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.