Words of a linguist: Owen Edwards wins the Stephen Wurm Prize

Owen Edwards celebrating his graduation in Timor: (left to right) Sem Sae'besi', Heronimus Bani, Owen Edwards, Lena Bani, and Frans Bani.
11 February 2019

Owen Edwards was awarded the Stephen Wurm Graduate Prize 2018 for his outstanding field research in linguistics and his thesis on metathesis in Amarasi, a language of western Timor. We recently spoke to him about his research and interest in linguistics.

I first gained an interest in linguistics as a school student. My mother encouraged me to study a foreign language and I picked German. I found that while learning German I discovered how English worked by comparison. I had never really reflected on the structure of English and found it really fascinating.

My mother is trained as an English teacher and she had studied Old English and Old Norse at university. Somehow I picked up her old text books and this opened up whole new world for me. Examining the history of the language I found a satisfying explanation for much of the seeming chaos of the structure of English, things like the past tense of ‘go’ being ‘went’.

During my undergraduate studies at ANU, I had acquired an interest in languages of Indonesia. This was through a field methods course taught by Mark Donohue for which the language we were studying was Tolaki — a language of southeast Sulawesi. For my honours I did fieldwork on Tolaki in Sulawesi, which I very much enjoyed and decided to continue in this region for a PhD. The history of excellent linguistics in the Asia-Pacific region at ANU and CHL meant that his was the logical place to pursue a PhD in linguistics in Indonesia.

For my PhD I decided to continue working in Indonesia, but on a different language. I wrote my PhD thesis about the phenomenon of metathesis in Amarasi, a language of western Timor (Indonesia). It was satisfying to have my PhD recognised by the Stephen Wurm Prize. But I must say that the only reason that my PhD was any good was because I was building on work by others. In particular Charles Grimes and Heronimus Bani who have been working on Amarasi for over a decade. I was able to build on their outstanding work and present it to a linguistic audience, as guided by the perceptive eye of my supervisor Mark Donohue.

So what is metathesis? Metathesis is the reversal of two sounds in a word. This occurs rarely in English such as an alternate pronunciation of ‘ask’ being ‘aks’, or when people mispronounce ‘relevant’ as ‘revelant’.

In Amarasi metathesis isn’t just a mistake or mispronunciation, it is a feature of every word in the language. Thus, the Amarasi word for ‘day’ is neno or neon. Likewise the word for ‘stone’ is fatu or faut. Through the work of Charles Grimes and Heronimus Bani we knew that both forms were used but we didn’t know when. This was what I investigated in my thesis. When do Amarasi speakers use the unmetathesised form of words (i.e. neno, fatu), and when do they use the metathesised form of words (i.e. neon, faut)?

This is extra interesting because metathesis as a grammatical device, i.e., something that carries meaning, is incredibly rare in languages of the world. Only about a dozen of the 6,000 plus languages of the world are known to have grammatical metathesis (less than 0.002%). So studying metathesis has real potential to help us understand the human capacity for language.

Part of my motivation for doing a PhD in linguistics is my Christian faith. God desires cultural diversity; the first thing he says after he creates humans in Genesis 1:28 is “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Filling the earth means not just numerically, but also culturally and linguistically. So it’s an honour for me to help in any tiny way to preserve the linguistic and cultural diversity of the world.

I would encourage people to study linguistics and/or another language. Speaking other languages allows you to make friends with people you would not be able to otherwise be friends with. Most of my friends in Indonesia don’t speak English and my life would be much diminished without them. You really miss out if the only people you make friends with are people who speak the same language as you and share your worldview. Learning another language is the best way to enter into another person’s world and hear the wisdom of their way of life.

Owen is currently at Leiden University continuing his work on metathesis and working on the history of languages of Timor.

This piece was first published by the School of Culture, History and Language at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Read the original.

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