2 - Language in Aboriginal Australia: social dialects in a geographic idiom  pp. 49-66

Language in Aboriginal Australia: social dialects in a geographic idiom

By Peter Sutton

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Introduction

The distinctions Australian Aboriginal people make amongst their own language varieties are couched principally in the idiom of local geography. Other linguistic distinctions are typically framed within speech etiquettes focused on kinship relations, ascribed ceremonial and other social status or the temporary ritual condition of individuals. These practices are fairly typical of recent hunter—gatherer and shifting horticulturist societies and in many ways unlike those of agrarian and industrial societies.

Classical or precolonial Aboriginal culture did not, for example, distinguish language varieties associated with institutions such as social class, caste, occupational group or nation state. It did, however, distinguish varieties associated with territorial groups, or regionally specific sets of such groups, and in this it has seemed to resemble closely the language/state model of much of Europe and some other parts of the world, at least to some scholars (see e.g. Dixon 1976, who argues for a tribe/state analogy in the Cairns region of north Queensland).

This resemblance has been much exaggerated. One of the most profound differences between Aboriginal linguistic culture and that of so many other people in fact lies in this very domain. In Aboriginal Australia a large number of languages were spoken by a very small number of people.