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  • Forty years on: Ken Hale and Australian languages
  • Patrick McConvell
Jane Simpson, David Nash, Mary Laughren, Peter Austin, and Barry Alpher. 2001. Forty years on: Ken Hale and Australian languages. No. 512. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. ISBN 0-85883-524-X. Paper. Aus$50.00.

This substantial book celebrates the outstanding contribution of the late Ken Hale to Australian linguistics. Ken was able to see the book shortly before his death late in 2001, and I am sure took pleasure in viewing in one volume the many lines of enquiry his work on Australia had engendered, in many cases pursued by younger scholars whom he had nurtured.

Ken Hale was for many years a professor in linguistics at MIT, but his contribution to the study of Australian languages began long before that, with an astonishing fieldtrip in 1959-61 during which he, often in company with Geoffrey O'Grady, recorded dozens of Australian Indigenous languages all around Australia. Research on Australian Indigenous languages up until that time had been at a low level, lagging behind the effort on the Indigenous languages of North America, for instance, in quality and quantity. The 1959-61 fieldtrip was a great leap forward, which laid the basis for the surge in detailed research that followed in the 1970s and 1980s (this history is briefly sketched in Margaret Sharpe's chap. 16 of the book).

Anyone who met Ken, or encountered his fieldnotes (which he made freely available and which adorn the attractive cover of this volume) can testify to his prodigious abilities as a fieldworker, which were enhanced by his legendary language-learning ability. In the academic environment of the time this kind of fieldwork orientation towards exotic and endangered languages was receding in the face of the prestige of theoretical linguistics. Ken Hale was able to combine both harmoniously, insisting on their complementarity (a point also made by Bill McGregor in his chap. 22, although coming from a very different theoretical base from Hale's commitment to Chomskyan linguistics). Hale also managed to retain an anthropological approach to the relationships between language and culture, and a strong commitment to the practical uses of linguistics, along with the importance of the speakers' agendas for their languages, when these positions were unfashionable.

All these facets of the man are reflected in the papers in this book, and this combination of approaches is what has inspired many currently working on Australian languages. With luck, they may continue to shape the development of linguistics in Australia and beyond. What also suffuses many of the contributions is the influence of Ken's courage, perseverance, humility, generosity—in short, the qualities of, as Evans and Wilkins say, "a real human being, a true mensch, and a good person to learn from" (515).

The thirty-six mainly short chapters are varied, and ordered broadly geographically to follow Hale's travels in Australia, although this order is only roughly followed in this review. I will comment on most of them briefly, a few more lengthily, and some others I will have to pass over without any implication that they are not of value. A few papers are directly focused on Hale: a carefully compiled bibliography (chap. 1 by David Nash); accounts of the 1959-61 trip by Ken himself in interview [End Page 252] (chap. 3, Jenny Green, ed.), including fascinating insights into his fieldwork methods, among them how he "learned [ a concept] out of the blue without asking for it" (37), by his wife Sally (chap. 2), his co-worker Geoff O'Grady (chap. 14), and Stephen Wurm (chap. 29)—another major figure in Australian linguistics who died not long after Ken. Chapter 7, by anthropologist Aram Yengoyan, begins with an anecdote about Hale's later trip to Australia in 1966-67, but turns to some of the important intellectual themes in Hale's work, in particular his combining of a view of language as autonomous and embodying linguistic universals with demonstrations that particular features can be embedded in and influenced by particular cultural contexts—two positions that are too often thought of as antithetical (115-116).

Other chapters build on contributions made by Hale on specific issues and...


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