Using genetic analyses, it’s currently believed that the first wave of modern humans who migrated out of Africa did so around 90-130K years ago. Those first wanderers reached Australia perhaps 50-70K years ago, and today’s Australian aborigines are descendants of those people. There were other waves out of Africa afterward. Each “wave” was probably a remarkably small number of people, maybe a few hundred, maybe even less, a few dozen, who then eventually branched out across the world. Some of those additional waves may have also reached Australia, or perhaps not. They’re still arguing that one. Genetics, though, does show that aboriginal Australians descend in large part if not entirely from that first wave. At the end of the last ice age the land bridge between Asia and Australia was submerged, creating first the Indonesian archipelago and then, as the oceans rose further, separating New Guinea from Australia about 8,000 years ago. Australians, among the first people to leave Africa, became isolated at the end of the earth in Australia, and had very little to do with the rest of humanity for thousand of years until Captain Cook came nosing around. Their culture evolved in splendid isolation. Dreamtime.
I’m bringing this up because when you look at Australian languages, they seem about as far afield from the Indo-European languages–which includes English–as you can imagine. The last time someone spoke something that was the root of both an Australian aboriginal language and English was probably somewhere in East Africa, perhaps 150,000 years ago or more, almost to the point where modern humans–Homo sapiens–emerged and began speaking language. There’s no way to figure this out, of course, I’m just extrapolating from the timelines genetics and the sparse archeological record have given us. And I’m thinking in terms of the small family bands or perhaps tribal groups radiating across Africa for maybe fifty thousand years before some eventually crossed the Red Sea into Arabia and kept walking. At some point in there the people that became Australians would have lost contact with the people who became, say, Europeans. It may have been a family splitting up. A hunting band. Maybe a scattered group of related bands. Whatever. We last had contact with each other somewhere in Africa well over a hundred thousand years ago. Which gives you an idea of just how separate English is from any of the languages spoken by indigenous Australians. The last time we could understand each other was maybe six thousand, or maybe ten thousand, generations ago. You can almost picture that, ten thousand generations. Think back to your own grandparents, and their grandparents, and then their grandparents and on and on and back and back, time measured in people’s lifespans. You could talk to your grandparents, and–if you spoke the same language–perhaps their grandparents. You make yourself understood to their grandparents. It might get a little iffy after that. I’d have a helluva time making myself understood to an English speaker twenty generations ago, when everyone really did talk like Shakespeare. Go back another twenty generations before that and it would get even harder. Another twenty generations beyond that (i.e., sixty generations ago) we’d just stare at each other, confused. And that is only 1500 years. Multiply that by a hundred to get back to where a proto-European and a proto-Australian could understand what each other was saying.
But to really get an idea, here’s a page full of transcriptions of sayings in various Australian languages. They all pretty much sound as they look, the double r’s are rolled or trilled, sort of halfway between Spanish and German, and the g is hard, so ng sounds like the ng in ungood and not like the ng in orange. Never mind the grammar–it varies wildly across the continent, which still has 150 spoken native languages (down from perhaps as many as 750 before the Europeans came), though many, like Bardi, have less than twenty remaining speakers. And like all small languages, the grammar is more complex than a language spoken by millions of people (the more speakers, the simpler the rules become). But just looking at these phrases, and sounding them out, and seeing how utterly alien they appear to us, you really get a feel for the span of time it’s been since our shared ancestors went their separate ways. My ancestors and the ancestors of aboriginal Australians have been speaking mutually unintelligible tongues almost since Homo sapiens appeared on the planet. A hundred thousand years maybe? A hundred and fifty thousand? Two hundred thousand? Who knows. But if I’d seen two people adding sticks to a small fire, I’d say they were kindling a fire. A Bardi speaking Australian who saw the same thing would say ingoorrooloorrloorroona noorroo. That’s what a couple hundred thousand years will do to mutual communication.