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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Donald Clarence Laycock (?–1989)

by Stephen Adolphe Wurm

Dr Donald Clarence Laycock, formerly of the Department of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, was a brilliant scholar, linguist, polyglot and a man of many diverse interests which went far beyond the usual orbit of scholars in linguistics.

Dr Laycock was born in Newcastle and took his first degree there. He came to the ANU in 1959 as the first PhD student in linguistics in the University.

He graduated in 1962 with his PhD thesis on a language group in the Sepik district of Papua New Guinea. This was published in 1965 as the first book-length publication in the Department's Pacific Linguistics series, of which he later became one of the editors.

From 1962 to 1964 he travelled and undertook teaching and research assignments in North America, Europe and North Africa. In 1964 he returned to Canberra and was appointed first a research fellow, then a fellow and in 1969 a senior fellow in the Linguistics Department, where he worked for the rest of his life.

His immediate linguistic interests comprised sociolinguistics; the description and classification of languages of the New Guinea area and Australia as well as of pidgin languages; lexicography; language contacts; linguistic change; semantics; language use and many related areas, such as deliberate interference in their own languages by speakers in the New Guinea area and Australia; artificial languages, linguistic games and many others.

In many of these fields of study he contributed materially to theoretical knowledge as well as extending the concept of linguistic theory into areas which have largely been neglected by linguistic theoreticians over the past 30 years. He spoke a number of languages well and never stopped learning new languages, in particular Russian and Arabic in his later years.

His interests also extended to editing. He was one of the co-ordinating editors of the International Language Atlas of the Pacific Area, which was published in 1981-83. He also played a major part in the preparatory work for the Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Greater Pacific Area. It is a great loss that he will not be able to take part in the concrete production work involved in this atlas.

His areas of interest to those mentioned above were folklore, bawdry, and the history and sociology of games, magic and the occult, speaking in tongues and others. His interests relating to special languages also included gypsy languages and their history in Australia.

Dr Laycock left 99 published works. Several more are at press and at least one major manuscript, almost completed, of an extensive dictionary of a Papua New Guinea language is likely to be completed and published.

Dr Laycock was elected fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1980 and was a member of the Australian Linguistic Society from its inception. He was also a foundation member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, a life member of the Association Phonetique Internationale, and a member of the Australian Musicological Society. From 1970 he was also a member of the Australian Skeptics and Australian Mensa.

As an administrator, Dr Laycock was highly competent and was often Acting Head of Department. He supervised many postgraduate students and contributed greatly to the impressive range of PhD students coming out of the Department, with many of them going on to occupy important positions here and overseas.

Dr Laycock was an excellent colleague and will be greatly missed in the Department and in the ANU in general. He inspired many persons inside and outside the University with his deep and creative thinking, his ability to deal intuitively with problems and the novelty of his ideas on many subjects, which astounded all those who knew him. He was a wonderful friend and collaborator and will be sorely missed by many.

Original publication

Citation details

Stephen Adolphe Wurm, 'Laycock, Donald Clarence (?–1989)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

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