I’ve been reading, with increasing pleasure, R.M.W. Dixon’s Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker, and I find myself unable to wait until I’ve finished it before sharing it with you all. It’s by far the best book I’ve read on what it’s like to be a field linguist, which is what I think of as a “real” linguist—it’s all very well to sit in an office and pore through monographs, but to me (and this is, or used to be in pre-Chomsky days, a typically American point of view) a linguist should be out there engaging with living languages, preferably ones that can use his services for purposes of education or salvage. His mix of linguistic description (carefully explained so that amateurs should be able to follow it) and reportage (he’s properly outraged by the appalling conditions under which Aborigines lived in Queensland in the early ’60s, when he first went to Australia, and he draws vivid word-pictures of his informants and other friends) is exhilarating, and if this book had been available when I was in college I’m pretty sure it would have inspired me to drop Indo-European and head to Australia myself (and I’d probably still be a linguist today).
Rather than trying to select a few paragraphs, an impossible task, I’m going to follow the lead of Joel at Far Outliers, one of my favorite blogs; while he’s reading a book, he posts nice fat chunks of it over the course of a week or so, giving a good idea of what it’s like. So you’ll be seeing a series of Dixon posts here; I’ll start small, with a little anecdote that reminds me of a scene from An American Werewolf in London. Dixon and his wife Alison are driving through North Queensland on his first field trip:
The heat was overwhelming as we parked our caravan on the only available plot… We went across to Lucey’s pub. Alison sat in the lounge while I went through to the bar—into which women were not allowed, by Queensland law—to ask for a coke and a gin and tonic. The weatherbeaten, red faces of the cattlemen sitting on stools around the bar all slowly swivelled and surveyed me. “Pommy!” ejaculated one of them. I was made to feel that no one had ever asked for a gin and tonic in that pub before.
I should point out that Dixon is not, in fact, a Pommy but a Scot who had been doing graduate work at Edinburgh, but it was clearly a distinction without a difference as far as the cattlemen were concerned. Or are Scots in fact Poms? I welcome clarification from Australian readers.
Addendum. I am informed by Claire in the comments that Dixon is in fact a Pom by any definition, being from Gloucester originally. He sure doesn’t advertise it in the book; I guess those surly cattlemen made a deep impression!