working Papers in Linguistics, Cambridge, MA, vol. 40 of MITWPL.

Ladefoged, Peter & Ian. Maddieson (1986). Some of the sounds of the world’s languages. UCLA Working Papers in

Phonetics 64.

Maddieson, Ian (1984). Patterns of sounds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

McGregor, William (ed.) (2006). Nekes and Worms’ Australian languages. Mouton, Berlin.

Mielke, Jeff (2008). The emergence of distinctive features. Oxford University Press.

Oates, Lynette F. (1988). The Muruwari language. C-108, Pacific Linguistics, Canberra.

O’Grady, Geoffrey N., C. F. Voegelin & F. M. Voegelin (1966). Languages of the world: Indo-Pacific fascicle 6.

Anthropological Linguistics 8:2, 1–199.

Ohala, John J (1986). Consumer’s guide to evidence in phonology. Phonology Yearbook 3, 3–26.

Paradis, Carole & Jean-Francois Prunet (1991). Introduction: Asymmetry and visibility in consonant articulations.

Paradis, Carole & Jean-Francois Prunet (eds.), The Special Status of Coronals: Internal and External Evidence,

Academic Press, New York, 1–28.

Smith, Jennifer (2005). Phonological augmentation in prominent positions. Routledge, New York.

Steriade, Donca (2001). Directional asymmetries in place assimilation: A perceptual account. Hume, E. & K. Johnson

(eds.), Perception in Phonology, Academic Press.

Trubetzkoy, Nikolai S (1939). Grundzu ̈ge der Phonologie [Principles of phonology]. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,

Go ̈ttingen.

Waters, Bruce (1989). Djinang and Djinba, vol. C114. Pacific Linguistics, Canberra.


Copyright (c) 2014 Emily Gasser, Claire Bowern

License URL: