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Old Ken Hale is a Merry Old Tale

Jane Simpson, David Nash, Mary Laughren, Peter Austin and Barry Alpher, ed. Forty Years On: Ken Hale and Australian Languages.

Canberra: Australian National University. 2001. 527 pp. ISBN 0 85883 524 X.

Details of content and availability are at

This tour through Australianist linguistics — sadly the same thing as the study of endangered languages in Australia — is as wide-ranging as the interests and influence of the man who made it all possible. Reading it, one is left constantly asking: How can one man, and so recently, have built the framework for our whole knowledge of the indigenous languages of a continent? Furthermore, how could he have done it so swiftly, through so little actual presence in the country whose ancient history he has revealed?

Ken Hale, having grown up in Arizona, and with no serious experience of languages outside America until he had finished his doctorate, arrived in Australia in 1959 and stayed two years. He did not visit again for fieldwork until 1966-67, and in the course of the last 40 years, has in fact only made 5 other (brief) visits in all. Australian languages cannot be said to be more than a sideline for Hale. Yet 71 published articles on Australian languages are listed here, 47 unpublished papers, and 81 corpora of field-notes and recordings, not counting a set of 69 recordings of traditional music and a collection of artefacts. His field-notes listed in this volume appear to cover 88 distinct languages.

Not surprisingly, 37 Australianist scholars have queued up to contribute to this Festschrift. (Meanwhile two other published Festschrifts with distinguished contributors have come out much at the same time — to honour Hale’s official retirement in 1999. See web-site above.)

The editors of this volume are deserving of great praise for the way they have organized the material in the volume, beginning and ending with personal views of Ken, weaving the rest of the papers into geographical themes that follow his route round Australia, leaving a trail of constructive imagination wherever he went.

But this also means that we have here an amazing cornucopia, far too rich for a short review. With 36 distinct articles, it quite rightly has a full share of personal memoirs. For here is a new problem: how can it be that this linguistic whirlwind evidently rates as one of the most charming, and the gentlest, people that most the contributors have ever met? (Yet one of his inimitable charms was skill as a bronco rider.)

Leaving that one unsolved, the academic papers then range over all fields of descriptive and historical linguistics from phonology to semantics [with especial attention to Hale’s skill with the artificial languages that are part of some Aboriginals’ intellectual traditions.], lexicography, bilingual education, toponymy and linguistic anthropology. Most of these fields were given their foundations in Australia by Hale, and the contributors’ quite straightforward acknowledgement of this gives the volume a sort of family reunion feel.

Behind all these good spirits, though, there lies a brooding, and bloody, tragedy: the sheer, lethal incompatibility between the dominant, Anglo-Saxon, people’s empire, and an Aboriginal society of almost inconceivable antiquity, measured in tens of thousands of years. There are examples of recent attempts at cooperation in this book, often inspired by Hale himself. But if this one man has been able to ignite a new tradition of Western scholarship in the study of Australian languages, his ultimate influence on public policy has been less miraculous.

Community colleges, and bilingual education programmes, were started, but have either been amalgamated out of existence (as the School of Australian Linguistics), or are struggling to survive, now that government sympathy (and funding) is being withdrawn. Aboriginals are not thriving under the “whitefella managers”, even if they can satirize them; and they are certainly not coming to replace them.



There is only one paper in this collection that recounts the death of a language, The Tragedy of Nauo, but it stands for the fate of most of the languages still spoken in Australia just 100 years ago. And although Hale, and all the contributors here, are earnest in wanting to accord Aboriginals pride and authority as the real masters of their own languages and traditions, only 3 papers of the 36 have an Aboriginal author, and only 1 of those (a very short one, by Ephraim Bani, of Trawq Community, Thursday Island) offers an independent theoretical view.

One of Hale’s great innovations has been to attempt to teach about the scientific method by encouraging students from any culture to use their own language data as evidence for their own analysis: but there is a vast amount yet to be done to put Aboriginals on a par with others in a shared Australian society.

Aboriginal society is in its origins quite literally the polar opposite of the simple-minded, but too easily victorious, Anglo-Saxon order. One effect of this was that colonists simply failed to notice what was going on in the day-to-day lives of the people whom they bullied and swatted. It is part of the genius of Ken Hale that he has been able to reveal, in terms that Anglo-Saxon intellectuals can recognize (after all, he is one himself), the sophistication in quite unexpected directions of so much that the Aboriginals have been doing all along: inherited skills that have recently often been forced to forget, when denied their livelihood in their own territory, and often the very right to care for their own children.

There is little sign yet that Oz is ready to take on much, or anything, from their predecessors in that land. There are glimmers, here and there in this volume, of some of the things that Aboriginals ultimately have to teach:
a culture with the sophistication to construct and transmit an artificial language (often quite alien in sound), a language which is not just a game (though it is partially just that), but plays a crucial role in the social order, an order that is itself organized by a network of kinship that gives everyone a calculable place;
a world-view with an explicit spatial organization, such as Bani’s “morpho-directional” analysis of the language Kala Lagaw Ya, which carries a manifold of orientation information keyed ultimately by the sense of the prevailing wind;
a sensitivity for how to build a poignant story of child abandonment into an elementary language course (“Learn Yir-Yoront”);
and a history, derivable from the comparison of its languages, which can show quite different features of what it is to be a human being: a body, a skin, a mind, as much as a friend or a lover (“The complete person”).

Ultimate irony: Robert Hoogenraad points out that it is Aboriginals’ inveterate mobility, which increases as they achieve greater affluence, that breaks up their school attendance, and dogs progress that they could make, and used to make with their English when they were poorer. This failure to make progress in English is now being used as a reason, quite illogically, to deny them instruction in their own languages.

But this is to be expected when one culture has power over another: sympathy will fail; coercion will appear the only means of bringing agreement. It has been the genius of Ken Hale, Arizona cowboy, to shed so much of the light of sympathetic understanding that others can see by it.