Book review 2: He is a linguist

When we left our young hero he was taking his O-levels and doing well at maths and chemistry. This section brings us into University and post-doctoral work in Edinburgh on computational linguistics. A subsequent chapter details his work on blues discography.

The same inconsistency that struck me in the early chapters on life at school came through even more forcefully in the chapter on Oxford and the way in which the class system played out in colleges in the 1950s. There’s no analysis, no stepping outside the system and seeing it for what it is, just some rather uncritical railing. Let me jump ahead a little and quote from the beginning of Chapter 8 (p 153), which provides a more succinct illustration of the issue:

When I took the considerable step of emigrating in July, 1970, there were three main reasons. Most of all, I considered Australia to be the most congenial place in the world in which to live. It’s fresh and lively, with wide open spaces, lots of sunshine, and great opportunities. A striking contrast to dull, class-ridden Britain, clinging to the past of having once been ‘a great power’ (tsk, tsk, tsk). And to the blinkered arrogance of the ISA, ‘we are the finest nation in the world’ (blah blah blah). Australia is just happy to be itself, a relaxed milieu where people work hard and are judged by what they are and how they perform, not by who their father is or how they speak.

I find it simply extraordinary that someone who did fieldwork in Queensland in the 1960s can write something like that. People in Australia are judged by who they are, sure – if you’re Aboriginal, expect to be judged, micromanaged by your government, judged by how and what you speak. If you were a female scientist in the 1970s expect to be discriminated against no matter how hard you worked. “Not so equal and not so free” as Redgum put it. But it was probably ok for white blokes who didn’t rock the boat too much.

The chapter on postdoctoral work and linguistics in Edinburgh was intriguing. We should remember the admission that our author never did anything during his postdoc (p 63) since it will become relevant later on.

There’s an amusing letter from M.A.K. Halliday reproduced in facsimile, describing “the type of linguistics we do”, “the type of linguistics we don’t do”, and “the type of linguistics nobody does.” Under the second type included Chomsky, Bloomfield, Saussure, Hockett, Harris, Sapir and Pike.

The chapter on blues discography describes the author’s motivations for and processes of collecting complete information about blues records for African American audiences. While the author treats this work as quite separate from his linguistic work, in some senses the skills are quite comparable – the attempt to exhaustively catalogue and categorize all available pieces of information.

At this point our hero moves to Australia and describes his early years building ANU’s linguistics department. There are some details of the structure of the old major, and some eye-brow raising administrative practices, about which more in a following post. There’s also some lively description of Harvard and MIT in 1969 (including the description (p 106) of Michael Silverstein as “now an enigmatic icon in linguistic anthropology.” )

We’ve gone from 1961 to 1973 in this set of chapters. There is a chapter on beginning fieldwork in Queensland, though most of this is covered in the 1983 book Searching for Aboriginal Languages. Two omissions surprised me. One was that Whitlam’s election and its consequences for the ANU, for Aboriginal Land Rights, and for academics, rate about two paragraphs. The other is any discussion of Vietnam.


3 responses to “Book review 2: He is a linguist

  1. Thanks for reviewing this, Claire. Keep at it.

    I love the Halliday note, but now I want to know who falls under the “we do” and “nobody does” categories…

  2. The ‘we do’ is essentially Firth and Halliday (and a few others but these are the names that have made it into the 21st Century). The ‘nobody does’ list had two names, one of which was poor old Whatmough. Can’t remember the other.

  3. I was once asked to speak at a workshop in Sydney in honour of Halliday. I was flattered. I was less than flattered that a couple of American devotees took me aside one afternoon and more or less asked me to commit my intellectual life. It reminded me of an occasion when at one of those English private schools when I went to what I thought was just a camp where we would play lots of games and get out of the teachers’ hair for a few days. At the end I was taken into a room and asked if I would commit my life to christ. I declined on both occasions.

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