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I was sad to learn that Geoffrey O'Grady [1] has died - on 28th December at home in Victoria, British Columbia. He was a fine linguist, who documented Australian languages (Nyangumarta most extensively), wrote the report with Ken Hale that started bilingual education in the Northern Territory, and loved with a great passion the work of understanding relationships between Australian languages. Above all, he was a generous and kind man. He is survived by Alix O'Grady, his wife and collaborator for over fifty years, and their two daughters.

More about his life and work can be found in: 'Geoffrey O'Grady: pioneer of Australian linguistics' in his aptly titled festschrift Boundary rider: studies in the lexicology and comparative linguistics of Australian languages, edited by Darrell Tryon and Michael Walsh (Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, out of print but available as a .pdf $37.80)

[ Update: an obituary has appeared here.]

[1] BA Hons thesis, 1959, University of Sydney, Significance of the circumcision boundary in Western Australia. PhD thesis, 1963, Indiana University, Nyangumata grammar



I first met Geoff O'Grady along with Ken Hale in 11/63 at the American Anthropological Association annual mtgs in San Francisco. Geoff was only the second Australian person I met.

Geoff first worked on Umpila with Johnny Butcher in Sydney when he was still at Sydney Uni, in the late 1950s(?), before going off to America to do his PhD at Indiana University. He later worked with Johnny again and with Simon Ropeyarn at Umagico about 1970 or so, not long before Barbara, me and family went to Bamaga to take up Lamalama work.

I don't think that Geoff did Umpila or Ya'u fieldwork again after that, but he and Barbara Harris wrote a paper for the big 1974 AIAS conference which later appeared in Peter Sutton's Lgs of Cape York.

Geoff and I last saw each other in Darwin in 1992 when we spent a day together before the conference started. We reiminisced and thought it funny that he ended up staying in North America but I came out to Oz and became an Aussie - and neither of us lost our accents!

Over the past decade or so, Geoff was incapacitated by Parkinson's, I believe. He was never much of a correspondent, but Athol Chase, David Nash, Margaret Sharpe and others passed on news of him from time to time after visits.

Vale Geoff, ol' mate, we'll miss you.


Bruce Rigsby
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
The University of Queensland

I first met Geoff O'Grady on the exact same day as his passing precisely 30 years ago at the 1978 Linguistic Society of America annual meeting in Boston (28 December 1978). What struck me then, and since, was his unstinting friendship and generosity, and his selfless sharing of data and knowledge on a vast number of Australian languages. He gave me open access to all the materials he collected on the languages of the Gascoyne-Ashburton region of Western Australia, put together under difficult conditions in the 1960's, and allowed me to incorporate them (with acknowledgement) into my own research. He himself had worked out, but not yet published, most of the sound changes that had affected Purduna and Tharrkari that I was able to publish an article on in 1981 ('Proto-Kanyara and Proto-Mantharta historical phonology', pp. 295-333 in Lingua, Vol.54), building on Geoff's and my materials. Virtually all the data we have on Warriyangka, including some short texts, were recorded by Geoff with Alec Eagles -- by the time I started fieldwork in Western Australia in 1978 there were only vocabulary fragments of the language remembered.

Geoff and Alix hosted me on a couple of visits to Victoria, and we kept in touch occasionally, mainly through the good offices of David Nash whose phone calls were able to transfer information to and from Geoff.

The world, and West Australian languages in particular, has lost a true scholar, champion and friend. RIP.

Geoff was my very first linguistics professor, for introductory phonology, and my very last one, staying on after his retirement while I finished my Ph.D. We spent many hours working together. He was such a kind and encouraging man and his abilities with language were amazing.

However, I remember equally well his sense of humour and his funny stories—how he once transcribed the strange sounds his car was making phonetically so he could reproduce them for his mechanic, how he would practice Nyangumarta verb conjugations at red lights so he wouldn’t forget them, and so many stories about his days as a jackaroo and the time he spent travelling around Australia doing fieldwork.

I last spoke to Geoff a few years ago. He told me that he was still very busy with his beloved Proto-Pama-Nyungan cognates.

Geoff’s obituary has been published in the Victoria Times Colonist and can be read online at http://www.legacy.com/can-victoria/Obituaries.asp?Page=Lifestory&PersonId=122139265.

I spent study leave in Victoria BC in 1993, and interacted with Geoff on my Australian language research while there. I also was invited to be present (with Isidore Dyen, who was staying with me at the time) at the meeting discussing Susan Fitzgerald's Ph.D. proposal.
I was also the one designated (since I was travelling that way) to present the Festschrift to Geoff in 1997. I commented then on the warmth of his personality.
Last August, while in Canada again, I called on him when my cousin and I visited friends of hers on Vancouver Island. Alix fiercely guarded his failing strength, and insisted I call after his afternoon rest. Nonetheless we had a delightful visit and afternoon tea, and Geoff gave me a summary of a talk he'd given recently to the emeritus professor group at his university. He and Alix insisted on coming out to meet my cousin (who was Manning Clarks last Ph.D. student).
I had considered calling again this December, but airfare prices, as well as my realisation of the strain visitors could be, decided me against it. Bravo, Geoff, you have done great things for Australian linguistics and for the confidence of Australian linguists. And Bravo to Alix, fiercely loyal companion and helper.

I can only echo the sentiments above. I think I first met Geoff at the big 1974 AIAS conference that Bruce mentioned, and enjoyed yarning with him many times since. As for the wordplay we'll remember Geoff for: soon after this volume appeared, he inquired of me poker-faced "Do you think it was short-sighted of Breen to study the Mayapic languages?". That group name had first appeared on the 1966 map of Australian languages (which Claire mentions) produced by the polyglot trio now all gone (Hale and Wurm in 2001). And as Sally Hale observed, "Ken loved talking to Geoff, they had a 'zone' all their own."

Another obituary has now appeared, in the Province, A Vancouver newspaper (thanks Susan).

Claire Bowern has just put up on her blog a great guest post about Geoff by Barry Alpher.

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