This is a brief biography of Professor R. M. W. Dixon (being pages xv–xvii of Dixon's academic autobiography I am a linguist. Leiden: Brill. 2011.)

R. M. W. Dixon: 'Skeleton'

(being pages xv–xvii of Dixon's academic autobiography  I am a linguist. Leiden: Brill. 2011.)


Born in Gloucester, England, on Wednesday 25 January 1939. Brought up in the nearby Cotswolds town of Stroud. In 1947, moved to the village of Bramcote, five miles from Nottingham where father was principal of the People's College of Further Education. From 1949 until 1957, attended Nottingham High School, a day 'public' (that is, private) school. In 1957, gained admission to Oxford University to study chemistry, but immediately switched to mathematics; obtained a second class honours degree in 1960. Began a PhD in mathematics at Oxford but abandoned it after a year, to go to Edinburgh and become a linguist.

      Married, April 1963 – January 1986. Three children — Eelsha, a corporate treasury analyst; Fergus, an electrical engineer; Rowena, an airline captain for Qantas.

      In June 1992, at the University of Campinas in Brazil, met Alexandra (Sasha) Aikhenvald. She moved to Canberra in February 1994 on being awarded a Senior Research Fellowship by the Australian Research Council. Gained a de facto stepson, Michael Rudov, a student of Asian (and other) languages, an artist and a musician.


Began discographical study in 1955. Joint compiler of the standard work (referred to as 'the bible') — Blues and gospel records, 1902-1942. First edition 1964, later editions 1969, 1982 and 1997, with coverage then having been extended to 1890 - 1943. Joint author of Recording the blues (1970, reissued 2001).


During the 1960s, published two science-fiction short stories under the name Simon Tully (and two fact pieces in science fiction magazines under my own name). Had two detective novels published, under the name of Hosanna Brown: I spy, you die (1984) and Death upon a spear (1986).


Research Fellow in Statistical Linguistics in the Department of English Language and General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, July 1961 – September 1963. Paid scant attention to the statistical side; simply became entranced by linguistics.

      From September 1963 until September 1964, employed by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (a most odd organisation) to undertake fieldwork in north-east Queensland. Recorded materials on ten languages, but focussed mainly on Dyirbal.

      Back in England, Lecturer in Linguistics at University College London from October 1964 until July 1970. Further field trip to north-east Queensland in March-April 1967; submitted grammar of Dyirbal as PhD thesis in December 1967. During 1968-9 was Lecturer on Linguistics at Harvard University.

      From July 1970, Professor and Head of the Department of Linguistics at the Australian National University in Canberra. Trained many first-class undergraduate and graduate students. Twenty further field trips to north-east Queensland, 1970 - 1992. Published lengthy grammars of Dyirbal (1972) and Yidiñ (1977); and shorter grammars — gathering what material I could from the last speakers — of Warrgamay (1981), Nyawaygi (1983) and Mbabaram (1991). Published texts, place names and thesaurus/dictionary of Yidiñ (1991). Together with musicologist Grace Koch, produced a book and CD on Dyirbal song poetry (1996).

      Wrote many papers on theoretical topics, including 'Noun classes' (1968, reissued 1982), 'Where have all the adjectives gone' (1977, reissued 1982) and 'Ergativity' (1979; revised and expanded into a monograph, 1994). Published general survey volume The languages of Australia (1980). Completely re-thought and revised as Australian languages: their nature and development (2002), the culmination of almost 40 years work. And popular volume Searching for Aboriginal languages, memoirs of a field worker (1984, American edition 1989, English reissue 2010).

      In 1985, six months fieldwork in a basically monolingual village on the island of Taveuni in Fiji (with further short field trips in 1986, 1989-90 and 2007) — a tropical paradise (although with no electricity or running water). Published a grammar of the Boumaa dialect of Fijian (1988).

      Work on analysis of my native language resulted in A new approach to English grammar, on semantic principles (1991). This was revised and expanded as A semantic approach to English grammar (2005). Co-authored a study of the 400 words borrowed from Australian languages into English (1990, revised and enlarged second edition, 2006).

      Relinquished headship of department in December 1990 (after 20 years in the job) and at the same time (coincidentally) was awarded the first of a sequence of three five-year Senior Research Fellowships from the Australian Research Council.

      Feeling in need of a mid-life challenge, began fieldwork among the Jarawara Indians, deep in the Amazonian jungle. An intellectual wonderland, in a physically testing environment. Seven field trips, 1991 - 2003. Lengthy grammar published in 2004.

      Selected by the Australian Research Council for a Special Investigator Award — $200,000 per year for three years (1997-9) for any research purpose I chose. Together with Alexandra Aikhenvald, created the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology, at the Australian National University, in December 1996. Published The rise and fall of languages (1997) setting out a punctuated equilibrium model for language development.

      In January 2000, Aikhenvald and I relocated the RCLT to La Trobe University in Melbourne, where we were at first accorded ideal working conditions. Between 1997 and 2007, we organised nine International Workshops on critical grammatical topics, each resulting in a volume hailed as state-of-the-art. Unhappy with the direction in which La Trobe University was heading, we resigned in 2008 and relocated to the exciting new Cairns Institute, for advanced study on everything to do with human populations in the tropics, within James Cook University.

      In 2010, published Basic linguistic theory, Volume 1 Methodology, and Volume 2 Grammatical Topics (Volume 3, Further grammatical topics, followed in 2012). Described by the publisher, Oxford University Press, as 'the triumphant outcome of a lifetime's thinking about every aspect and manifestation of language and immersion in linguistic fieldwork.'

      Reviewing the first two volumes in the journal Language, Carol Genetti opined: 'These books are monumental and destined to become classics, equatable to the two volumes entitled Language by Sapir (1921) and Bloomfield (1933), and to Givón’s Syntax, volumes 1 (1984) and 2 (1990), but in each case surpassing them in scope, detail, rigor, and coherence. Dixon presents a complete, fully articulated, and cohesive explication of grammar, with extensive elaboration on every major grammatical structure found in the world’s languages, as well as many minor ones. . . . This is a masterwork . . . a lasting reference for grammar writers, typologists, grammatical theorists, and all those fascinated by the complexities of linguistic systems and grammatical analysis.'

      And in Studies in Language, René van den Berg wrote: 'Two wonderful books, a treasure trove of ideas and information, a reference work for many decades to come. Extremely informative, exceedingly useful, and profoundly inspiring. These are books I can recommend to every graduate student, to every linguistic field worker.'