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Hercus, Luise Anna (1926–2018)

by Paul Kauffman

from Australian

Dr Luise Anna Hercus AO was born in Germany and came to Australia in 1954 and is famous for her work on Aboriginal languages. She took a holistic approach to languages and emphasised the significance of speakers in documenting languages and considering the outcomes of research for speakers of those languages. Her uncle, professor Karl Schwarzschild, is celebrated for his work on black holes and on Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Luise and her Jewish family escaped from Germany in December 1938. Her non-Jewish grandfather was executed at Dachau for expressing anti-Nazi views.

She studied and taught French at Oxford, and studied and taught South Asian languages at Oxford. She emigrated to Australia with her husband, Dr Graham Hercus, in 1954 and taught at the Australian National University. She supervised doctoral students and taught four South Asian languages with great devotion, skill and encouragement of intellectual curiosity as reader/associate professor from 1969-1991 and from 1992-2018 as visiting fellow in the Department of Linguistics.

During “summer term breaks” from 1965 to 2017 with Graham (until his death from cancer in 1975), accompanied by their son Iain, she would drive to remote Victoria, NSW, South Australia and the Northern Territory, and study, record and translate many of the endangered 240 Australian Aboriginal languages during 60 field work expeditions. She recorded and translated dozens of languages, such as a grammar and dictionary of Paakantyi, the language of the Darling River in NSW. Her last field expedition to Central Australia was undertaken in 2017, at the age of 91.

Luise helped many people and enriched many disciplines. She wrote hundreds of articles, books and monographs on South Asian and Australian Aboriginal languages, as well as articles relevant to Aboriginal history, culture, religion, music and biographies. Luise Hercus and Peter Sutton recorded and translated Aboriginal views of white Australians in their 1986 book This is what happened: Historical narratives by Aborigines.

In 1992 the High Court recognised native title rights in Australia with its historical Mabo judgment. Luise’s research helped many indigenous people attain land and native title rights. She worked with men such as Tim Strangeways, and said: “He made me aware of the importance of traditions and we went on expeditions twice and even three times a year gradually covering most of the northeast of South Australia. Over a long period of time he recited all the vast store of oral literature that he held.” Tom Gara wrote a short biography of her work in 2016 in a book edited by Austin, Koch and Simpson.

Her sole and joint publications on dozens of Aboriginal languages together with thousands of hours of audiotapes of songs, oral literature, grammars, translations, recording of sacred sites and explanations of how subtle and refined Aboriginal languages are intimately connected to land are held at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Her world contribution to the study of Australian Aboriginal languages, to inspiring intellectual inquiry, and to sensitively and helpfully working with Australian indigenous people, is immense. She is survived by her son, Dr Iain Hercus, and daughter-in-law, Dr Anne-Mari Hercus.

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Citation details

Paul Kauffman, 'Hercus, Luise Anna (1926–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hercus-luise-anna-32619/text40483, accessed 14 August 2022.

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