Robert Malcolm Ward Dixon (Gloucester, England, 25 January 1939) is a Professor of Linguistics in the College of Arts, Society, and Education and The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Queensland. He is also Deputy Director of The Language and Culture Research Centre at JCU. Doctor of Letters (DLitt, ANU, 1991), he was awarded a prestigious Honorary Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa by JCU in 2018. Fellow of British Academy; Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and Honorary member of the Linguistic Society of America, he is one of three living linguists to be specifically mentioned in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics by P. H. Matthews (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Dixon was born in Gloucester, in the west of England, in 1939, and as a child lived at Stroud and later at Bramcote near Nottingham, where his father became principal of the People's College of Further Education. He was educated at Nottingham High School and then at the University of Oxford, where he took his first degree in mathematics in 1960, and finally at the University of Edinburgh, where he was a Research Fellow in Statistical Linguistics in the English department from July 1961 to September 1963. After that until September 1964 he did field work for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in north-east Queensland, working on several of the Aboriginal languages of Australia, but taking a particular interest in Dyirbal.
Dixon has written on many areas of linguistic theory and fieldwork, being particularly noted for his work on the languages of Australia and the Arawá languages of Brazil. He has published grammars of Dyirbal, Yidiny, Warrgamay, Nyawaygi, and Mbabaram. He published a comprehensive grammar of Boumaa Fijian, a Polynesian language (1988), and Jarawara, an Arawá language from southern Amazonia (2004), for which he received the prestigious Leonard Bloomfield Book Award from the Linguistic Society of America. Dixon's work in historical linguistics has been highly influential. Based on a careful historical comparative analysis, Dixon questions the concept of Pama-Nyungan languages for which sufficient evidence has never been provided. He also proposes a new "punctuated equilibrium" model, based on the theory of the same name in evolutionary biology, which is more appropriate for numerous language regions, including the Australian languages. Dixon puts forth his theory in The Rise and Fall of Languages, refined in his monograph Australian Languages: their nature and development (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Dixon is the author of a number of other books including Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development Cambridge University Press and Ergativity. His monumental three-volume work, Basic Linguistic Theory (2010-2012), was published by the Oxford University Press. His further work on Australian languages was published in Edible gender, mother-in-law style, and other grammatical wonders: Studies in Dyirbal, Yidiñ and Warrgamay, 2015 His further influential monographs include work on English grammar, especially A new approach to English grammar (1991, revised and enlarged edition 2005, Oxford University Press), and Making New Words: Morphological Derivation in English, 2014, Oxford University Press. His recent monograph Are Some Languages Better than Others, Oxford University Press (2016, paperback 2018) poses a question of efficiency and value of different languages, in an engaging and provocative way.
His editorial work includes four volumes of Handbook of Australian languages (with Barry J Blake), a special issue of Lingua on ergativity, and, jointly with Alexandra Aikhenvald, numerous volumes on linguistic typology in the series Explorations in linguistic typology (Oxford University Press), the fundamental The Amazonian languages (Cambridge University Press, 1999), and the monumental The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Typology (2017, Cambridge University Press). His most recent book is The unmasking of English dictionaries, from Cambridge University Press, 2018, which offers a concise history of English dictionaries unmasking their drawbacks, and suggests a new innovative way of dictionary making (). His 'We used to eat people', Revelations of a Fiji islands traditional village, from McFarland 2018 offers a vivid portrayal of his fieldwork in Fiji in the late 1980s ().
In 1996, Dixon and another linguist, Alexandra Aikhenvald, established the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology at the Australian National University in Canberra. On 1 January 2000, the centre relocated to La Trobe University in Melbourne.
Both Dixon (the Director of the centre) and Aikhenvald (Associate Director) resigned their positions in May 2008. In early 2009, Aikhenvald and Dixon established the Language and Culture Research Group (LCRG) at the Cairns campus of James Cook University. This has been transformed into a Language and Culture Research Centre within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at JCU, Cairns, in 2011. Currently, Professor Aikhenvald is Director and Prof Dixon Deputy Director of the Centre.
(The list below is incomplete; for a full publication list, see R. M. W. Dixon's overview)
In addition to scholarly works, Dixon also published, in 1983, a memoir of his early fieldwork in Australia titled Searching For Aboriginal Languages. The book provides a glimpse at linguistic fieldwork as it was done in that era, as well as an interesting historical look at the appalling treatment of Aboriginal peoples of Australia that continued right into the 1960s.
His scholarly autobiography, I am a linguist, was published by Brill in 2011.
During the 1960s, Dixon published two science-fiction short stories under the name of Simon Tully, and in the 1980s two detective novels under the name of Hosanna Brown.
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