Book review 3: He is a linguist

Along with this review comes the first really irritating part of this book. I get irritated by any book that has obvious factual errors and autobiographies aren’t exempt from this. Just because someone is writing about their own life, it doesn’t mean they aren’t bound by some reality constraints. I also like a certain amount of internal consistency, even in autobiographies. This particular autobiography appears to be unraveling. I admit to cheating and looking at the ending (I wouldn’t do this for a mystery or thriller, but I thought I knew the ending to this one already) and was relieved to see the statement that

I value truth, honesty, and effort. Judge things as they are, not in terms of any current fashion. (p 339)

I consider this a license to be honest about this book. There was another place earlier in the book where the author writes about the need to call bad work bad work, and not beat about the bush. There it is. While it’s not one of those books that’s left me bewailing the time I’ll never get back for having read it, I don’t feel like I am better off with the knowledge I now possess. I certainly don’t have any increased respect for its author. If one of the reasons one reads an autobiography is to feel that one knows the author better by the end of it, I hope that’s not true for this book.

From chapter 6 onwards we begin a long set of chapters that appear to be a catalogue of grumps and gripes. The phrase “whingeing Pom” came to mind more than once. I don’t mind forthright or controversial, pointed, or barbed. I am a linguist is none of that. It’s not a “no-holds-barred” or controversial account of momentous events. It reads more like a vindictive, small-minded and naive checklist of grievances compiled over 30 years. Controversial, pointed and barbed would have been entertaining.

I won’t have the patience to chronicle it all, so let me stick to three things that particularly stand out.

1. Factual errors: The IRB discussion is just wrong. The author seems unaware that there are standards in place for documenting permission from speakers who do not read and write. I see nothing wrong with getting permission from a community to work on a language – it is, after all, their language. Ethics approval can help the linguist. There’s been plenty written on this topic, and you can see some discussion at There are some further sins by omission. I guess one could say that the reviews of Rise and Fall of Languages were all positive (except for one), but there has been a certain amount of engagement with the ideas in that book and how difficult they are to apply to Australia (as well as elsewhere). In a recent Anthropological Linguistics issue, the author published an account of diffusion in the Cairns Rainforest Region, as though nothing at all had happened in Australian linguistics since 1997.

2. Overgeneralisation: the chapter entitled “the delegate from Tasmania” is full of homogenization of Aboriginal culture. For example, there’s no sense that land tenure systems vary (they do), or that kinship systems vary (p 247); we’re told that they are ‘algorithmic’ and ‘intricate’, which is true, but they’re also different in different areas. Then we get a very simplistic picture of race relations. “A white intruder typically took an Aboriginal girl as a concubine.” There were all sorts of relations, from rape to marriage with mutual respect (though with the former being rather more common than the latter, but the former also doesn’t come under what I’d define as a ‘concubine’ relationship). There were also ‘white intruders’ who were ambivalent about being there, who were very troubled by what was happening and who were scared in equal measure between the thugs they were working with and the locals who wanted them dead.

3. Inconsistency: I can’t think of any other word for it.  What do you call it if within a page one reads “Not to mince words, the Jewish religion seems pretty wacky. Then Christianity takes all that and adds a further veneer… Then the Moslem religion provides further thatch to this house of fantasy… [1 paragraph] But I do respect other people’s belief.” (pp. 294-5).

There are other examples. One that comes to mind is the complaints about post-docs, which ring a little hollow when one has just read about how the author cheerfully did nothing he was supposed to during his own postdoc in Edinburgh.

Alors, enough.


One response to “Book review 3: He is a linguist

  1. I picked this book for the first time today and yes, the above critique rings true with me. I found some bits where he was griping about relatively pedantic stuff that had happened at the university he worked at 30 years prior. My thoughts were:

    (a) who in their right mind hangs on to that stuff for that long, and
    (b) feels compelled to publish it to the world!


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