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Timothy Ames (Tim) Shopen (1936–2005)

by Cynthia Allen

Timothy Ames Shopen passed away on 6 June 2005 after a long struggle against cancer. He was born in Chicago on 5 October 1936 and was educated at Swarthmore College, where he obtained a BA in Greek Literature in 1959, and at the University of Michigan, obtaining an MA in English Language and Literature in 1962.

After leaving the University of Michigan, he was involved in various projects involving the application of linguistics, and his strong interest in teaching and applied linguistics was to remain with him for the rest of his life. He spent two years in Mali (1962–64), where he taught a variety of courses in an adult literacy program, sponsored by the African-American Institute. His experiences there were important in forming his conviction that a language could not be properly studied outside its social and cultural context, a view reflected in much of his later work. He obtained a position as a Research Linguist at San Francisco State College in the summer of 1966, in which period he wrote ‘An Intensive Course in Zerma’ for the Niger and Chad Peace Corps.

Having worked with the Peace Corps from 1964 to 1967, teaching and training teacher linguists, Tim determined to gain a PhD and enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles. While at UCLA, he was a participant in the highly influential UCLA Syntax Project, which resulted in the publication in 1973 of Stockwell, Schachter and Partee’s The Major Syntactic Structures of English, which served as a major handbook for many years and is still worth consulting on questions of syntactic analysis. Tim also had teaching positions while he was studying, teaching English grammar to English teachers in UCLA’s extension program (1967–68) and two courses at University of California, Berkeley, in the summer of 1968, as well as lecturing in Hausa and other subjects at Stanford (1968–69). His dissertation ‘A Generative Theory of Ellipsis’, supervised by Paul Schachter, earned him his PhD in Linguistics in 1972.

After leaving UCLA, Tim was employed at Indiana University first as a Lecturer and then as an Assistant Professor, where he taught general linguistics, syntax and African linguistics to both undergraduates and postgraduates. While on leave from Indiana University, he joined the staff of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Arlington, Virginia. The two years he spent at CAL were influential in the future course of Tim’s career, for it was during this period that he conceived of the two major projects that were to consume his energy in editorial duties to the extent that his reputation among linguists rests more on his ability to envision and carry out ambitious projects requiring the coordination of work by many researchers than on his personal research. He had intended to publish his doctoral thesis with Cambridge University Press, but never finished the necessary revisions. Instead, he focused his considerable energy and enthusiasm on the production of teaching materials and on the two major projects just mentioned.

The first of these projects, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, was the development of teaching materials to make linguistics a part of a general liberal arts curriculum. This resulted in four books, published by Winthrop under the auspices of CAL after he came to ANU. The first two, Languages and their Speakers and its companion volume Languages and their Status, both published in 1979, contained sketches of 11 very different languages by experts in those languages. Tim co-authored the prototype chapter ‘Maninka’ with Charles Bird and circulated it to the other authors as a guide. The basic question posed for each of the languages was ‘what kind of language is it among the languages of the world?’ Tim was particularly concerned with the question of what knowledge a speaker has to have, both linguistic and cultural, to use his or her language with native-speaker competence, and so the sketches look at the languages both as systems and as tools at the speakers’ disposal. A second set of volumes resulting from the project dealing specifically with English, Standards and Dialects in English and Styles and Variables in English, was co-edited by Joseph M. Williams and appeared in 1980. Tim contributed the chapters ‘How Pablo says “Love” and “Stove”’ and ‘Selections from Bengt Loman’s “Conversations in a Negro American Dialect”’ to the first of these volumes and ‘The English Language as Rule- Governed Behavior: Grammatical Structure’ and ‘A Researcher’s Guide to the Sociolinguistic Variable (ING)’ (co-authored with Benji Wald) to the second. Some articles from all these books are still used in classes in Australian universities.

The second project had its origins in a conference that was held on fieldwork questionnaires initiated by Rudolph Troike at CAL, at which the participants agreed that fieldworkers needed to prepare themselves for what they should be looking for, and what they might expect to find. Tim obtained funding from the National Science Foundation to produce a major guide for fieldworkers with contributions from 15 well-known syntacticians covering 18 major topics in morphology and syntax. Each chapter covered the current state of knowledge concerning the typology of the area discussed. The resulting three-volume set, Language Typology and Syntactic Description, was published by Cambridge University Press under the auspices of CAL in 1985, when Tim had been at ANU for some years. It was an enormous success and is still a major resource for teaching and fieldwork. Many fieldworkers report that these volumes are the only linguistics books they take into the field with them. Tim did not write any of the chapters, but he maintained tight editorial control and the uniformly high quality of the chapters is testimony to his ability to bring out the best in a team of widely scattered and sometimes dilatory authors who couldn’t understand why their contribution was not already perfectly intelligible.

In 1975, Tim applied for a position in the Department of Linguistics at ANU and was appointed at the level of Senior Lecturer. It was a new and youthful department that Tim joined and, with characteristic energy, he threw himself into the tasks of teaching and curriculum development. He was a very versatile teacher; the list of courses he taught includes Introduction to Linguistics, Introduction to Syntax, Advanced Syntax, Structure of English, Field Methods, Sociolinguistics, Phonetics, Structure of an Aboriginal Language (Warlpiri), Language in Aboriginal Australia, Semantics, Cross-Cultural Communication, Teaching Languages, and Child Language Acquisition. He also co-taught a course with Glenda Shopen on Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy at the 1996 Australian Linguistics Institute, held at ANU.

Tim’s interest in pedagogy in general and bilingual education specifically was sustained throughout his career at ANU, and he gave generously of his time to participate in teacher training. The work he did in the area of language education includes both a workshop training teachers in Nicaragua and a field trip to the Northern Territory, involving work on language maintenance programs while on outside studies in 1986, as well as various lectures in different years for literacy teaching programs at the Signadou campus of the Australian Catholic University and the University of Canberra. He was also active in outreach to primary schools, teaching children at Turner Primary School some Warlpiri songs and about Warlpiri culture generally.

Tim was responsible for the introduction of applied linguistics into the curriculum of the Department of Linguistics, designing the early courses himself, with the result that there were enough applied linguistics courses to make a Field Program Major in Applied Language Studies beginning in 1986. The applied linguistics program Tim initiated has since expanded to the point where a disciplinary major in applied linguistics is offered in addition to the more descriptively oriented linguistics major. Tim was proud of the fact that this applied linguistics major (introduced in 1996) was the first of its sort in Australia. A Graduate Diploma in Applied Linguistics and a Bachelor of Letters in Applied Linguistics (relabelled as Master of Letters in Applied Linguistics in 1991) were introduced in 1990.

The focus of the department was heavily on descriptive linguistics at that time and Tim was the only staff member who could supervise theses in the area of applied linguistics from 1990 to 1993, when two more linguists with expertise in applied linguistics joined the department, and so he shouldered a heavy burden of supervision and served as convener of the postgraduate applied linguistics program from 1990 to 1996.

In addition to his interests already mentioned, Tim was interested in semantics and cross-cultural communication, and did some research in the area of comparing the English words ‘truth’ and ‘lie’ with their closest Russian equivalents, but never published in this area. Indeed, although Tim was always interested to learn, he was more concerned with teaching and facilitating and promoting the research of others than in pursuing a research program of his own, and it is for his superb abilities as an editor that he will be most remembered by linguists who did not know him personally. His career at ANU was not entirely without publications stemming from his own research, however; they include ‘Children’s Acquisition of Warlpiri: Comprehension of Transitive Sentences’ (with Edith Bavin) in the Journal of Child Language in 1985, ‘Ensuring the Survival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages into the 21st Century’ (with Nick Reid, Glenda Shopen and David Wilkins) in the Australian Review of Applied Linguistics in 1987, and ‘Indigenous Languages in Education,’ in The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics, edited by R.E. Asher and J.N.Y. Simpson (Pergamon Press, 1994). In 1994, he began the time-consuming task of organising a revised edition of Linguistic Typology and Syntactic Description, which would incorporate developments in our knowledge of morphosyntactic typology since the original edition. The project became formalised with the signing of a contract with Cambridge University Press in 1996.

Tim was an idealistic, enthusiastic and selfless colleague who was always ready to help others and a dedicated teacher who gave generously of his time to students, whether they were enrolled in one of his courses or under his supervision or not.

Tim’s keen sense of social responsibility was reflected not only in his work with the Peace Corps in his earlier days and his involvement in teacher training projects all though his career, but also in his willingness to take on onerous administrative duties. He served as Graduate Convener in Linguistics from 1995 to 1996 and as Head of Department from January 1997 to 1998, a particularly difficult period as the Faculty of Arts was under severe financial pressure and was going through a painful period of redundancies. In a sacrifice typical of his entire career, Tim set aside his own desire to continue in his position and took early retirement in order to assure the security of the positions of younger staff. His connection with ANU and his collaboration with his old colleagues did not end with his retirement; after a period spent in Cairns, he moved back to Canberra and became a Visiting Fellow in the School of Language Studies in 2002, a position he retained until the end. He continued his work on the new edition of Linguistic Typology and Syntactic Description as long as his health permitted, and had the satisfaction of securing the help of Matthew Dryer of the University of Buffalo in November 2003 to complete it and knowing that the project was at last close to completion (the volumes were published in 2007).

Besides language, Tim’s other major passion was music, particularly American and Irish folk music, and he was an accomplished banjo player. Many of the ANU community will miss hearing Tim and his friends enlivening the lunch hour in their sessions playing and singing in Union Court. Tim took his enthusiasm for music with him to the Clare Holland hospice, where his ability to find enjoyment in each day was an inspiration to everyone. His musically inclined visitors often came on Sundays to play music with him, and out of these sessions, originally just in Tim’s room, arose regular Sunday afternoon music sessions in the common room, which were a treat for all the hospice patients and visitors. He was also still giving his opponents at chess a run for their money a few days before his death.

Tim is survived by his wife, Gillian Alcock, and his sons, Pablo, Martin and Ellery.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Cynthia Allen, 'Shopen, Timothy Ames (Tim) (1936–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 October, 1936
Chicago, Illinois, United States of America


6 June, 2005 (aged 68)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.