Ulf Goran Emil HAMMARSTROM (1922 - 2019)

Professor of Linguistics (1965 -1987)

Goran Hammarstrom

Göran Hammarström, who died in Melbourne on December 15 2019 aged 97 years, was the first Professor of Linguistics in Australia and a Monash pioneer.

Over the course of his career, his gifted mind and unsparing discipline expanded the frontiers of linguistics, transformed the lives of those he championed and paved the way to a bright future for Australian Linguistics in higher education.

Göran came to Monash as the foundation chair in his discipline in 1965, the fifth teaching year in the University’s history. Here he flourished in the heady, experimental climate created by the pioneers. By 1968 he had developed a four-year undergraduate course and attracted a number of postgraduate students. By this time Monash had also become an important centre for the study of Aboriginal languages.

On his watch, the department of linguistics had more students undertaking research degrees than any other section in the Faculty of Arts despite being considerably smaller in size. No doubt its library – the most extensive in the country – was a drawcard.

Göran published extensively in his field, devouring the words of numerous Romance Languages and finding the functioning of contemporary idioms of prime interest – he was less impressed with the work of historical and generativist linguists, of whom he was often critical.

By the time he left Monash in 1987 (upon which he was appointed Emeritus Professor) Göran had built what he considered the “first and most important linguistics department in Australia.” Its reputation for excellence would be maintained and enhanced for years to come; in 2014 the linguistics department was ranked 17th in the world according to QS World University Rankings by Subject.

Ulf Göran Emil Hammarström was born in the medieval town of Landskrona, Sweden, on 9 April 1922 to parents Per Emil Hammarström and Victoria (Ehlers) Hammarström. The young Göran endured a strict and challenging childhood, studying for up to 12 hours a day in an education system he later described as “cruel.”  In year twelve, he sat oral exams in German, French, Latin and Greek. “At the end of the oral exams the city was waiting in front of the school to receive the successful students. If one of us failed, it felt like the whole city had been struck by a real disaster,” he recalled in his autobiography, Memories of a Linguist (2011).

After finishing his basic education, Göran completed a Magister in Philosophy (1943), a Bachelor in Romance Languages (1949) and a Doctorate in Philosophy (1953) at the University of Uppsala. He had, he felt, the attributes required of a successful student in languages, namely “a good memory and patience.” Upon graduation, he continued working for the university as a Docent and Examiner in Phonetics in Old and Modern French, and in 1956 became Director of the Phonetics Department.

By 1965 he had lectured at the Universities of Strasbourg, Cologne and Frankfurt and had conducted research in the phonetics departments of the Universities of Paris, Strasbourg, Bonn, Edinburgh and Coimbra (Portugal).

The offer of a chair from Monash brought Göran the enticing prospect of studying the fascinating mix of languages present in Australia due to recent waves of migration. It also coincided with a nagging sense that his colleagues in Uppsala lacked appreciation of his work.

Bureaucracy almost threw a spanner in the works however, when the Australian Embassy in Stockholm advised him that it was impossible for the family to take their boxer dog, Hasso. Göran was not a man to leave a family member behind. He thoroughly researched Australian laws until he found a loophole that permitted dogs to travel by ship from the UK. Thus, the Hammarström family put their much-loved pet aboard a plane to England, where Hasso made friends with the crew of a ship, and sailed in comfort to Australia.

The family was reunited in Glen Waverley, where their old furniture decorated a brand-new house that would host many parties in the years to come; introducing the Swedish smörgåsbord to an Australian community of advanced students, academics and University staff members who soon became the Hammarströms’ extended family.

After leaving Monash, Göran worked as a language teacher at the Footscray Institute of Technology. He also taught at the University of Melbourne and Swinburne University, and linguistics at Deakin University. From 1994-1998 he was chair of romance languages in the University of Mainz, Germany, after which he returned to Deakin.

Göran remained active in academia well into his nineties, participating in the 7th Annual Round Table of the Language and Society Centre at Monash in 2015, and actively commenting in linguistics blogs, sharing with the world his insights, critical perspective, and expertise. He remained in good health until comparatively recently, and died in hospital from complications following surgery. He was predeceased by his wife, Gerd Britt Louise, whom he married in 1951, and their son, Sten Mikael, and is survived by his daughter Anna Marika and her family.

Clues to Göran’s longevity could be found, perhaps, in his youthful appearance. At a dinner party in Sweden he once found himself sitting next to the French philosopher Michel Foucault, then Director of the Maison de France at Uppsala (1955-58). Foucault, four years his junior, turned to him and told the bemused, fresh-faced Hammarström that he was ‘probably another Dorian Gray’.

In his memoirs, Göran reflected; “I have taught several thousand students. Some of them have told me that they appreciated my sense of humour, clear explanations and thorough knowledge. I feel satisfied that on the whole I have had the opportunity to do what I was interested in and that I can believe that I have done it to the best of my ability.”

Edited version of article published 9 January and in The Insider, 30 January 2020.