Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Northern Territory, Australia

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Northern Territory, Australia

Coordinates: 20 0 S 133 0 E

Estimated number of languages: 153

Occasionally it can take some persuasion to convince people that understanding geography means more than accumulating an encyclopedic knowledge of mountains, rivers, and capital cities. Geography actually informs all sorts of relationships between people and their surroundings, including religion, agriculture, industry, and language. In Australia for instance, the harsh climate and landscape have shaped numerous indigenous languages that are now in real danger of extinction. Many of these tongues are among the oldest continually spoken on the planet and a particularly high concentration can still be heard (in ever-smaller communities mind you) in the Northern Territory. One could convincingly argue that cultures occupying more temperate environments might not have a need for words like thurrm which means “a fence of brush across a wallaby’s path” But even as geography played a role in creating these uniquely Australian languages, forces such as ethnic conflict, migration, and intermarriage have removed them from the map.

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Ben Keene is the editor of Oxford Atlas of the World. Check out some of his previous places of the week.

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