Robert M. W. Dixon

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Robert Malcolm Ward Dixon (Gloucester, England, 25 January 1939[1]) is a Professor of Linguistics at The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Queensland,[2] and formerly Director of the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Early life

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.[3]



Dixon has written on many areas of linguistic theory and fieldwork, being particularly noted for his work on the languages of Australia. He has published grammars of Dyirbal[4] and Yidiny[5] as well as non-Australian languages such as Boumaa Fijian[6] and Jarawara.[7]

Dixon's work in historical linguistics has been both influential and controversial. His views began to depart "rather radically" from accepted views regarding the historical relationships among Australian languages about four decades ago.[8] Dixon rejects the concept of Pama–Nyungan languages. He also proposes that the standard "family-tree" model of linguistic change is only applicable in some circumstances, thinking that a "punctuated equilibrium" model, based on the theory of the same name in evolutionary biology, is more appropriate for the Australian languages. Dixon puts forth his theory in The Rise and Fall of Languages,[9] refined in his monograph Australian Languages: their nature and development (Cambridge University Press, 2002). This work is not, however, widely accepted amongst Australianists.[10]

Dixon is the author of a number of other books including Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development Cambridge University Press[11] and Ergativity.[12]

His monumental three-volume work, Basic Linguistic Theory (2010-2012), was published by the Oxford University Press.

Academic positions

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.[1]

Both Dixon (the Director of the centre) and Aikhenvald (Associate Director) resigned their positions in May 2008.[13] In early 2009, Aikhenvald and Dixon established the Language and Culture Research Group (LCRG) at the Cairns campus of James Cook University.[14] 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.[15]

Non-academic publications

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.[16]

Dixon is also the co-author, with John Godrich, of the definitive discography of American prewar blues and gospel recordings, Blues and Gospel Records: 1890–1943.[17]


(The list below is incomplete; for a full publication list, see R. M. W. Dixon's overview)

  1. 1.0 1.1 Research Centre for Linguistic Typology: Ten Years' Achievements (2006).
  2. Professor R. M. W. Dixon (information page at the James Cook University site)
  3. Robert Dixon at, accessed 25 April 2015
  4. Dixon, R. M. W., The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 9). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972
  5. Dixon, R. M. W. A Grammar of Yidiny (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 19). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977
  6. Dixon, R.M.W. 1988. A Grammar of Boumaa Fijian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Dixon, R. M. W., The Jarawara Language of Southern Amazonia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004
  8. Wurm, S.A. 1972. Languages of Australia and Tasmania, p. 36.
  9. Dixon, R.M.W. 1997. The Rise and Fall of Languages, Cambridge University Press.
  10. Bowern, Claire and Harold Koch (eds). 2004. Australian Languages: Classification and the Comparative Method. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  11. Dixon, R.M.W. 2002. Australian Languages: their nature and development, Cambridge University Press.
  12. Dixon, R.M.W. 1994. Ergativity (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 69). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  13. RCLT Newsletter, 2009
  14. News from the newly established LCRG at James Cook University (ALS newsletter, February 2009)
  15. see;
  16. R. M. W. Dixon: 'Skeleton' (pp.xv–xvii of Dixon's academic autobiography I am a linguist. Leiden: Brill. 2011.)
  17. Edward Komara. 1998. Review of: Blues and Gospel Records, 1890–1943 by Robert M. W. Dixon; John Godrich; Howard Rye. Notes, Second Series, Vol. 55, No. 2 (December 1998), pp. 361–363.