Interview with Bill Palmer

The conservator of threatened language explains why two people are as important as 2 billion, from a linguistics point of view

June 6, 2019
Bill Palmer University of Newcastle linguist

Bill Palmer is an associate professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, where he leads the Endangered Languages Documentation, Theory and Application research programme in the Centre for 21st Century Humanities. His group focuses on the 94 per cent of the world’s 7,000 languages that are spoken by just 6 per cent of the global population, including some 80 languages facing imminent extinction in his native Australia.

Where and when were you born?
Launceston, Tasmania, 1961.

How has this shaped you?
My parents were immigrants; both quite bookish. My father was a barrister. Before that, he was an interpreter with the British army during the Second World War. He was born in Germany but he was Jewish and left as a refugee in his teens, on his own. He’d had some technical training apprenticed to a typewriter mechanic, and then had some engineering training in the British army. He translated captured technical documents and ended up as the top German interpreter. He did some of the war crimes trials.

How did you become interested in linguistics?
I studied media production in my undergraduate degree. I had visions of working in the film industry. I majored in linguistics because I found it entertaining. I worked in the media for a few years but in the end I decided journalism wasn’t for me and I think it decided I wasn’t for it. I decided to do postgraduate study for my own intellectual satisfaction. I went to the University of Sydney and did a master’s in linguistics. By the end of the master’s there was no way I was not going on to do a PhD.

Linguistics, like media, is about communication. Are they so very different?
Language is unique to humans and part of our innate cognitive make-up. Understanding the nature of language in the mind is fundamental to understanding the nature of being human. The core research agenda of linguistics is to understand the nature of language in the human mind. To do that we need to look at individual languages.

Why focus on Pacific languages?
I look at specific issues in grammars of individual languages. There’s not that much point in looking at languages that have been trampled over for hundreds of years, like English, Dutch or Japanese. A lot of languages in the Pacific are very different from the languages that are well understood. They have the potential to add a great deal more to what we understand about how languages can be.

Is every language of equal importance?
Whether a language is spoken by 2 billion people or two people is totally irrelevant to its scientific significance. It’s equally a manifestation of the human language capacity. But a language spoken by two, 200 or 2,000 is not going to be around much longer. Over the past 20 years there has been a recognition of the significance of diverse languages in traditional communities. There are some things that occur only in a very small number of languages. Yet we know they are possible, and that tells us something about the nature of language. If those languages were to die out before they were investigated, we would never know that such a thing was possible.

Can you give an example?
The three most important parts of any sentence are the subject, object and verb. You can put them into six different orders. If this was all random, you would expect a sixth of languages would prefer subject-verb-object, a sixth would prefer subject-object-verb and so on. That is very much not the case. Less than a handful have the object, then the subject, then the verb. A study of about 1,400 languages found four with that order. If those four languages had become extinct before they were documented, we would never know that order was possible. From a purely scientific perspective, the problem with language death is that it removes important components from the database of languages.

What about cultural identity?
I come at this from a scientific perspective, but other researchers are primarily interested in the social and cultural significance of endangered languages. Because of the nature of the post-colonial societies in which most endangered languages are spoken, a very strong ethical framework has developed over the past 10 or 15 years. Research into endangered languages has to benefit the language community and has to be done in conjunction with the community. And recent research has shown that speaking a traditional language correlates with a whole range of well-being measures for Indigenous individuals.

You describe a race against time to conserve or document Indigenous languages. What more could academia do?
There’s no shortage of willing in the linguistics community. The problem is lack of resources. It’s difficult to get funding for research. The Australian Research Council funds only a handful of linguistics projects each year, few for endangered languages.

What has been the biggest recent change to academia?
The pressure on academics has changed in all disciplines, particularly humanities. The story used to be that an academic should do 40 per cent research, 40 per cent teaching and 20 per cent administration. Now it’s 50 per cent research, 50 per cent teaching and 30 per cent administration. There’s a culture of commercialisation in universities; pressure from middle management to lower standards to bring in fee-paying students from overseas, and to focus teaching and research in ways that maximise enrolments. Publications no longer exist to disseminate the findings of research. Instead, research exists to provide content for publications, because publications are a basis of funding. It’s the tail wagging the dog.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what would you do?
Impose enforced minimum standards of admission.


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Andrew Douglas has been appointed vice-provost of faculty affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Professor Douglas, a professor of mechanical engineering at the institution and vice-dean for faculty in the Whiting School of Engineering, will start his new role in July.

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