Yet another 40 years on

This month marks the 40th anniversary of my first venture into linguistic fieldwork and my first data collection on an Australian Aboriginal language. Looking back it was a kind of crazy way to start my career, but nonetheless one that got me set on a path that has given me the chance to work on 12 Australian languages and meet and learn from some amazing people.

Like 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, not me. This will become clear later.

Our story begins in March 1972 when I was in my second year BA (Asian Studies) course at ANU and enrolled in Bob Dixon’s Australian Languages course that he was teaching for the first time. We had just started off, getting an overview of the national linguistic scene in the 18th century and starting to study Dyirbal from north Queensland using the draft of Bob’s book that was published by Cambridge University Press later in the year. We raced through phonology (bypassing phonetics — have a look at the structure of Bob’s Dyirbal grammar to get an idea of how he dealt with these topics at the time) and on into nominal cases and verb conjugations. All very exciting stuff, especially as I gained the impression (perhaps wrongly) that so much of this was new and we were learning about exciting stuff that the old codgers like Capell and Wurm got wrong.

The time came for the end of Term 1 and the Easter holidays (Easter Sunday was 2nd April 1972) after which we had our first assignment due. I mentioned to Bob that I was going home to visit my family in Nemingha for the holidays and he said something like “great — you can do your assignment on the Kamilaroi language from that area”. He pointed me to the work of William Ridley and R.H. Mathews (see Austin 2008 for references) and told me that he had spent a few days in the town of Moree in 1971 as a result of his car breaking down on his way back to Canberra from fieldwork in Cairns (the incident is mentioned in Dixon 1984). During his enforced stay Bob had tracked down and interviewed six people and, as Austin 2008 says:

According to his fieldnotes, Dixon found that ‘no one remembers more than a few words’. … Together these people were able to recollect about 150 vocabulary items but no morphology or syntax. Dixon lodged recordings of the first two consultants at AIATSIS Canberra (AIATSIS Archive tape 2615).

Bob gave me access to his notes and the list of interviewees and suggested I go out to Moree (a mere 288 kilometers north-west from where my parents lived) and Toomelah Aboriginal settlement near Boggabilla, a further 125km north of Moree, to see if I could check his materials and collect more data for my assignment. As it happened, my mother knew some social services personnel in Tamworth who put me in touch with a medical team that made regular visits from Tamworth to Aboriginal patients in Moree and who kindly offered to let me go along with them on their April visit. They also organised for me to be accommodated by a local Moree nursing sister and her husband, and to accompany her on a day trip to Toomelah. So I set off, 19 years old and really unprepared, never having (knowingly) met an Aboriginal person before, let alone interviewed anyone or tried to write down what they might say to me. My only phonetics training was a few classes in first year and Bob’s quick overview, and I had zero training in fieldmethods (that came the next year when John Haiman had us working with a speaker of Hua from Papua New Guinea). Bob’s only advice that I recall was to buy some packets of cigarettes (“they like Marlboro”) and offer them to people as an inducement to talk to me — I remember this led to a couple of weird conversations: me “Wanna smoke?”, interviewee “Thanks. Aren’t you going to have one?”, me “No, I don’t smoke”, interviewee “Huh?”.

Anyway, I ended up spending three days in Moree and Toomelah, interviewed five people (only two of whom, Leila Orcher and Ron McIntosh, had been interviewed by Bob) and created my first ever fieldnotes. I left Moree and hitchhiked the long way back to Tamworth (via Narrabri and Gunnedah), somehow managing to catch rides that got me back to Tamworth before dark on the same day. I probably covered 1,000km in the five days but I had had my first fieldwork experience and have never looked back for 40 years.

I managed to complete the assignment for Bob and got an A for it. I went back to Moree and Toomelah in December 1973 for my second field trip, with a car and a tape recorder this time, and re-interviewed and recorded my 1972 consultants plus six other people (for details see Austin 2008). The result was 212 cross-checked vocabulary items and half a dozen sentence-length fixed expressions in Gamilaraay (as it later came to be known) that people remembered their parents or grandparents using (and unanalysable by the interviewees), like yuulngin ngaya ginyi, dhalaa dhuwarr “I’m hungry, where’s my bread?”. My next trip to an Aboriginal community was in 1974 when I accompanied Luise Hercus to South Australia to meet Diyari (Dieri) speakers and be introduced to her style of fieldwork as an apprentice. But that’s another story.

Austin, Peter K. 2008. The Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) Language, northern New South Wales — A Brief History of Research. In William McGregor (ed.) Encountering Aboriginal languages: studies in the history of Australian linguistics, 37-58. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
[ prepublication version available at]

Dixon, R.M.W. 1972. The Dyirbal language of north Queensland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R.M.W. 1984. Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

1 thought on “Yet another 40 years on”

  1. Sorry I missed the blog post last year but one of our family memories is of you listening to the shortwave radio programmes in their original languages. It has always amazed me you have been able to work in so many different languages.

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