The value of a name

Professor Alexandra (Sasha) Aikhenvald

Research Leader – People and Societies of The Tropics, Arts, Education and Social Sciences, Cairns Campus

Prof Sasha Aikhenvald

Professor Sasha Aikhenvald

When Professor Sasha Aikhenvald was working in the East Sepik province of New Guinea she was fascinated to discover that the asset most prized by the people of the province was their name. In East Sepik, her name was important and valuable, but when she wanted to enrol in the classics department of Moscow State University in the old Soviet Union, her Jewish surname made her unacceptable.

Instead she chose linguistics for its mathematical rhythms, crossword puzzle complexities and cultural idiosyncrasies. The decision was the catalyst for a prolific body of research that included Berber languages of North Africa and Hebrew but focused on tropical languages, predominantly those of Amazonia, the Papuan languages of New Guinea and Aboriginal Australia.

Language research

Her research on the cultural and social dynamics, implications and grammatical structures of indigenous languages took her from Moscow to Brazil and finally Australia where Professor Aikhenvald and Professor RMW Dixon together founded the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology at ANU which they relocated to La Trobe University in 2008.

In January 2009 she took up the position of Professor and Research leader, People and Societies of the Tropics, at the JCU Cairns campus and with Professor RMW Dixon as Adjunct Professor, established the Language and Cultural Research Group (LCRG).

Preserving indigenous language and culture

Professor Aikhenvald has brought together a group of linguists, anthropologists and social scientists whose primary focus is to analyse, document and ultimately help preserve tropical indigenous languages and cultures. The importance placed on this charter is exemplified by the LCRG’s condition of appointment that postgraduate students focus on a previously undocumented or poorly understood culture.

“The tropics is the link - they are all fascinating languages,” Professor Aikhenvald says. “We can learn a lot and we can also help preserve the language and indigenous knowledge.”

The direct relationship between language and culture, or the way in which understanding a language inevitably leads to a richer knowledge of the culture is the foundation for Professor Aikhenvald’s work at the LCRG. How a culture expresses its social, biological and even botanical framework through language reveals its values and structure in fascinating ways.

“You can only study these cultures properly through their language because it reflects people’s minds, their view of the world.” Professor Aikhenvald says.

The Language and Cultural Research Group may be in its infancy but has hit the ground running. Three Research Fellows have been appointed and PhD students are flocking in. Professor Aikhenvald is intent on pursuing grants and raising the profile of the group. Then there’s that PhD imperative to study a unique language somewhere in the tropics.

In Professor Aikhenvald’s view, “It’s an opportunity to meet fascinating people and rediscover the world.”

Biography

Department of Structural and Applied Linguistics, Philological Faculty, Moscow State University: BA in Linguistics 1978; MA in Linguistics 1979 (thesis topic: 'The relative Clause in Anatolian Languages')

  • Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Moscow: PhD in Linguistics, 1984 (thesis topic 'Structural and Typological Classification of Berber Languages')

  • La Trobe University, 2006: Doctor of Letters by examination of published work: four books and 14 papers.

Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald has worked on descriptive and historical aspects of Berber languages and has published, in Russian, a grammar of Modern Hebrew (1990/2009).

She is a major authority on languages of the Arawak family, from northern Amazonia, and has written grammars of Bare (1995) and Warekena (1998), plus A Grammar of Tariana, from Northwest Amazonia (CUP, 2003; paperback 2007).

Her extensive grammar, The Manambu Language from East Sepik, Papua New Guinea, was published by Oxford University Press in 2008. Other monographs with OUP are Classifiers: a Typology of Noun Categorization Devices (2000, paperback 2003), Language Contact in Amazonia (2002), Evidentiality (2004, paperback 2006), Imperatives and Commands (due in 2010), and Languages of the Amazon (due in 2011).