Thursday, February 16, 2012

Heading for the nearest foreign border...

Well, I'm not, actually. But the nearest foreign country to me is France. Specifically, the Bellona Reefs. During the height of the last ice age they were apparently one end of a great big island a couple of hundred kilometers long, midway between Australia and the Grande Terre of New Caledonia. Wouldn't it be great if it was still there? There are flightless birds (rails) living on some of the tiny fragments where it used to be, apparently.

I went to a seminar this morning in the School of Arts by a fellow named Paul Geraghty from the University of the South Pacific. Being a chemist I had never heard of him before, but apparently he is the great master of Oceanic linguistics. He has looked at the maps of what things looked like 18,000 years ago and noticed the longest stretch of sea between Australia and New Caledonia back then - if you knew which direction you were heading in - is only about 120 km. There is also oral history in most parts of New Caledonia of people who were living there before the Melanesians arrived. So Paul Geraghty has started looking - just in the past two or three weeks, he said - for *linguistic* evidence that there might have been Australians there before Melanesians. How? Well, when people move somewhere new, there are three ways they tend to name new things. (1) They name them after similar things they already know about - like 'possum' or 'magpie'; (2) They give them compound descriptive names based on things they already know about - like 'stringybark' or 'redback'; or (3) They borrow words for them from people already living there - like 'koala' or 'kangaroo'.  People don't tend to make up completely new words for things. He went through the 'control' case of New Zealand Maori, where people arrived in an uninhabited country with no one to borrow words from, and the words they came up with to call the new plants and animals.  They were all of sorts (1) or (2). Then he looked at the names of plants and animals in Proto South Oceanic, his reconstructed language of the inhabitants of New Caledonia c. 1000 BCE. There were a pile that weren't obvious as (1) or (2) for plants and animals found in New Caledonia but not in southern Vanuatu, where the PSO people came from. Neat, eh?

Of course, these pre-PSO people probably diverged from Australia too long ago for these fragments of their language (if that's indeed what they are) to be provably linked to proto-Australian or proto-Tasmanian reconstructions. But I am moved to repeat myself - neat, eh?