Professor Arthur Delbridge during his early Macquarie years. [Inset] Professor Delbridge in more recent times.
Professor Arthur Delbridge during his early Macquarie years. [Inset] Professor Delbridge in more recent times.

Vale Professor Arthur Delbridge

Emeritus Professor Philip Newall pays tribute to one of our highly respected academics:

Arthur Delbridge began his distinguished academic career at Sydney University, attaining first-class honours and the university medal in 1941, and subsequently committed himself to war service from 1942 to 1945, including a period in Borneo. He returned to postgraduate training at the Sydney Teachers College, and spent a year as a country teacher in Cootamundra. In 1948 he was appointed a lecturer at the Armidale Teachers College, where he won an Imperial Relations Trust Fellowship to travel to the UK to complete an MA at the University of London from 1950 to 1952. On returning he taught again at the Sydney Teachers College, and by 1955 had been appointed as lecturer at the then Institute of Technology, which became the University of New South Wales.

In 1958 Arthur took up a lectureship in the English Department at Sydney University, where he developed wide research interests in English linguistics, including phonetics, lexicography, grammar, stylistics and language variation, especially Australian English. During the 1960s he undertook (with colleague Professor Alex Mitchell) a ground-breaking study of the Australian accent and its distribution among 7000 high school students in all states. It remains the largest research study of its kind, and its data was so outstanding in its quality that it was digitised in the 1990s and is now incorporated in the Australian National Corpus. This research on the speech of Australian adolescents was remarkable also in relating socioeconomic data to the students’ recordings, and identifying the differences between typical city and country accents. It thus laid the foundations for sociolinguistic research in Australia.

In 1966 Arthur was appointed as the foundation Professor of English (language and linguistics) at the newly established Macquarie University, where he developed major courses of study in English linguistics. He appointed new staff to teach in areas such as phonetics, English grammar and discourse, historical linguistics, and Australian field linguistics (in Aboriginal languages). He added audiology and speech pathology as postgraduate offerings, and established the Speech and Language Research Centre (later the Speech, Hearing and Language Research Centre), which has remained the focus of innovative speech technology, and research on Australian phonetics and phonology.

Arthur’s major work in Australian lexicography began during the 1970s, researching the details of current Australian English for the first comprehensive dictionary, and working through a series of challenges to find an Australian publisher for it. An independent publisher was eventually found in the person of Kevin Weldon (ex Paul Hamlyn Publishing), who liaised with Australian newspaper presses to launch the Macquarie Dictionary in 1981, and set up Macquarie Library Pty Ltd. The first Dictionary contained more than 76,000 headwords, thus a full record of everyday spoken and written language used in Australia. The Macquarie Dictionary is one of only two in the world to bear the name of the university whose research and scholarship produced it. The Dictionary was an early adopter of computerised databases for citational records and for the dictionary text itself, from which alternative/smaller versions are developed. Electronic forms of publication began with a CDROM accompanying the third edition (1997), and an online version is now available to subscribers, as well as a range of apps. The impact of the Macquarie Dictionary on Australian English and recognition of it has been immeasurable.

Arthur’s support for fellow academics and their careers also shines through in countless collaborative projects and publications – apart from the Macquarie Dictionary – that carry his name as well as that of others. Those who worked in the Department with him feel an immense debt of gratitude for the scope they enjoyed to expand new areas of linguistics. We remember and appreciate his contributions to the running of linguistic conferences such as Australex and Style Council, and to the Dictionary Research Centre, well after his retirement. Above all it was Arthur’s good humoured style that created such a happy and productive professional environment, where sustained friendships were made. We are all beneficiaries of this legacy.