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Director weekly highlights 6 May

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 6 May 2022

One of the trickiest things about writing this mailout is sitting on good news until every detail has reached the announceable stage. There’s a bunch of exciting new things almost ready to announce, from new postdocs about to be advertised to recent grant successes (still having the last details sorted), to more information on our End of Centre Event, but for the moment I’m sitting on my hands. 

Meanwhile, as a teaser — an opener whose significance will become clear around NAIDOC week — I’d like to draw your attention to the little-known figure of Dr Wilhelm Rachnitz. The parents of Dr Rachnitz were Jewish industrialists in Berlin, who perished as a result of the Holocaust, and had their property seized by the Nazis. Wilhelm, who had obtained his doctorate in Classics at the University of Marburg in 1924, fled to England in 1933, was interned in Britain in 1939 as an ‘enemy alien’, and then transported to Australia on the infamous ‘Dunera’, before spending time in internment camps in Hay, NSW and Tatura, Victoria. He subsequently converted from Judaism to Christianity and went on to spend many years in the Torres Strait, translating scriptures and church services into languages of the Torres Strait, writing other articles about them, and using a Kodak box camera to compile substantial photographic records of Island culture, now held in the State Library of Queensland. He moved to Brisbane in 1972 and died in 1979. This paragraph is intended to pave the way for an announcement to be made later in the year, but in the meantime it is just one reminder — in these times of war, persecution, massive movements of refugees, and the quest by so many to find their place in an alien land, set against the backdrop of continuing Australian violations of the rights of refugees — of how much we stand to gain by what refugees so often bring with them. 

Among the various accomplishments by CoEDLers mentioned below, I’d like to single out three here: Eleanor Lewis (Melbourne node) for her recently-awarded PhD study of New Caledonian French vowel acoustics; Emma Schimke for submitting her thesis (as a wannabe somnologist, who happens also to be perpetually in search of new language-learning methods, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by her 3 Minute Thesis “To sleep or not to sleep”, culminating in the conclusion “You should snooze, or you lose”); and Ben Shaw for his recent election as Fellow to the Society of Antiquaries in London. Though Ben’s research is in archaeology rather than linguistics, it articulates key questions on the timing and nature of contacts between Papuan and Austronesian cultures as speakers of Oceanic languages swept around the eastern coasts of New Guinea. Congratulations to all! 

This update will be taking a break next week, as a large contingent of our CIs and professional team meet up at the U Melbourne node for our first face-to-face executive meeting there post-COVID, which among other things will be a chance to sort out the main lines of our End of Centre Event in late September. Expect to hear more details in coming mailouts. 

Have a good fortnight everybody. 

Nick Evans


CoEDL Spotlight: Hedvig Skirgård 

Introduced by Nick Evans

Our CoEDL spotlight this week turns to Hedvig Skirgård, who spent five years with us as a PhD on my ARC Laureate Project The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity. Hedvig’s background in typology (from the renowned Stockholm Linguistics department, one of the foremost centres in linguistic typology) contributed an essential ingredient to the team we brought together in that project, which sought to synthesise approaches from anthropological linguistics, language documentation, variationist sociolinguistics and evolutionary biology, among others, to address the puzzle of why there is so much linguistic diversity in some parts of the world (Oceania being a standout case) and so little in others. Hedvig’s flair as a connector of people and ideas, as a wrangler of vast data sets, and — definitely worth mentioning — as a designer of the inimitable Coombs Building Interlocked Hexagonal Earring series (now collectors’ items) added greatly to the vibrancy of the Wellsprings project. She has gone on to a postdoc at one of our Partner Institutions in the Max Planck Society, recently transplanted from Jena to Leipzig. 

The view from Leipzig 

Greetings from Europe. I've moved back here after 5 years in Australia and at ANU. The move has really opened my eyes to what I've learned over the years "down under". I came to Australia in 2015 and started my PhD in the Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity project, together with my fellow PhD students Eri, Alex and Marie. I’m very grateful to the supportive linguistics and CoEDL community in Canberra and the valuable conversations we've had about research practices, collaboration and goals. CoEDL is such an interdisciplinary place, and that’s very valuable and unfortunately rare for a PhD environment. 

My PhD thesis focussed on linguistic diversity in Oceania. At CoEDL and ANU I was able to learn not only from my supervisors (Simon, Nick, Mark and Andy) but also from biologists like Lindell Bromham, anthropologists like Chris Ballard and philosophers like Kim Sterelny (the last of whom is also arguably responsible for my happy marriage). I especially appreciated the CoEDL summer schools, which was an opportunity for learning, teaching and coming together. I’m continuing to explore questions regarding language diversification at the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 

I’m also continuing podcasting on “Because Language”. Last year, we featured among other guests fellow CoEDLer Lesley Woods in an episode discussing how linguistics can become a more welcoming place for indigenous scholars (or as my autocorrect keeps switching to: “ingenious scholars”).  

As Joni Mitchell said, Europe is pretty "old and cold and settled in its ways". However, I’m grateful to be here at MPI-EVA in Leipzig where there is also an encouraging and interdisciplinary atmosphere. In September this year I’ll be travelling to Australia for the final CoEDL-fest. I look forward to catching up, and to the excellent coffee! 

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University