Featured Linguist: Rachel Nordlinger (University of Melbourne)
At high school my favourite subject was French. So, when I finished high school I decided I would do Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Melbourne, and major in French. I didn’t really know what I would do after that, but probably I’d “join the diplomatic corps” — whatever that meant. It sounded exciting, and if it meant I could keep doing French then that would be fine. In my second year of Uni, I needed to pick up another subject and found a subject called ‘Linguistics’ in the handbook. I could pick it up in second year, it had no exam, and it even sounded like it would be useful for learning French, so I enrolled.
That decision changed my life. This was 1988 (I was only 5!), and two young newcomers had just taken over the linguistics program at Melbourne University — Mark Durie and Nick Evans. The classes were small, the teaching was inspiring, the other students were enthusiastic, and the whole program had a buzz of excitement around it. I had never come across anything as fascinating, and I quickly realized that with linguistics I could explore everything that I’d loved about learning French… but with respect to hundreds of languages, not just one! Before long I had dropped all my other subjects and was filling my degree up with as many linguistics subjects as I could.
One of those subjects was ‘Language in Aboriginal Australia’, a subject taught by Nick Evans (and, funnily enough, one that I now teach myself having inherited it when Nick moved to ANU a few years ago, although at the time I couldn’t have imagined that this is how it would pan out). In this subject we spent a few weeks learning about Bininj Gun-wok, a Gunwinyguan language from Arnhem land, based on Nick’s field notes and recordings. I was fascinated by the language structure, but even more by the process of discovery: the fun of being presented with completely unfamiliar language data and having to analyse it bit by bit in order to reveal the intricacies of the underlying system. Not to mention the excitement of cracking the code!
When the opportunity came at the beginning of my fourth year to do some fieldwork on the Australian language Bilinarra, I nervously took it.
That first fieldtrip was at once terrifying and exhilarating; it was without doubt the most challenging and the most mind-blowing experience I had ever had. I was a white middle class city girl spending 6 weeks on a remote cattle station (Victoria River Downs) in the middle of the Northern Territory of Australia. The Bilinarra people lived on an excision next to one of the station’s outposts (called Pigeon Hole). Pigeon Hole outstation was a collection of about 15 houses/buildings with a big fence down the middle separating the Aboriginal community from the station workers. I quickly worked out that I felt far more at home on the ‘Aboriginal’ side of the fence, where the Bilinarra community welcomed me with warmth, affection and humour. I also discovered how hard linguistic analysis in the field is!! The two senior Bilinarra men – Hector and Anzac, with their cheeky grins and cattle station Kriol, took it upon themselves to introduce this young city slicker to the Bilinarra language and culture, while I sat in a stunned silence not understanding a single word of it. After a few frantic phone calls to Nick Evans from the outback radio in the station house (“(sobbing) I can’t even understand their translations, let alone their Bilinarra. Over and out.”) I realised that I just had to keep the tape recorder running, and let it happen organically, in its own time.
I ended up learning a lot more on that first field trip than just Bilinarra and Kriol. I developed a deep love for the indigenous people of Australia, and their languages and cultures. I loved their open, warm acceptance of me and my naivety, their pride in their language and their country, and their willingness to share it all with a complete stranger. I loved the way they laughed affectionately at me when my tongue couldn’t handle the shape of the Bilinarra sounds, and their cheers of delight when I spontaneously uttered a grammatical sentence. I loved the nights in the bush, and the dancing, and the beautiful scenery. And I loved the intellectual challenge of taking a language from an uninterpretable sequence of sounds and slowly unearthing its intricacies and logic. I knew then I was hooked.
After working with the Wambaya community while completing my Masters degree, I decided to go to Stanford University to do a PhD. I wanted to take all my descriptive experience and Australian language data, and use it to learn about morphosyntactic theory. At Stanford, I was like a kid in a candy store — so many amazing linguists and so much to learn! I loved it. My time at Stanford expanded my horizons in so many directions, but it also reinforced for me how interesting Australian languages are. In 2004 I took up a position at the University of Melbourne, back where I’d started. I’m now Director of the Research Unit for Indigenous Language, and one of the Chief Investigators in our newly established ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.
My research continues to follow these two strands: the documentation and description of Australian languages, and their analysis within formal morphosyntactic theory. I still find fieldwork to be the hardest and most fascinating part of my job, and value its crucial role in reminding me that the language is grounded in a community of speakers, for whom language is inextricably connected with family, culture and making cups of tea.