University of Melbourne Magazine

A word to the wise

  • ANYA ADAIR (LLB 2008, DML 2008, BA(Hons) 2009, MA 2012)

    Anya Adair has always loved languages, even as a child in Ballarat, when she used to spend recess in a teacher’s office learning Latin.

    “That’s the kind of student I was. I must have been insufferable,” she says.

    Adair thought she might be a lawyer, but it was at Melbourne that she fell hard for Anglo-Saxon Studies and the languages of that era, particularly Old English.

    After interviewing for several firms, Adair knew she needed to think outside the legal profession.

    “It just occurred to me that it wasn’t what I loved,” she says of the corporate offices she visited. “That maybe there was something that I loved more.”

    Adair went on to complete a Master’s degree in Old English Literature at Melbourne. Studying a language, she says, means an Arts degree can be both practical and theoretical. She also enjoyed learning about a historical culture through its words.

    Anya Adair

    “The first thing they ask is ‘why?’ It seems so specialised and so particular a set of things to be working on.” PICTURE: DAVID WOOLFALL

    In 2011, she left Melbourne to pursue a PhD at Yale University, where she is writing a dissertation on medieval statute law. She wants to know how old legal codes were recorded and used outside the courtroom.

    The work involves intense scrutiny of old English texts, a meticulous study of history through words, something that gives Adair enormous satisfaction.

    “Some of them are very highly and beautifully decorated,” she says of the old legal manuscripts. “It fascinates me to ask not just how they were composed from a more literal perspective, but also who was reading them and why it mattered so much to own one of these collections.”

    While at Yale, Adair also founded the Digital Manuscript Studies Working Group, an interdisciplinary workshop that helps participants learn how to archive digital versions of old manuscripts. Nowadays, Adair can speak French, German, Russian and Japanese, and she can read and understand Latin, Spanish, Old English, Old Norse and Old French. It’s an impressive list, but her favourite language is English.

    Adair is currently researching legal manuscripts at the British Library. She and a colleague also teach ‘The History of the English Language’ at Yale, where they discuss the diversities and dialects of English through time – a subject that gives Adair a chance to discuss the Aboriginal Australian English varieties of her home country.

    Adair says she has met people who are puzzled by her fascination with a defunct language and culture.

    “The first thing they ask is ‘why?’ It seems so specialised and so particular a set of things to be working on. But I think that you can’t go forward without the humanities,” she says.

    By Kate Stanton