I specialise in Austronesian and Papuan historical linguistics, as well as conducting
research in wider issues in historical linguistics, particularly methodology and
contact-induced change. I am a Pacific Linguistics Board member.
When I was about twelve years old (or perhaps younger) I came across Frederick Bodmer's The loom of language (1944 -- Bodmer was Chomsky's predecessor at MIT) in the local public library. I read it and re-read it. I was fascinated. Between the ages of about twelve and thirty-five I was an "unfulfilled linguist",
keenly interested in language and linguistics but having no opportunity of formal
study beyond a wide exposure to European languages at high school and a few linguistic
strands in a BA (Hons) degree in English Literature at the University of Bristol
(1963). I taught English in a Bristol high school for eight years, completing a
Master of Letters by thesis in Comparative Education at the same time. Realising
that I was about to become yet another school administrator, I took evasive action
and applied for an Education Officer position in Papua New Guinea. I established
the English department at Kerevat National High School (near Rabaul) in 1973-74.
An event on Day 1 at Kerevat was later to change my career direction. I asked a couple of students what they studied in their History classes. 'Indonesian history, because Indonesia is out western neighbour,' they replied, 'and Australian history, because Australia is our colonial master and our southern neighbour.'
'What about Papua New Guinea history?' I asked.
'Oh, we don't have any,' they said.
Their response shocked me, and my mind went back to what I had learned from Bodmer about reconstructing linguistic histories, and gradually formed the idea that I should try to reconstruct something of Papua New Guinea's linguistic prehistory. In Kerevat we were surrounded by Austronesian speakers, and so began an interest in Austronesian linguistic historical linguistics which took me on a week-long visit to the Australian National University where I learned much from Robert Blust which formed the starting point for the research which eventually became my 1986 PhD thesis.
But I digress. In 1975
I accepted an appointment at Goroka Teachers' College, a campus of the University
of PNG, where I taught Language Studies and trained high-school teachers for five
years and was Principal from 1980-82. During the time at Goroka, surrounded by people
speaking a plethora of unrecorded languages, the pull of linguistics was irresistible
and I started to collect data, publishing work on Waskia and Vanimo, and then
focussing on the comparative Oceanic Austronesian study that resulted from my experience at Kerevat. This led to a move to Canberra, where
I completed my PhD on the histories of Admiralties and Western Oceanic Austronesian languages in 1986. Since then I have held a number of positions in the
department, as well as visiting professorships at Frankfurt University in 1993 and 1998-99, at the LSA's Summer Institute in 1997, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, in 2002 and at the Academia Sinica, Taipei, in 2003 and 2008-09. During this latter period I taught a course on the histories of Pacific languages at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu and at National Taiwan University in Taipei. I was a Christensen Fellow at St Catherine's College, University of Oxford, in Trinity Term 2005. In 2009 I was Collitz Professor of Historical Linguistics at the Linguistic Society of America's Summer Institute at UC Berkeley. I retired from the ANU at the end of 2007, but continue as an Emeritus Professor to supervise PhD scholars and to conduct research, and since January 2010 have been acting as Co-Managing editor of Pacific Linguistics, a position I held before retirement.
My interest in the history of Oceanic languages has continued unabated, and over the past ten years or so has been channelled into the Oceanic Lexicon Project and its publications. However, my field of interest has expanded in two directions, first into the history of the Austronesian languages of Taiwan and then into the histories of the Papuan languages of New Guinea, especially the Trans-New Guinea family.
Postscript: Years after I had finished and published my thesis, on one of my visits back to PNG I discovered that its findings had been incorporated into a Grade 10 Social Science unit. The 1973 encounter at Kerevat had finally borne fruit.
Current research projects
Oceanic Lexicon Project
Papuan Comparative Linguistics Project, focussing on the prehistory of Papuan languages
in the Madang Province of Papua New Guinea
Reconstructing the histories of languages which have undergone contact-induced change
Reconstructing the prehistory of the Austronesian language family (especially its
morphosyntactic prehistory, with emphases on the genesis of the Formosan languages and of Proto Oceanic)
Diachronic processes affecting grammatical constructions
A list of publications is included in my CV and a list of unpublished
materials appears on a separate page.
A Curriculum Vitae can be found here.
[Linguistics RSPAS homepage]
Created: 30 Sep 1996
Last modified: 23 January 2009
Authorised by: Head, Linguistics, RSPAS
Copyright © 2003-2009, The Australian National University
Maintained by: Malcolm Ross, Malcolm.Ross@anu.edu.au