White man who speaks in many dark tongues

August 20, 1999

Nottingham-born Bob Dixon speaks five Aboriginal languages - just 245 to go. Julia Hinde reports

There were probably 250 separate languages - each as different as French and German," explains Bob Dixon of the Australian Aboriginal languages to which he has devoted his working life.

Originally trained as a mathematician at Oxford, Professor Dixon, who is fluent in five Aboriginal tongues, has spent 35 years chronicling Australia's native languages, looking for universal grammar rules and origins, and recording in writing the country's linguistic heritage before it is lost forever.

Dixon, originally from Nottingham, is now the only remaining speaker of three of the Aboriginal tongues. Just one other person can converse with him in Yidijn, while of the 100 or so Dyirbal speakers 35 years ago, only five are still alive.

"Only 20 of the 250 languages are still being learned by children," explains Dixon. "One hundred are completely gone, 100 more are spoken or remembered, but not learned by the young. One loses an incredible amount with the loss of the languages. Each language has its own way of looking at the world. You are losing the whole history of Australia - language encapsulates tradition, law, history, kinship, even medicine."

He points to Dyirbal, spoken by communities in the rainforests of north eastern Queensland. "These people have four genders," says Dixon. "Male, female, edible and neutral." Over a ten-year period, work with the group revealed 700 rainforest plants used by the community for different purposes - including medicine and food.

"It was very hard being the only Australianist in Europe," says Dixon of his move in 1970 from the UK to the Australian National University in Canberra.

Having studied maths at Oxford, he embarked on a PhD in mathematical logic. "The thing with maths," says Dixon, "is that you choose your own axioms, but in linguistics, it's the real world with which you deal and real languages." Dissuaded from studying British Columbian languages, Dixon went in search of the poorly studied Australian tongues.

Setting up home in a Dyirbal community, the caravan where he slept and ate also acted as an office which people would visit with local stories. He recorded all conversations and would then analyse them. "You are trying to find grammatical generalisations," he explains. "Then you make up sentences and check them back with the local people."

He says of lingutistics: "I do it because I am fascinated by it. I am a workaholic, but I love the intellectual fix. Doing the fieldwork is the most marvellous thing."

He says he would only work on a language if welcomed by the speakers. "Many of the Aboriginals were sent, as children, to missionaries where they were not allowed to speak their language.One man would tell me how he used to run away to go and speak with an old man in their tongue."

Five Aboriginal languages later, Dixon is doing a comparative study of Australia's 250 Aboriginal languages, another 40 or so of which have been documented by his students. A tiny office in the single-storey army-camp-style building that houses ANU's Research Centre for Linguistic Typology is packed to the ceiling with files on each language. They share the room with a huge map dividing Australia along linguistic lines, and an ancient typewriter.

Dixon is keen to determine whether each of the languages is as unrelated as they sound, or whether they are all from the same original tongue. "Most of the languages are chronicled to a greater or lesser extent," he says. He believes language development can be explained by long periods of equilibrium with little change, punctuated by sudden, quick change when populations increase and new languages develop.

"Modern man - defined by the ability to develop language - has been around for 100,000 years," he says. "I suggest a group came to Australia 40,000 to 50,000 years ago from Southeast Asia. They spread over the whole continent in between 2,000 and 5,000 years. At the end of that period there were probably 250 languages, with each group having its own language.

"Over the past 35,000 years, it has probably been an equilibrium situation, in which certain features of language spread through all the languages so they become similar in some ways."

Such shared features in Aboriginal languages, says Dixon, include the use of three separate pronouns for you (one for you singular, one for you two, and one for you plural) and the two R sounds found in many of the languages.

Dixon has taken his love of linguistics beyond Australia, having learned and written a dialect of Fijian, as well as a Brazil-Amazonian tongue, Jarawara. "It is the most difficult. It has got so much of interest. There are seven types of subordinate clause, only 14 adjectives (bad is an adjective, good a verb), several ways of marking possession, and only one preposition."

After almost 30 years at ANU, Dixon is now moving, with a number of the centre's staff, to La Trobe University in Melbourne. There they are keen to set up an Australian Research Council "Special Research Centre" and have been short-listed for nine years of dedicated funding.

Eight such centres are due to be awarded this year; the Centre on Language and Culture is one of 17 short-listed.

"In Melbourne," says Dixon, "there are 200 languages spoken. Here in Australia we have a unique combination of indigenous and immigrant languages, which form an integral part of the culture of modern-day Australia. We need to be studying them."

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