Tom Dutton: A Tribute

4th February 2022

By Emeritus Professor Andrew Pauley

Thomas Edward (Tom) Dutton died on December 20, 2021, aged 86. He was an outstanding figure in New Guinea linguistics, making important contributions in a wide range of domains.

He was born on 10 May 1935 at Dayboro, near Brisbane, the eldest of five children of Lewis and Mary Dutton, but grew up near Bundaberg where Lewis was a school teacher. After several years as a school teacher in Queensland and Papua New Guinea in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tom decided to pursue a career in linguistics. He studied for a Masters degree in English at the University of Queensland while employed as a Research Fellow in the Queensland Speech Survey, recording and analysing varieties of English spoken by local Aboriginal communities and ‘Broken’, the creole of Torres Straits Islanders. His Master’s thesis was titled ‘The informal English of Palm Islanders’. In 1967, he became one of the first PhD students in linguistics in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University, his dissertation being a grammar of Koiari, a previously undescribed language spoken inland of Port Moresby.

In 1969, he was appointed Research Fellow in the newly established Department of Linguistics headed by Stephen Wurm. His assignment was to map, document and compare the 100 or so languages of South-east Papua, of which approximately half belong to the Austronesian family and half are Papuan (i.e., non-Austronesian). Most were little known. He was equal to the task. Over the next several years, he reviewed the literature on these languages, did extensive fieldwork, published several monographs and edited books reporting findings and contributed to the massive two volume Language Atlas of the Pacific. He also wrote textbooks for Tok Pisin and Police Motu, the chief lingua francas of Papua New Guinea.

His 1973 (revised 1985) Conversational New Guinea Pidgin with texts and 14 one-hour cassette tapes remains the standard textbook for teaching Tok Pisin. His Beginning Police Motu (with C.L. Voorhoeve) appeared in 1974.

Tom was never content to just be a scholar doing his own thing. He was always someone who contributed to the wider community, be it academia or general. In 1975 he was seconded to the University of Papua New Guinea for three years as Foundation Professor in the newly established Department of Language and Linguistics, before returning to the RSPacS. His inaugural address at the UPNGH stirred up the establishment by arguing that Tok Pisin should be made an official national language of PNG and the main language of instruction in school contexts where teachers and students were more comfortable using Tok Pisin than English. Between 1987 and 1996 he served as managing editor of the Linguistics Department’s publications arm, consisting of four different series of books about Pacific and SE Asian languages, while continuing to publish prolifically himself, including a 300-page history of Police Motu. He was reviews editor of Language and Linguistics in Melanesia from 1987 to 1991 and Business Manager of the Australian Linguistic Society for several years in the 1990s. From 1995 to 1997 he was Associate Director of the Research School, creating a student handbook setting out the responsibilities of students and supervisors and establishing an induction course for new students. He had a hand in supervising many of the more than 50 PhD theses produced in the Department during his time. In 1987 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Tom Dutton was a man of remarkable energy who had many skills beyond academia: pilot, carpenter, farmer, shearer, wool classer, fiddler, etc. He retired in 1998 to fulfill a longstanding wish to become a sheep farmer, while continuing to publish substantial works, including a large dictionary of Koiari and a monograph reconstructing the history of the wider family of Koiarian languages. In 2001, 24 of his colleagues and students presented him with a Festschrift. He was a much respected colleague and a born teacher with an infectious enthusiasm for his subject, and a convivial host. It was a privilege to know him.

He is survived by his wife, Corinne, son, Brett, and daughter, Anna.

Dutton’s publications are accessible online.

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