- In Memoriam, George Milner, 1918–2012
Professor Emeritus George Milner, well known to Oceanic linguists as the author of Fijian grammar and Samoan dictionary, as well as numerous articles, passed away peacefully at his home in South Petherton, Somerset, England, on July 7, 2012, at the age of 93.1
He was born George Bertram Milner on September 9, 1918, and received his early education in Lausanne, Switzerland, before moving to Manchester Grammar School in England. Bilingual in English and French, he would later publish a number of scholarly articles in French.
In 1937 he was awarded a scholarship to Christ’s College Cambridge to study Modern Languages, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1940, whereupon he joined the Army Intelligence Corps and served with the Eighth Army in the Western Desert and Italy. Like many who served in the war, he preferred not to talk about it.
After the war, he joined the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London, having been awarded a scholarship to study Fijian, culminating in a Master of Arts degree in 1947, after which he became lecturer in linguistics at SOAS. His research in Fijian, and subsequent fieldwork, was commissioned and supported by the colonial government, feeling perhaps that the most recent grammar (Churchward 1940), though a good reference grammar, was not suitable as a primer (Milner 1971a:405, Schütz 1972:76). During this time, he first came into contact with Josua Bogidrau, a native of Tubou, Lakeba, Lau, who had previously worked with Arthur Capell on his compilation of a new Fijian dictionary, and was now seconded to SOAS for sixteen months in 1946 and 1947. Bogidrau was, incidentally, the grandson of Melaia Lutu, who had been one of Arthur Hocart’s principal informants for his classic study of Lauan culture, The Lau Islands (Hocart 1929).
After acquiring the rudiments of Fijian from Bogidrau, Milner prepared to go to Fiji to carry out fieldwork, under the guidance of G. K. Roth, a senior colonial administrator who had done anthropological fieldwork in Fiji (Roth 1953Roth 1973), and who was considered at the time the authority on Fijian culture. Roth arranged for Ratu Sukuna, then Secretary of Fijian Affairs and also an authority on language and culture, later to become Fiji’s leading statesman of the mid-twentieth century, to write for George a sketch of the dialects of Fiji, to guide him in his fieldwork (Scarr n.d.:425). Milner and Ratu Sukuna were to become firm friends, and Sukuna assiduously read the manuscript grammar and [End Page 265] recommended hundreds of amendments during a visit to London in 1953. The historian and bibliographer Philip Snow (1998:62) commented that Milner would have made an excellent biographer of Sukuna, “combining scholarship and personal knowledge of a high order.”
Fieldwork lasted 14 months during 1948 to 1949, most of the time being spent in the village of Vatani in Kaba, to the south of the island of Bau, considered then to be the basis of Standard Fijian, though some time was spent in Ba and Nadroga in Western Fiji (Milner 1952, 1971a:412). Ever the keen observer, Milner was taking copious notes as he watched the villagers of Kaba build the house he and his wife and their new-born baby Michael would stay in, and these resulted in a unique study of the language of house-building in Fiji (Milner 1953a), which remains the only one on this topic. When I carried out fieldwork in Kaba in the 1980s, some people still remembered George fondly, and referred to him as Tamai Maikeli (‘Michael’s father’), following the naming custom of that part of Fiji. From 1949 to 1950 he also visited Tonga and the Solomon Islands to conduct linguistic and anthropological fieldwork.
The resulting publication, Fijian grammar (Milner 1956), was acclaimed as “perhaps the first complete grammar of a Melanesian or Polynesian language to be written by a professional linguist” (Biggs and Nayacakalou 1958:80), and “the most important work on Fijian” (Schütz 1972:75); for other reviews, all positive, see Buse (1958), Capell (1959), Carr (1958), and Robins (1958). At the...