Author: Anna White

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

My interest in linguistics arose during a sea kayak trip through Eastern Indonesia. Paddling slowly along the coast I picked up bits and pieces of languages that I heard along the way and became fascinated with the ways the languages changed from village to village. This was my first real exposure to “small” languages—languages with only a few hundred or few thousand speakers. These small languages evolve to meet the needs of communities, binding speakers to their environment. At the same time these small languages are almost everywhere under threat of being replaced by languages of wider communication.

The Linguist List has had a formative influence on my career. When I entered graduate school in the mid 1990’s the field was in a state of upheaval. After a couple decades spent developing theoretical models of language competence, many in the field had only recently (re-)awoken to the problem of language endangerment. However, just as the field began to re-engage with language documentation we were faced with an unprecedented transformation in digital technologies. During this Digital Dark Age technologies evolved so quickly that I was using a different recording device with every field trip. As each of these devices became obsolete the data they recorded risked becoming more endangered than the languages on those recordings. What was the point of doing all this documentation of endangered languages if we weren’t able to preserve that documentation? When I started my first job at the University of Alaska in 1999 I arrived with boxes filled with cassette tapes, DAT tapes, MiniDiscs, CDs, DVDs and other proprietary digital recording technologies. As I continued to do field work this mess only got worse. Clearly I needed to find a better way to deal with digital data. You might say that documentary linguistics as a field needed to get its house in order.

Over the past two decades the Linguist List has been at the forefront of efforts to develop standards and best practices for dealing with linguistic data. For example, many of the field work and archiving practices that we take for granted today trace their origins to the Electronics Meta-structures for Endangered Languages Data (E-MELD) project, a five-year effort led by the Linguist List which brought together leading scholars from across the world to tackle some of the difficult problems in data preservation, curation, and access. These problems are often thought to lie outside the mainstream of linguistics. Indeed, they are by nature interdisciplinary, existing at the intersection of linguistics, computer science, and archiving. Yet solutions to these problems are critical to linguistics, providing the digital infrastructure which serves as the foundation for much of our work.

Over the years I have had many opportunities to interact with Linguist List in various capacities, but perhaps the most rewarding of these was a joint project which I undertook in collaboration with the Linguist List in 2003 to develop a community language portal for Dena’ina, a language spoken in Southcentral Alaska. The project integrated training for both linguistic graduate students and community members and in the process helped to engage students with language communities. Many of those community members have gone on to become leading activists in Alaska Native language conservation efforts. And many of the students who worked with the Dena’ina project have gone on to make significant contributions to documentary linguistics more generally, continuing to push the field forward with an enhanced awareness of and respect for technical standards and documentary best practices. This is one of the truly great contributions of the Linguist List over the years. The students who have worked with Linguist List come away with a respect for the technical underpinnings of linguistics. For these students digital best practices are the norm, not the exception. Use of non-proprietary formats and depositing data in archives are routine. This generation of scholars is slowly changing our field, helping us to better preserve and provide access to endangered language documentation, while at the same time moving us ever closer to a truly data-driven science of language.

Next time you turn off your digital recorder and save a file, or key in an ELAN transcription, or specify a digital language archive in a grant proposal—that is, next time you do just about any task having to do with language documentation—think about Linguist List. Chances are that Linguist List had some role in helping to make that technology work, helping scholars to agree on standards, making it possible for you to do linguistics. Infrastructure is not the sexiest part of science, but it is arguably the most critical. We owe a lot to Linguist List for helping to develop the technical infrastructure of our field.

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Featured Linguist: Ida Toivonen

Featured Linguist: Ida Toivonen

Featured Linguist: Ida Toivonen

In primary school and high school, my favourite subjects were languages and math. I later came to realize that this is true for many linguists.  I did better in math classes than other classes, but I really loved the languages.  I grew up in a Swedish-speaking area of Finland, and I studied Finnish in school. I also studied English, French, German and Spanish. I loved the classes, but I seemed to like the languages for different reasons than my peers. My friends either did not like studying languages, or else they liked it because it might be useful. You could communicate with people from different places and backgrounds. I never became good at communicating in the languages I studied, I simply enjoyed the patterns and structures. The grammar lectures and exercises were great, but I didn’t really enjoy the conversation exercises.

After high school, I had some idea that languages and math don’t “go together” and I would have to choose.  I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to attend Brandeis University in Waltham outside Boston, and I chose to study French language and literature. I enjoyed those classes very much, but what became my true passion was linguistics.  In my first semester, I took Introduction to Linguistics.  I didn’t quite get all the talk about cognition, but the puzzles in the homework assignments were a lot of fun. I was hooked and decided to double-major in French and Linguistics. Boston was obviously a great place to be for exploring linguistics, and I attended talks and classes around town.  I received valuable support from Joan Maling and Ray Jackendoff at Brandeis, and also Charles Reiss and Mark Hale at Harvard. I got to spend a lot of time with many people who care deeply about how language works.  All the talk of language and cognition slowly started to make sense.  I was intrigued by all aspects of linguistics that I learned about, but I ended up writing my thesis on a topic in Finnish morphosyntax.

Graduate school turned out to be a great experience as well. I studied in the Linguistics Department at Stanford University and my supervisors were Paul Kiparsky and Joan Bresnan. I learned a lot from them and the other professors at Stanford, as well as from my fellow graduate students. My path through graduate school was a bit unusual (or perhaps there is no typical path through graduate school). I took several odd semesters off to teach and study at Brandeis (again) and at Concordia in Montreal. I also started working on the endangered language Inari Saami, spoken in Inari, Northern Finland. The community in Inari was welcoming and supportive, which made the project possible.  Doing fieldwork is probably the most difficult and the most rewarding thing I have ever done. Inari Saami has a very rich morphology; the verbal, nominal and adjectival paradigms are daunting. It has now been 20 years since my first trip to Inari, and I’m still far from a complete understanding of the system.  Part of the challenge comes from the complex morphophonology — the paradigms involve complex vowel alternations and consonant gradation.  The Inari Saami paradigms sparked a curiosity for the phonetics and phonology of quantity, and I am still exploring quantity today.

During my time in graduate school, I had the opportunity to explore many different areas of linguistics.  I never truly developed one main area of interest. My fieldwork on Inari Saami was very broad, as I was trying to learn about all aspects of the language. I signed up for as many classes as I could fit into my schedule.  I continued exploring Finnish morphosyntax. I conducted a study on child language acquisition under the supervision of Eve Clark. I explored topics in historical linguistics. In the end, I wrote my PhD thesis  on the syntax and semantics of verbal particles in Germanic, mostly Swedish.

After graduate school, I got to spend time at the University of Rochester, NY, and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, both great places with lots of good linguistics. I finally ended up at Carleton University in Ottawa, where I am cross-appointed in Linguistics and Cognitive Science. I still haven’t quite decided what my main area of interest is, I guess I am some kind of old-fashioned general linguist? Current projects concern the phonetics and phonology of quantity, the semantics of distributivity, grammaticalized animacy, the effects of singing on pronunciation, and the nature of the argument-adjunct distinction. Much of the data I work with come from Inari Saami and a dialect Swedish spoken on the Åland Islands.

Writing this little text about my path to and through linguistics helps me see how fun and rewarding it has all been. Language truly is beautiful, even with all the efforts we make to tame it and describe and explain it in as simple and boring terms as possible.

 

 

 

Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2016 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List needs your support!