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Yesterday was an important day in determining the directions of university work on endangered languages in the Asia-Pacific area - the decision on the appointment of a replacement for Andrew Pawley as the research-only Chair of Linguistics at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. This department fosters much work on endangered languages, through staff research, doctoral student training and its publishing arm, Pacific Linguistics.

There were public talks by the three shortlisted candidates - back to back and neck and neck were Nick (Laos and Vietnam), Nick (Australian and a toe-hold in Papuan) and Nik (Western Austronesian).

Public job talks are a curious ritual - a discreet competition watched by an audience, most of whom are not on the selection panel, but who have a serious interest in the outcome, and only a few, like me, just along to hear an interesting paper. The etiquette is a puzzle for the organisers - should the candidates see each other? should they attend each other's talks? The puzzle for the paper-givers is what type of paper to give. Go for breadth? Go for depth? Show 'the vision thing'? Show how you fit in? Show what you'd add to the department? And in the end the quality of the paper may have little to do with the selection committee's decision. They may just want to know that you don't habitually spit in the corner.

All the papers emphasised typology, as well as the speakers' own fieldwork. Nick Enfield went for breadth - his paper Linguistic diversity in mainland Southeast Asia: cultural systems and their diffusible elements showcased his wide range of interests and cross-disciplinary interests (from gesture to ethnosyntax to kinship to person reference) - with a very dashing power-point presentation. Nick Evans' Why we need many languages to understand language: Indo-Pacific languages and the typology of reciprocal constructions reported on the results of a typological project that has run for several years on reciprocals. He showed astounding variability in how people talk about doing things with, or to, each other, and also showed some of the difficulties this poses for the generalisability of some formal semantic accounts of reciprocal sentences. No powerpoint, but the longest handout - lightened by some cute quotations in different languages.

Nikolaus Himmelmann went for more depth - his paper Prosodic systems in western Austronesian languages reported on just that - preliminary findings of a typological project (also accompanied by a powerpoint allowing him to play the examples and show the pitch tracks). He remarked disarmingly that it had taken him most of his research project to realise that the basic difference in prosodic structure between Germanic languages and the western Austronesian languages was really quite simple - no requirement for stress on content words. But there's evidence for intermediate phrases in the intonation units, and languages appear to differ as to how these phrases are created. The consequences for systems of focus and information structure in these languages are fascinating - how do you place focus on an adjective inside a noun phrase in such languages? A solution in some Australian languages is to use so-called 'discontinuous noun phrases' when a modifier is to be focussed.

We await the announcement of the decision...

Comments

A few quick thoughts on US job market papers:

Broad papers almost always fail. The ones that seem to work best pick up a small piece of a big picture, because they satisfy the need to see that the candidate can put that type of argument together (and that they know their specialty) but also show why such a topic might be interesting in the first place.

Badly proof-read handouts create a hugely negative impression, as do slideshows that don't work, even though they're pretty common in linguistics generally...

In my experience (on both sides), the job talk usually just confirms the opinion that's already been formed - if they already like you, they'll respond well even if it's crap, and if they don't like you, a good talk won't change anything.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.
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