Laves was the first person trained in modern linguistic field-work and analysis to study Australian languages. He visited Australia from the US when a postgraduate student in anthropology and linguistics, spending August 1929 to August 1931 studying Aboriginal languages under the auspices of the Australian National Research Council and the research direction of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown.
Among his teachers at The University of Chicago was the great American linguist Edward Sapir (Stocking 1979): Laves was sent by Sapir following a request from Radcliffe-Brown in 1926 that Sapir himself undertake a study of Australian languages. He was the first* linguist to make sound recordings of (mainland) Aboriginal speech, in eleven cylinder recordings of about 25 minutes of Karajarri speech and song made at La Grange in 1930.
In addition to extensive survey work, Laves made an intensive study of six languages in widely separated parts of the continent. 'After some training in Ethnology' (draft letter from Radcliffe-Brown to Rockefeller Foundation, September 1930) he began with (1) Kumbaingeri [Gumbaynggir] (northern NSW coast), and some study of other NSW languages (including the poorly documented Anewan [Nganyaywana] language). In March 1930 he moved on to (2) Karadjeri [Karajarri] (La Grange, near Broome), and Ralph Piddington was with him there. In October 1930 Radcliffe-Brown advised the addition of (3) Barda [Bardi] (Cape L'Eveque Peninsula, north of Broome) (4) Kurin [Goreng] (near Albany, southern WA) (5) Hermit Hill [Matngela] (Daly River) and (6) Ngengumeri [Ngan'gimerri] (Daly River).
Putting together his rich linguistic experiences of the two years in Australia, Laves concluded that all the Australian languages belong to a single language family or stock, tentatively grouped into three divisions which he dubbed North-western, [northern extremity of] Cape York, and Transcontinental.
Laves published only two notes about his Australian work (Laves 1929a, 1929b), and prepared a paper for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Atlantic City, 31 December 1932), but this was the end of his Aboriginal studies. Laves married the next year and made a career with the International Harvester Company in Chicago, and never returned to linguistics or anthropology, though he remained in contact with anthropologists and other social scientists at The University of Chicago for the rest of his life.
Mark Francillon, an anthropology student at The University of Chicago, heard about Laves from L.R. Hiatt at Maningrida in 1981, and on his return to Chicago contacted Laves in 1982-83. Francillon recalls being led into the attic and shown boxes of original manuscripts untouched in decades. He arranged to have these copied and deposited in the AIATSIS Library. The collection of eleven boxes includes vocabulary, grammatical paradigms, text transcriptions, cultural notes, and occasional diary notes (some in German). AIATSIS archive tape 04068 is a reel tape copy of Laves' cylinders which are deposited in the Archive of Traditional Music at Indiana University.
Laves language material is praised for its detail, accuracy and insight by the linguists who have begun using it in the last few years. The intensively studied languages are represented by texts on mythological beings, which are given English translations as well as interlinear glossing. Additionally there are for these languages hundreds of file cards each covering one sentence of these texts, with additional notes, cross-referencing and so on. Eades 1979 and Hiatt 1985 use Gumbaynggir text recorded and typed by Laves which had found its way to the AIATSIS Library from a copy he had left in Australia.
Much more work remains to be done with Laves' Australian material,
and his two years' work is bound to achieve the recognition it was denied
in his life time.
© 1993 David Nash