Another forty years on

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of my professional involvement with Linguistics. And it all started out rather accidentally.

In February 1971 I went from Nemingha, New South Wales, to Canberra to begin my Bachelor of Arts (Asian Studies) degree at the Australian National University (ANU). I had intended to study Japanese and Economics at ANU, with the goal of becoming a highly paid Japanese-speaking stockbrocker (these were the days of the Pilbara mining boom, when shares in Poseidon NL and other firms were selling for what seemed like astronomical amounts of money, until it all went pear shaped). I had studied Economics at high school and had tried to learn a bit of Japanese from NHK broadcasts on short-wave radio, so I figured I was on my way to the pot of gold. Little did I know.

When I arrived at ANU I was told that I had not chosen enough subjects for my first year (Japanese I, Economics I, and a compulsory subject called “Asian Civilisations” that was a curious mixture of early Chinese and Japanese history which introduced us to the period from bone inscriptions to the early Han dynasty in China and from Amaterasu to Heian Jidai in Japan and then stopped). A kind academic advisor asked me about what I was interested in and on hearing that I had studied French and German at school, tried to learn Japanese and Dutch by shortwave radio and Russian and Polish from books and a Polish friend, and had read Frederick Bodmer’s The Loom of Language for fun, suggested that I might have a look at Linguistics I. “What’s linguistics?” I asked, and was told it was about the stuff I had been messing about with as a hobby out of school hours. She told me I could go to the first lecture, and if I didn’t like it could come back and choose something else. So I did. And never went back.

The Japanese class was interesting – a group of about 25 of us studying under the imperious Miss Saito who insisted on hard work and devotion to Japanese at all times (at the Easter break we were told “memorise these 48 hiragana characters in the next week, then katakana and then you start on kanji, 20 a week”). Economics was disappointing – a huge lecture theatre packed with students, a good number of whom seemed to be public servants being paid to be there, and the professor way down below in the middle reading out from the typescript of his next textbook. Much of the content seemed to be the same macroeconomics that I had done at school. But Linguistics, that was exciting. R.M.W. (Bob) Dixon, recently appointed as professor, took the first year lectures, introducing us to the world of Boas and Sapir, IPA, and the exotic details of Dyirbal and other Aboriginal languages (Bob was finishing his book The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland that appeared the next year). I was one of the lucky ones who also had him as tutor, so was bathed in his infectious enthusiasm for languages and linguistics. By the end of the year I had dropped Economics and continued with a double major in Japanese and Linguistics.

Recently, like a few other ANU graduates, I have started reading Bob’s autobiography I am a Linguist (I know, I know, USD 178 for a 392 page paperback is obscene, but curiosity got the better of me, plus I had a couple of Amazon gift certificates). His accounts of those early ANU years are interesting, especially the academic politics within the Department and the Faculty that we knew nothing of, but there is something vital that I think is missing. That is the palpable sense of excitement about the potential for enormous change that I felt, and I believe other students shared. These were scary times for 18 year old males – there was a birthday lottery for conscription into the army with the first prize being a trip to the Vietnam War (my birthday wasn’t selected, but that of a cousin and some friends from school were and they did become “nashos”, National Servicemen). But they were also dynamic times. There were the anti-Vietnam War protests, burning of conscription papers on campus (off limits to Federal Police at the time, but crawling with undercover cops), the heating up of the Aboriginal rights movement (the Tent Embassy was established in front of Parliament House in January the following year), and protests against French nuclear testing at Muraroa Atoll (Greenpeace sailed ships into the test site in 1972, and the following year the New Zealand and Australian governments took France to the International Court of Justice). We even flexed our muscles at the grass-roots level, complaining to the Head of the Japanese Department about some of Miss Saito’s more egregious practices and saw her toppled and replaced by Professor Alfonso at the beginning of the third term. Gough Whitlam told us “It’s Time” and we believed it. Unfortunately, there is no sense of this Zeitgeist in Bob’s book (or in our classes at the time, indeed), even though the Aboriginal protest movement was surely relevant to what we were studying.

The following year Bob offered his first course on Australian Aboriginal Languages and that led to my initiation into fieldwork. But that’s a story for another time.

Note: The other 40 years on is from 10 years ago: Jane Simpson, David Nash, Mary Laughren, Peter Austin, and Barry Alpher (eds.) 2001. Forty years on: Ken Hale and Australian languages. No. 512. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

9 Comments

  1. Aidan Wilson says:

    Brilliant story Peter; thanks for sharing it.

    I too (like probably half of all linguists I know) started in the field without any idea of what it was, and picked it only because I still had some first year credits to fill. I was always going to be a philosopher, or some kind of theoretical physicist. Each of those subjects bored me within a semester, whereas The Structure of Languages, and later, Language in a Social Context, both with Bill Foley, never ceased to interest me. Next month, this will have been 9 years ago.

    Hopefully I’ll be writing a similar post in 31 or so years.

  2. It seems that this trend of setting out for something else and ending up a linguist is quite common. For me it was only six years ago…

    I was sitting in London deciding on what to go back and study after leaving Australia for a few years. I had previous started Electrical Engineering and Physics but knew that I would not be going back to that any time soon. So I enrolled in a general arts/science degree with some idea of studying Marine Science and philosophy. But behold, the degree required a compulsory “communications” course and from the opaque faculty documentation I could see that 1st year linguistics (whatever that was) was one of 3 choices. So, I enrolled in LNGS1001, went to Bill Foley’s first semester (like Aidan above) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Ok, I thought, I’ll do another semester… before I knew it I was doing a PhD and marine science is still just a dream.

    Funny part to the story is that LNGS1001 didn’t qualify as the “communications” course – I had misread the handbook (it was LNGS1005 – which was prohibited if you had done LNGS1001). So I ended up having to do one of the other two “communications” courses in the end.

  3. Jane Simpson says:

    Lovely post! I started in the same year and the same place as Peter [substitute Chinese for Japanese], and can corroborate the remarks on the infectiousness of Bob Dixon and John Haiman’s teaching, and the exuberance of the time – it seemed that every year there was a new cause to learn about and worry about- to Peter’s list, add also the anti-apartheid movement (tour by the Springboks), feminism, the education revolution more generally, the pro/anti-China movements. As happened to Peter, a kind academic advisor, John Caiger, then Subdean of Asian Studies, told me about Linguistics; he said it was like philosophy in content but, unlike philosophy, you could do it in an Asian Studies degree… Moral 1: we need more academic advisors. Moral 2: we need academic advisors who aren’t impelled by the need to get more students into their disciplines – John was a Japanese historian but he gave the best advice he could.

  4. Peter Austin says:

    Thanks Jeremy and Aidan — I suspect others have similar stories. Ironically, later in Dixon’s book (I don’t have a copy with me here in Hawaii so I can’t quote the page numbers) he complains about how the Head of Department who took over when he stepped down after 20 years of leadership changed the names of courses to things like you mention, ie. “The Structure of Languages” and “Language in a Social Context” (instead of “Introduction to Linguistics” etc.). When I was at Melbourne University, we had a first-year course called “Cross-cultural Communication” that included lots of pragmatics and sociolinguistics and got students interested in linguistics. I suspect strategic branding like this is also one of the ways that accidents like mine can happen these days, as against 40 years ago.

  5. Maïa Ponsonnet says:

    Hi Peter, thanks for sharing your experience with your recent blog post. The enthusism you describe and the sense of “something happening” transpire through your lines. And it’s even easier for me to grasp as I’m lucky enough to be part of another trend of enthusiasm, at the same institution, 40 years on…

  6. Cathy Bow says:

    Mine’s almost the same story, in a different university and a different decade. I needed an extra subject to make up the first year requirement, but all I really wanted to do was English literature and French. I don’t think it was an academic advisor who suggested I try Linguistics (“try the first lecture and if you don’t like it just switch to psychology or history or something”), I think it was probably some poor graduate student trying to make a few bucks working on the desk at enrolment time, but to me it was like divine guidance. I was sold from the first lecture (thank you Mark Durie), and the excitement of the linguistics department was such a breath of fresh air compared to the stale air of both the English and French departments. Like Peter, I felt as though my private hobby was somehow validated, that my curiosity was actually part of a genuine academic discipline – like discovering that you could make a career out of juggling or stamp collecting! My career path has had a few twists and turns along the way, but I’m thankful to that anonymous advisor on the enrolment desk that day, whose advice allowed me to develop and pursue a lifelong passion for languages.

  7. Claire says:

    I thought there was a little of that enthusiasm in the first chapter of the book, where he’s describing fieldwork. It’s all downhill from there.

  8. Sarah Cutfield says:

    Same story again here: needed another subject to complement 1st year German, Spanish and Anthropology, and the handbook entry said Linguistics would suit those interested in languages and cultures. Ding Ding Ding! I was inspired by Peter’s Orientation Week spiel and completely sucked in by Nick Evans in the first week of classes. Didn’t even end up with a major in any other discipline, as I quickly learned that Linguistics meant you got to learn all about languages without having to do the hard work of actually learning them! Lucky I’m still in Linguistics 14 years later, cos I’m completely unqualified for anything else!

  9. […] the story of how I started Linguistics at ANU that I told last year, this one has an accidental component, but one affecting someone else, […]

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