Featured Linguists

Featured Linguist: Monica Macaulay

Featured Linguist: Monica Macaulay

Featured Linguist: Monica Macaulay

So, you know how most kids want to be firefighters, or doctors, or scientists when they grow up?  When I was a kid I wanted to be a librarian.  Yes, I was the biggest nerd in the world.  It was just that I loved to read and I loved to organize things, so organizing books sounded really good.  I also played Scrabble with my mom, and we would look words up in her immense “Shorter Oxford English Dictionary,” which we regarded as the authority on all matters language-related.

When I was 15 we moved to Santiago, Chile.  My mother was thrilled because her children were going to learn to speak a second language.  So, being 15, I decided I wasn’t going to learn it.  Unfortunately, I did, despite my best efforts.  So I spent about six months hiding it from my parents until it just got too hard to pretend.  We were there for a year and a half.  By the end of our time there my Spanish was so good I could fool people into thinking I was Chilean.  It’s been downhill ever since.

I graduated in Chile from Santiago College – that was my high school – a girl’s school with the motto “for finer womanhood.”  I was 16 and it made perfect sense to me that since I had graduated from high school I was an adult.  So I took off overland with my boyfriend and spent three months traveling through South America.  My parents, of course, were absolutely horrified.  It was quite an adventure and I did live to tell about it.  Then the boyfriend and I moved to Prescott, AZ, where we attended a hippy college for a while.  Next up, San Francisco, where I went to art school.  (Of course.)  We lived on a houseboat in Sausalito.  I finally dumped art school (no talent, just a love of art supplies) and the BF, and moved to Berkeley.

Eventually I realized I might want to go to college (a real one), and that there was one in the town I lived in. So I applied and got into UC-Berkeley.  It took me 7 years to finish.  I kept dropping out to do things like hitch-hike through Mexico, but that’s another story.  Everyone in Mexico laughed at my Chilean accent so I quickly modified it.

I took random classes in college, just not sure what I wanted to do.  But then one day I saw a course listing for a class in the English department that I thought would help me with my crossword puzzles, an obsession at the time.  It turned out to be 1965-era Standard Theory, taught as gospel truth.  (This was the mid/late-70s.)  I was hooked.  And OH MY GOD at the end of the semester I discovered there was a whole department of this stuff.  That was it, I never looked back.  I had finally found the place where I could combine my love of words and my love of organizing things into systems.

Cut to grad school (still at Berkeley – who would want to leave that beautiful place?).  I was there in a phase where the only required course in the linguistics graduate program was a 2-semester sequence in field methods.  (This is how I managed to get a PhD and never take an actual phonology course!)  They were offering two sections the year I took it.  I knew one was going to use Vietnamese, and I said, no way, that’s a tone language, I’m not doing tone.  The other one turned out to be Mixtec.  Nuff said.

Despite the tone, I discovered I loved eliciting and analyzing data.  Eventually I did fieldwork in Mexico (and I’ve written about that elsewhere), and wrote my dissertation on the language.  After a year’s stint at George Mason University I wound up in the English department at Purdue University.  Indiana was a bit of a shock after 14 years in the Bay Area.  But I met my husband, Joe Salmons, there, and made a lot of good friends.

The year after I got tenure, though, we moved to Madison to take jobs at the University of Wisconsin.  I grew up in Madison, so it was quite strange to return home after all those years.  When we moved there I was just finishing up my grammar of Chalcatongo Mixtec, and it seemed like a good time to make a change.  Ever since hearing Amy Dahlstrom talk about Algonquian languages in graduate school I had had a bad case of Algonquian envy.  Wisconsin has five native languages which are still spoken, three of which are Algonquian.  I satisfied my Algonquian envy by starting to work on Menominee, and have continued that ever since.  There’s a steep learning curve for Algonquian linguistics, but it’s totally worth it.

A couple of interesting things have happened along the way, to me and to the profession.  I didn’t start out feeling like an Americanist – that is, I didn’t feel like I was one of those people who would characterize themselves as working on American Indian languages; I just happened to work on Mixtec (and also a California language called Karuk).  But that identity snuck up on me, and I definitely define myself as an Americanist now.  The other thing that has happened is that the field has undergone a radical transformation, and me along with it.  This is the recognition that the vast majority of the languages we work on are severely endangered, that our work with communities has as much value as our scholarly work, and that we need to take responsibility for helping communities out with language revitalization when and how they want us to.

2014XmasMM2

Documentary and theoretical approaches coexist and enrich each other, and American Indian languages are in the thick of it.  When I was in graduate school it was pretty much unthinkable that people from the theory-dominant departments would do fieldwork – now it seems like most everybody does some.  And I find myself working with community members on dictionaries of Menominee and Potawatomi, something I never could have imagined myself doing when I was in grad school.  The benefits of these changes to the field are enormous, and I think we’re in a much healthier place as a discipline now.

From 2009 to 2014, Joe Salmons, Anja Wanner, Rajiv Rao, and I were the review editors for Linguist List.   It was a lot of work but we were proud of the quality (and quantity!) of the reviews we posted.  After stepping down from that, I became a co-editor of the Papers of the Algonquian Conference, and last January I became president of the Endangered Language Fund (http://www.endangeredlanguagefund.org/).  We give grants for small projects on endangered languages all over the world.

Just a footnote:  linguistics ruined Scrabble for me.  It’s just that pesky question of what counts as a word!  I mean, can you use “ish”?

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Featured Linguist: Ljuba Veselinova

LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015

Featured Linguist: Ljuba Veselinova (Stockholm University)

Featured Linguist Ljuba Veselinova

Featured Linguist: Ljuba Veselinova

I came to LINGUIST List in 1994 as the first recipient of its graduate student fellowship funded by subscribers. Compared to its current size, the list was small back then (around 4000 subscribers). However, the work was exciting and there was this whole new universe to explore–I am talking, of course, about the internet. I was soon engulfed by UNIX, its shells, its mail and text utilities, especially emacs. It was scary to have to tell some of the people who figured as authors of my textbooks that they will need to edit parts of their messages. The mailing list function was a primary one at that time and the list was split between Eastern Michigan University and the University of Texas A & M. Those of us based in Michigan were connecting to a computer in Texas via a phone modem! I stayed with LINGUIST List thanks to the subscriber’s support until I finished my MA in 1997. By the time I was leaving, the subscriber numbers had soared to 10000 and counting; the mailing list had become just one of the functions LINGUIST performed, and a well organized website was in place. The first NSF funded infrastructure project was going on and there were several grant proposals in the making. Working for LINGUIST List had never been more promising.

In a way, it is actually wrong to ask me what I am doing after LINGUIST List because I never truly quit for real. While greater part of my time has been devoted to typology through my dissertation on suppletion in verb paradigms and my participation in the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), my interest in technology and LINGUIST is as alive as ever. After 1997, I kept coming back to Michigan for periods of time of varying length. Thanks to grants from the Swedish Institute I was able to come back in summer 1998 as well as in fall 1999; in summer 2000 I was partially funded by LINGUIST List NSF grant. My latest stay was on a Visiting Scientist position during the academic year 2005-6. I was planning on looking for other academic jobs in the US when the Swedish Research Council awarded me a four year long research funding. It is worth noting that one of the motivations for this reward as well as other grants I received was my international experience while working for the LINGUIST List.

Here in Stockholm, I have been focusing on the typology of negation in non-verbal and existential sentences. I also pursue studies on geographical information systems (GIS) on my own. Much of my research is geared towards uncovering patterns of variation but also patterns of unity in the languages of the world. For instance one striking example of a pervasive feature is the fact that most languages make a difference between the way they negate actions e.g. I don’t run and the way they negate existence/availability e.g. There is no beer (in the fridge). There are also languages such as Turkish where negation of states e.g. I am not sick differs from both the negation of actions and the negation of availability. As shown on the map below, special expressions in for the negation of existence are dominant in languages of the world; in fact there are a few, well delimited areas where the distinction between negation of actions and negation of availability is obliterated, Western Europe is one of them.

Negative Existentials (by Ljuba Veselinova)

Negative Existentials (by Ljuba Veselinova)

Seeing grammatical patterns in a spatial contexts is something that I will never get tired of. A live version of the map above, still in the making can be seen here: http://arcg.is/1C2X3Bm

The education I received at LINGUIST List came via many different channels: through direct instruction thanks to its founders, Prof. Helen Aristar-Dry and Prof. Anthony Aristar, who with their incredible resourcefullness and endless patience have been my mentors and friends for many years; then, just having to sit down and actually do the work was a great learning experience. What I learned from LINGUIST is reflected daily in my correspondence and professional contacts, in my organizing skills, in my knowledge and interest in technology and databases. LINGUIST List has grown from a mailing list with a linguistic profile to an organization and a school of its own kind. Finally, working at LINGUIST List gives you this incredible energy and actual belief that anything is possible and anything is within reach. You are in touch with the best of an incredibly diverse discipline. At the same time, you learn that you can do anything that you really believe in and really dream of: ballet dancing, playing the guitar, doing photographing or knitting — it’s all there, and it’s all yours. So maybe I will see you at the next conference, or maybe at Burning Man?

Flight-picture by Ljuba Veselinova

These days I am happy to send my students there as the LINGUIST List experience is immensely beneficial to anyone who is going to pursue a career in linguistics and/or language technology. It is also my turn to chip in the supporting pot and once again thank the subscribers for all the contributions that made my stay with LINGUIST possible. At the same time, I would like to extend a plea for a continued support for the LINGUIST List and its current moderators, Malgorzata E. Cavar and Damir Cavar, who carried out its move to a new site and continue to work tirelessly to maintain it as an extremely vigorous and creative environment where many students have found expression for their talents and actually become linguists.

Featured Linguist: Ljuba Veselinova

Featured Linguist: Ljuba Veselinova

 

Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2015 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List really needs your support!

Featured Linguist: Joseph C. Salmons

LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015

Featured Linguist: Joe Salmons (University of Wisconsin – Madison)

Featured Linguist: Joe Salmons

Featured Linguist: Joe Salmons

 

‘Featured linguist’ blurbs used to directly address the question ‘how did I become a linguist?’. Every single day I think about that, how lucky I am to be a linguist and one doing what I’m doing.

Growing up mostly just outside Kings Mountain, North Carolina, from first grade into college I was a really weak student and came close to dropping out of high school. But I graduated and stumbled into the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and into Philosophy and Foreign Languages, departments with amazing profs who worked hard to help me along. About halfway through, things clicked, especially in the philosophy and history of science, and I just worked on learning languages, especially German. Philosophy courses didn’t yield big answers but I learned something about how to approach problems. The German program made it possible for me to go to Germany one summer, my first trip ever outside the southeastern U.S. Both things were life changers.

To understand the historical underpinnings of some of the exciting stuff in philosophy, I went to get an MA in German at the University of Texas at Austin. Here again, things clicked because of a professor and a subject. Learning languages was fun, but there were weird things going on, say, where German word forms did and didn’t have umlaut or which nouns took which gender. I took the required course in the history of the German language with Edgar C. Polomé; every session answered those kinds of questions and things I hadn’t known enough to wonder about. I could never quite figure out the rules for how to think and argue in literature classes, but this was familiar turf: Figuring out generalizations about data. And even if Karl Verner and Hermann Paul weren’t always presented in terms of hypothesis testing and theory building, it was easy to see a science developing and advancing.

I learned from Edgar for the rest of his life. Most of my History of German: What the past reveals about today’s language was directly shaped or inspired by Edgar, but it’s his insistence on trying to see the big picture, language structure integrated into history and society, that drove the writing of that book.

Edgar C. Polomé, cher maître

Edgar C. Polomé, cher maître

After grad school, I got a job at Purdue University, where I soon met Monica Macaulay, another featured linguist in this fund drive. She changed my life completely, not just because we came to spend all our time together, but because she knew mountains of stuff about linguistics. Before long we’d co-authored our first article, the classic “Offensive Rock Band Names: A Linguistic Taxonomy” (Maledicta 10.81–99, 1989). From her and others, I saw that understanding language change demanded understanding linguistic theories and thinking about problems beyond just sound change. I’m still trying to do that.

And Monica and I got married. I played bass and guitar in a lot of bands in those years, including with the Nailbiters, Mobile Home and Carnival Desires but mostly with Rusty Cow recording artists, Phrogs, who rocked the wedding.

Not our greatest hits, but some songs some people liked.

Not our greatest hits, but some songs some people liked.

When the chance came to move to Wisconsin, where Monica had grown up, we jumped. That the great Germanist Rob Howell was (and still is) here was key and the history of Wisconsin linguistics is irresistible —people like Frederic Cassidy, Einar Haugen, Eduard Prokosch, Morris Swadesh, W. Freeman Twaddell and others taught here and W.P. Lehmann, Robert D. King, Dennis Preston and others studied here. Lester W.J. Seifert — universally called ‘Smoky’ — has come to exemplify Wisconsin linguistics for me. He taught an amazing range of courses in and far beyond Germanic linguistics but also taught German language on Wisconsin Public Television and travelled the state to talk to community groups about language, in addition to making early recordings of heritage German across eastern Wisconsin. He didn’t just teach and research, he engaged the state in what he was doing and why it mattered.

A 1949 article from a Milwaukee newspaper about Smoky Seifert’s work. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. In Wisconsin, Smoky is central to understanding immigrant bilingualism.

A 1949 article from a Milwaukee newspaper about Smoky Seifert’s work. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. In Wisconsin, Smoky is central to understanding immigrant bilingualism.

With time, it became possible to follow in Smoky’s (and others’) footsteps. Tom Purnell and then Eric Raimy joined the faculty and we started the Wisconsin Englishes Project (http://csumc.wisc.edu/wep/), doing research, teaching and doing outreach using regional language and dialect as a hook.

The Wisconsin Englishes Project team (Tom, me, Eric), Wisconsin Public Television studios.

The Wisconsin Englishes Project team (Tom, me, Eric), Wisconsin Public Television studios.

We’re still trying to understand language in its full context, from the social setting to cognition. That work has offered incredible opportunities, like editing Diachronica and working with the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, both rich collaborations with new chances to learn.

To be able to do these things with the students and colleagues I collaborate with is humbling but it’s also a pure joy and easy pleasure.

Getting off the bike after riding last summer from Whitefish, Montana to Madison with Phil Macaulay.

Getting off the bike after riding last summer from Whitefish, Montana to Madison with Phil Macaulay.

What a trip, and it’s not over.

For more than five years, Monica and Anja Wanner, Rajiv Rao and I had the privilege of editing book reviews for LINGUIST. We saw up close how hard the LINGUIST staff and especially students work to provide us all with so many resources. Those resources wouldn’t have replaced all the support I got from so many generous people along the way, but they sure do supplement that kind of support. Step up and support LINGUIST.

Onward!
Joe

 

 

Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2015 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List really needs your support!

 

Featured Linguist: Thomas Ede Zimmermann

LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015

Featured Linguist: Thomas Ede Zimmermann (Goethe Universität Frankfurt a.M.)

Featured Linguist Thomas Ede Zimmermann

Featured Linguist: Thomas Ede Zimmermann

I was born and raised in the industrial city of Hannover, (then West) Germany. I was 15 when I decided to become a linguist. Here is how. Having entered the Oberstufe – the final phase in the traditional German grammar school – in the summer of 1970, I began developing a mild form of future angst: only 3 years to go until the Abitur (= German high school diploma) and no long-term plans! My parents, both non-academics, were not very helpful in this respect, trying to push me in the direction of German studies. Since I wasn’t sure whether this is what I would want to spend my life with, I decided to find out by browsing the local bookstores and came up with a pile of publishers’ catalogues of books for first-year students of Germanistik. I made my selection of the hottest titles, 4 volumes of a History of the European Novel among them, and returned to the bookstore to find that the only available book of my choice was the one with he catchy title Language, Thought, and Reality (or rather, Sprache, Denken, Wirklichkeit), by famous hobby linguist B. L. Whorf (as I know now). I bought it, read it, and … wanted to become a linguist! This was not so much for the (apparently mis-analysed) wonders of the Hopi language. Rather, what impressed me most was something Whorf used to illustrate his more than debatable claims on the subtle influence of grammar on our thinking: the structure of possible monosyllabic words of English, which he presented in one neat formula! I immediately forgot about the literature part of German studies and went to the local library to get hold of any linguistics textbooks I could find – not many, and all of them with a strong structuralist flavour (which was of course, not for me to discern).

Having spent the following year with langue vs. parole, double articulation, different kinds of oppositions, etc., I was beginning to become disappointed at the overdose of theoretical grandeur and the lack of neat formulae I had hoped for. This was about to change when, in the summer of 1971, I spent a couple of weeks in London with my brother’s friend Wolfgang Zucht, an anarchist who didn’t know anything about linguistics except that there was this guy Chomsky, who also happened to be an anarchist and had written all these linguistics books full of neat formulae. Wolfgang told me about John Lyons’s Fontana Modern Masters volume on Chomsky which had just appeared in German – and opened up a new world to me. I remember spending my last two Gymnasium years reading anything vaguely generative I could find in the local bookstores, from Lyons’s Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics to Lakoff’s Generative Semantics. It was the latter (which I had read in a German translation) that made me aware of the logical approach to meaning, but I did not get seriously into this before entering university.

Hannover did not have anything to offer but a German studies department, and so I decided to leave my hometown and register for the MA programme in theoretical linguistics at Konstanz University. This was in 1973, the beginning of my formation as a semanticist, under the gentle direction of Arnim von Stechow, who in my first year introduced me (and himself) to Montague’s Universal Grammar. At the end of that term I hadn’t grasped 10 per cent of that stuff, but my determination to master it all had been borne. This was to take me another few years of studying linguistic semantics as well as some philosophy and mathematical logic in Konstanz and London (with Hans Kamp), together with an amazing crowd of teachers, friends, and fellow semanticists I met on the way – too many to mention here. In the summer of 1978 I finished my MA thesis (on Montague Grammar – what else?), with the clear feeling that I knew and understood everything. I was young.

Becoming a semanticist back in the 1970s was quite different from what it is in the days of Heim & Kratzer (incidentally, two of my old Konstanz friends). The field had not been established as a sub-discipline of linguistics, and despite some serious integrative attempts (thanks to Barbara Partee), it was still perceived as an esoteric pastime of a small community of logicians, philosophers of language, and (few) linguists. In Germany, this community was particularly strong, with enough funding to have spectacular conferences bringing together some of the best researchers in the field. I attended quite a few of them, though rarely presenting anything, during the time I worked on my dissertation, which was supposed to be about the interface between logical and lexical semantics. I never finished that dissertation, for at least two reasons. The first was that I kept changing my mind over the very subject area: my original strategy had been to formulate model-theoretic constraints on meaning postulates to keep them from overgenerating (a serious issue at the time, and still), but the more I worked on it, the less confident I became that model theory is the right framework for natural language semantics. The other reason was that I was easily distracted, working on a lot of other problems at the same time, and with more success (in terms of publications). One of my favourite topics was Groenendijk’s and Stokhof’s fascinating partition semantics of interrogatives. When investigating its logical underpinnings, I found that one of Montague’s implicit hypotheses about semantic analysis – that his intensional type logic provides a restrictive framework of compositional semantics – was not quite right. I wrote a short article about this and showed it to my would-be supervisor Arnim von Stechow, who saw to it that I would submit it as my dissertation. In the event it was accepted by him (and the co-promoters) and also got published in a logic journal. Rather than being proud of these 13 pages in print, I have always felt a bit ashamed for never having written a proper dissertation; but in the meantime I got used to being introduced as the guy who must have written the shortest linguistics dissertation ever.

From (too many) search committee meetings I know that German professors expect their colleagues to have written at least two books. I managed to do without this, having passed my Habilitation in Stuttgart (in the 90s) with the ‘lazy’ option of submitting, instead of a monolithic book, a bunch of published articles on a number of quite different topics in logic and semantics. Eventually I still managed to find a permanent position as a professor of semantics (at Frankfurt) – and wrote two books since then, both textbooks, but still. And they are full of neat little formulae accounting for the complexities of compositional meaning.

 

Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2015 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List really needs your support!

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell

LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell (March 2015-1)

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell

 

My journey to becoming a linguist was a circuitous one, taking me first through music, into engineering, then back to music, and finally landing in linguistics. I suppose it began when I was nine years old and I got my first (toy) drum kit for Christmas. I really took to playing the drums, and two years later I got my first real drum set. In high school in Dearborn, Michigan (U.S.), I enjoyed most subjects, but math and science were the ones that came most naturally for me. So, not knowing what else to do, I applied to and then enrolled in the nearby College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. In the meantime, a few friends and I had formed a band, and we began writing music and playing live shows in Detroit and Chicago, inspired by the blissed-out shoegazer rock coming out of England at the time.

At the age of twenty, I realized that I didn’t really want to become an engineer. I had caught the travel bug, and after an eye-opening cross-country road trip to California, I bought my first motorcycle and a tent, and I rode out to San Francisco for a fresh start. Some former bandmates followed shortly after, and we formed a new band, Transient Waves. We built a budget recording studio in our basement, and recorded our first album. This obviously didn’t pay the rent, or anything else for that matter, so I supported myself by waiting tables in restaurants and working in coffee shops. I became friends with many coworkers from Mexico and Central America, and to keep our minds stimulated while cooking and serving pasta in North Beach, we began teaching each other our native languages. That was where my interest in language began.

Several years later, and after two more albums in two more cities, Virginia Beach and Philadelphia, I returned to Michigan. I missed the excitement of the university setting, but not knowing what I wanted to study, I opted to sample many topics in the local Washtenaw Community College, from philosophy, to history, to auto mechanics. What grabbed my interest most was Spanish language and literature. I wanted to build upon my restaurant Spanish and learn the nuts and bolts of how the grammar worked and how it differed from Iberia to Mexico to Argentina, and how it differed from English. With this in mind, I re-enrolled at the University of Michigan and declared a Spanish major.

Since I enjoyed exploring Spanish grammar so much, I took some introductory linguistics courses, and I knew pretty quickly that that was my primary field. One of those first classes was Language and History, inspiringly taught by Bill Baxter. In that class I thought for the first time that I wanted to be a professor some day. A short while later, Sally Thomason allowed me to enroll in her graduate class in historical linguistics. In that class I decided I was going to go to graduate school in linguistics. Sally also connected me with some of her graduate students, and I was a research assistant for Nancy Pérez, making lexical databases of Matlatzinca and Ocuilteco, Otomanguean languages of Mexico, from colonial era and modern sources.

I applied to graduate schools, and I was most drawn to the University of Texas, where there is a vibrant community of faculty and students documenting and researching indigenous languages of Latin America, including speakers of such languages. In my application, my numbers were good, but my statements were relatively weak because I only had a vague idea that I wanted to do historical linguistics and perhaps work on Mayan Hieroglyphic writing. Fortunately, Texas took a chance on me, and near the end of my first year in the program, Hilaria and Emiliana Cruz, graduate students and speakers of San Juan Quiahije Chatino, another Otomanguean language of Oaxaca, Mexico, invited me join their Chatino Language Documentation Project, along with Tony Woodbury. Thus, my initial linguistic research was done in collaboration with native speakers and community members, and that will always remain an important part of my work.

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell (March 2015-2)

Chatino Language Documentation Project members in Oaxaca City, April 2008 Left to right: Alma Delia Cruz Candelario, Eric Campbell, Emiliana Cruz, Gabriel Cruz Peralta, Tranquilino Cavero Ramírez, Tony Woodbury, Hilaria Cruz, Margarita González Hernández

 

The Chatino group proposed that I work on the divergent, outlying, and little-studied Chatino variety of Zenzontepec. What a great opportunity this was, so I accepted the invitation and made preliminary plans to travel with them to Mexico in the summer of 2007. I learned that Terry Kaufman and John Justeson had included the language in their lexicographic Project for the Documentation of the Languages of Mesoamerica (PDLMA), so I contacted Terry to see what further plans he had, if any, regarding the language. I was surprised and thrilled when that communication turned into an invitation to join the PDLMA and take over the work on the Zenzontepec Chatino lexical database that Troi Carleton had begun, pending an interview with Kaufman and Justeson over tacos during the next Maya Meetings in Austin, and assisted by recommendations from Nora England, Tony Woodbury, and Sally Thomason.

Making a dictionary isn’t typically the way one starts working on a new language, but it suited me well for several reasons. First of all, I’m interested in all levels of linguistic structure and how all of the pieces fit together. To create and check entries in the database I had to first figure out the basics of the segmental phonology, some morphology, basic syntax to identify grammatical classes, how the lexicon is organized into semantic domains, and ethnographic and cultural information associated with the forms. Second, I learned a lot about the language, and about Mesoamerica in general, during that first summer, and I had plenty of data for my M.A. thesis, an analysis of the morphology and phonology of verbal aspect/mood inflection. I didn’t break through the tone system until the second summer. Finally, and importantly, I formed a bond that will last forever with Tranquilino Cavero Ramírez, the Chatino speaker hired by the PDLMA to work with me.

In my third year of graduate school, I was awarded a documentation grant from the ELDP, and began assembling a small team of native speakers to record a corpus of varied genres of language-in-use in the community. With this support, Tranquilino Cavero Ramírez, Flor Cruz Ortiz and I transcribed, translated, and archived the texts, and from these and supplementary data, I am writing a grammar of Zenzontepec Chatino.

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell (March 2015-3)

Esteban Ruíz Ramírez speaking to Eric Campbell and Tranquilino Cavero Ramírez about traditional plant medicine in El Jicaral, Zenzontepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, Feb. 2010

 

Since 2012, during the summers I have been involved in workshops for speakers of Otomanguean languages, in coordination with a team of linguists from Mexico and the U.S. It is an exciting time in Oaxaca because there is a growing support for this kind of work and a growing interest in learning linguistics on the part of community members. Unfortunately, many of the languages are endangered, but many still have young speakers. These speakers have some skills in digital technologies now, and because of this there is great opportunity to enhance the maintenance and understanding of these languages.

Now, I’m (very pleased to be!) back in California. I’m in my first year as a faculty member in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s an invigorating intellectual environment where people approach language from various perspectives that all share a focus on understanding language in use, in almost every corner of the globe. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where in this story I became a linguist, but at some point these experiences all shaped me into a person who seeks to understand how languages work, how people use them, how they got to be the way they are, how they are similar to one another, and how they differ. Finally, a crucial factor to my becoming a linguist has been the enduring support of my parents and my wife, without whom I never would have made it through graduate school or gotten here.

 

Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2015 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List really needs your support!

 

Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson

LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015

Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson (The University of British Columbia)

Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson (Mar 2015-2)

Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson

 

Tēnā koutou katoa – K’alhwá7al’ap – Simgigyat, sigidim haanaḵ’, ͟ganhl k’uba wilxsihlxw – Greetings to all of you! The first of these greetings is in Māori, reflecting my New Zealand heritage. It literally means something like ‘You all plural.’ The second is in St’át’imcets, the Salish language I have been working on since 1992, and literally says something like ‘You plural are apparently there.’ The third is in Gitksan, the Tsimshianic language I have been working on since 2010. However, Gitksan doesn’t really do greetings. To a friend, informally, one could just say ‘Nit! – literally the third person independent series 3 pronoun. But the words above are a traditional way to begin a speech, and translate as ‘Male chiefs, female chiefs, princes and princesses.’

Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson

Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson

Rather than telling my story in chronological order, I’d like to start with what happened to me just last Friday. I am currently researching discourse particles in Gitksan, and I was trying to test my hypothesis that the particle ist is used whenever the speaker is fully answering the current Question Under Discussion. In order to test this – following up on a suggestion by Norvin Richards – I was asking my consultant whether Gitksan versions of discourses like the following sound good, with ist in the second utterance:

A: I don’t want to know whether Bob came to the feast.
B: He came.

My consultant decided to teach me about his language that day by using the metaphor of how the passed-away Gitksan people would react. The really bad discourses had them spinning in their graves. Not-so-bad ones had them turning halfway; for some, they would just twitch their toes, and for the ones that were actually good, they rested peacefully. This may sound gruesome (and I felt bad that I was torturing them so much!), but he assured me it was just a metaphor and all in fun.

That, right there, is why I’m a fieldworker. I actually get paid to have this much fun.

As for how I got to be this lucky and have this amazing job, it began, I think, with my high school German teacher, Wilma McMillan. She was maybe not viewed as ‘cool’ by teenagers, but I loved her. She played with the language unrelentingly, and German class was never boring. I will never, ever forget that Nacht ‘night’ is a feminine noun, because Frau McMillan told us it was obvious: What do men think about at night? Women! (With my adult brain, I know that this is not only sexist but heterosexist. But still, I’ll never forget the gender of Nacht.) Similarly her explanation of the hard-to-translate word gespannt (anxious/excited, but not quite either of those) involved much enthusiastic body language and emotion. Impossible to forget.

Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson - Lillooet, British Columbia, Canada

Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson – Lillooet, British Columbia, Canada

But there was, in fact, a single defining moment that made me a linguist. I’ve told this story many times to friends and acquaintances. It was in my first linguistics lecture in my first year of university. Our professor, Ray Harlow, explained and proved that the ‘p’s in the words pit and spit are pronounced differently. What?! Seriously?! But they’re both p’s! How does my brain know that? How do I know to pronounce them differently, yet I hear them as the same? From that moment on, I never wanted to do anything else in my career but find out how language works.

Other defining moments stand out like snapshots along the way: a talk by Donna Starks during my undergraduate studies in New Zealand, about her fieldwork on Algonquian (‘Hmm, intriguing idea: one can go places and find out about interesting languages?’) … a talk by Max Cresswell around the same time (‘Why is he so obsessed with donkeys? I am confused, but yes, those are interesting sentences!’) … my MA supervisor, Laurie Bauer, telling me if I didn’t get a PhD and become a linguist he would eat his hat …

Then, my first meeting with a real Salish speaker, Mrs. Dorothy Ursaki, in a Field Methods class at UBC. I was terrified, but she was the sweetest, kindest lady, even if my first attempt at transcribing a pharyngeal had me hearing it as a nasalized back vowel. And of course, my first trip to St’át’imc territory. I was petrified again, because I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the language yet (it contains ejective lateral affricates), so how could I dare to work on it? I was so scared that I couldn’t even concentrate on the spectacular British Columbia scenery and resorted to my fall-back position, reading a book while we drove. Henry Davis laughed at me for that. But from my first day in St’át’imc territory, I was welcomed and I was hooked. We worked in the beginning with three remarkable women: Beverley Frank, Gertrude Ned, and Rose Whitley. They have all sadly passed away, but they were all passionate about their language, and they were all dear friends.

Since I have the floor right now, I’ll say a bit about my beliefs about linguistics. I believe that there are important and deep similarities across languages, and we should search for them in order to uncover what might be innate. There are also many important differences across languages – more than many believe, especially in the semantics. These differences should also urgently be worked on. Not all languages are like English. English does not equal ‘natural language’, and we shouldn’t assume that it does. (We can temporarily assume it does for the purpose of a null hypothesis, which we then attempt to falsify by scientific testing.) Endangered languages need to be researched by as many people as possible, and we also need to give our full support and help to revitalization and retention efforts.

Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson

Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson

This isn’t supposed to be an acknowledgments piece, but I want to mention that dozens of people have helped me have this job I am so lucky to have. Family, friends, teachers, mentors, consultants, colleagues, co-authors, students, postdocs, and funding sources – far too numerous to name. Oh, and of course, The Linguist List! (How else would I have found the relevant job postings?)

Kia ora – Kukwstum’ckál’ap – Ha’miiyaa – Thank you!

 

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Featured Linguist: Rachel Nordlinger

LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015

Featured Linguist: Rachel Nordlinger (University of Melbourne)

Featured Linguist: Rachel Nordlinger with Theodora Narndu, Wadeye NT, 2010.

Featured Linguist: Rachel Nordlinger with Theodora Narndu, Wadeye NT, 2010.

At high school my favourite subject was French. So, when I finished high school I decided I would do Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Melbourne, and major in French. I didn’t really know what I would do after that, but probably I’d “join the diplomatic corps” — whatever that meant. It sounded exciting, and if it meant I could keep doing French then that would be fine. In my second year of Uni, I needed to pick up another subject and found a subject called ‘Linguistics’ in the handbook. I could pick it up in second year, it had no exam, and it even sounded like it would be useful for learning French, so I enrolled.

That decision changed my life. This was 1988 (I was only 5!), and two young newcomers had just taken over the linguistics program at Melbourne University — Mark Durie and Nick Evans. The classes were small, the teaching was inspiring, the other students were enthusiastic, and the whole program had a buzz of excitement around it. I had never come across anything as fascinating, and I quickly realized that with linguistics I could explore everything that I’d loved about learning French… but with respect to hundreds of languages, not just one! Before long I had dropped all my other subjects and was filling my degree up with as many linguistics subjects as I could.

One of those subjects was ‘Language in Aboriginal Australia’, a subject taught by Nick Evans (and, funnily enough, one that I now teach myself having inherited it when Nick moved to ANU a few years ago, although at the time I couldn’t have imagined that this is how it would pan out). In this subject we spent a few weeks learning about Bininj Gun-wok, a Gunwinyguan language from Arnhem land, based on Nick’s field notes and recordings. I was fascinated by the language structure, but even more by the process of discovery: the fun of being presented with completely unfamiliar language data and having to analyse it bit by bit in order to reveal the intricacies of the underlying system. Not to mention the excitement of cracking the code!

When the opportunity came at the beginning of my fourth year to do some fieldwork on the Australian language Bilinarra, I nervously took it.

That first fieldtrip was at once terrifying and exhilarating; it was without doubt the most challenging and the most mind-blowing experience I had ever had. I was a white middle class city girl spending 6 weeks on a remote cattle station (Victoria River Downs) in the middle of the Northern Territory of Australia. The Bilinarra people lived on an excision next to one of the station’s outposts (called Pigeon Hole). Pigeon Hole outstation was a collection of about 15 houses/buildings with a big fence down the middle separating the Aboriginal community from the station workers. I quickly worked out that I felt far more at home on the ‘Aboriginal’ side of the fence, where the Bilinarra community welcomed me with warmth, affection and humour. I also discovered how hard linguistic analysis in the field is!! The two senior Bilinarra men – Hector and Anzac, with their cheeky grins and cattle station Kriol, took it upon themselves to introduce this young city slicker to the Bilinarra language and culture, while I sat in a stunned silence not understanding a single word of it. After a few frantic phone calls to Nick Evans from the outback radio in the station house (“(sobbing) I can’t even understand their translations, let alone their Bilinarra. Over and out.”) I realised that I just had to keep the tape recorder running, and let it happen organically, in its own time.

Featured Linguist: Rachel Nordlinger with Heather Wilson and kids, Elliott NT, 1991.

Featured Linguist: Rachel Nordlinger with Heather Wilson and kids, Elliott NT, 1991.

I ended up learning a lot more on that first field trip than just Bilinarra and Kriol. I developed a deep love for the indigenous people of Australia, and their languages and cultures. I loved their open, warm acceptance of me and my naivety, their pride in their language and their country, and their willingness to share it all with a complete stranger. I loved the way they laughed affectionately at me when my tongue couldn’t handle the shape of the Bilinarra sounds, and their cheers of delight when I spontaneously uttered a grammatical sentence. I loved the nights in the bush, and the dancing, and the beautiful scenery. And I loved the intellectual challenge of taking a language from an uninterpretable sequence of sounds and slowly unearthing its intricacies and logic. I knew then I was hooked.

After working with the Wambaya community while completing my Masters degree, I decided to go to Stanford University to do a PhD. I wanted to take all my descriptive experience and Australian language data, and use it to learn about morphosyntactic theory. At Stanford, I was like a kid in a candy store — so many amazing linguists and so much to learn! I loved it. My time at Stanford expanded my horizons in so many directions, but it also reinforced for me how interesting Australian languages are. In 2004 I took up a position at the University of Melbourne, back where I’d started. I’m now Director of the Research Unit for Indigenous Language, and one of the Chief Investigators in our newly established ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.

Featured Linguist: Rachel Nordlinger

Featured Linguist: Rachel Nordlinger

My research continues to follow these two strands: the documentation and description of Australian languages, and their analysis within formal morphosyntactic theory. I still find fieldwork to be the hardest and most fascinating part of my job, and value its crucial role in reminding me that the language is grounded in a community of speakers, for whom language is inextricably connected with family, culture and making cups of tea.

 

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Featured Linguist: Itziar Laka

LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015

Featured Linguist: Itziar Laka

Featured Linguist Itziar Laka (Lekeitio)

Itziar Laka (Lekeitio, Biscay, Basque Country)

As a child, I always thought I would grow up to be the kind of biologist that goes to Africa to film wild animals. Either that, or a novelist. Becoming a linguist was not part of the landscape, since I had no notion then of what a linguist did. However, I grew up in a place and a time where language was a constant and relentless issue: the dictator Francisco Franco was alive, his regime in full force.

There were many stories that had language at their heart when I grew up, too many to tell here. There was for instance the story of how grandmother Damiana, my fathers mum, had spent a night in jail because she had been caught speaking Basque in the streets of Bilbao to an acquaintance who came from her village and could not speak Spanish. That night in jail left a mark that never went away. On my mother’s side, there were books hidden first, then burnt, forbidden books whose crime was the language they were written in.

Even my school was clandestine and forbidden, it did not have a fixed location. We left in the morning with a book and a folding chair, to the home of whoever’s turn it was. Then, for a week or so, the folding chairs would unfold in your living room and that would be school. I cannot thank enough the brave  unassuming women who taught us. They were truly risking it all in their quiet, humble, daily work. It is hard to explain what it is like to have your language forbidden. It definitely makes you very aware of it.

Time went on, and while I kept dreaming of the documentaries I’d film in the Savanna, or the fantastic novels I would write, Franco’s regime weakened: the clandestine nomadic school became a building, I was in high school now. A Latin teacher who constantly screwed up sentence analysis is my first memory of syntax, but not a good one. Language seemed just plain uninteresting. Then a new teacher came to school and brought a book that described parts of Basque grammar using phrase-structure rules and transformations. This was it for me. That was the coolest thing I had ever set eyes on: it worked! It predicted! It was like clockwork! I became fascinated, argued with the teacher, worked at home to find the best answer to the unsolved parts of the puzzle. The author of that book, Patxi Goenaga, would later be a professor and then a colleague. That was it for me, I would study language.

As an undergraduate, I was very lucky. The University of the Basque Country had just opened, and highly motivated people came to teach, full of ideals. Among them there was Koldo Mitxelena, a historical linguist and true scholar who attracted young enthusiastic professors. I was very lucky because instead of “being taught”, I was shown how one should “find out”. These were times of change and excitement. But I was living a double life: officially I was a philologist, studying the effects of purism in Basque literature; secretly, I kept reading (better say trying to read) books by Noam Chomsky, the man who made the amazing claim that language was in our heads. Finally, my secret early passion for generative grammar bloomed, and this happened by sheer luck again: a new professor named Pello Salaburu came to teach during the last semester of my last year. All the piled up questions could finally be asked. Salaburu asked me would I like to go to MIT? That was more than I had ever dared to dream.

Featured Linguist: Itziar Laka with Irene de la Cruz-Pavía at her PhD graduation (UPV/EHU)

Featured Linguist: Itziar Laka with Irene de la Cruz-Pavía at her PhD graduation (UPV/EHU)

Boston, the linguistics department and MIT itself was like living in another, very distant planet from what I had known. It opened my mind in ways that would not haven been possible otherwise. The first year was so hard that I would come home and sit in front of the TV exhausted: they would talk so I could continue learning English, but no one expected me to reply. Mastering the language was hard, I could not for the life of me understand what all these people were saying. I learned to follow body movements so I could nod if someone spoke with a nodding attitude, and shake my head when I perceived a head shaking. I was hilarious to my classmates, of course, confusing words and playing a kind natural Pictionary all day long. But in the end I learned a little, I worked harder than I thought it was possible and finished a dissertation on negation. Graduate time at MIT is full of stories and memories, impossible to tell them here and now: friendship, love, conversations, personal transformation, discoveries, awakenings…

Featured Linguist: Itziar Laka (TV Interview)

Featured Linguist: Itziar Laka (TV Interview)

Once I graduated, I still felt I knew too little to go back home. I joined the linguistics department at the University of Rochester, where I could extend my omnivorous curiosity to psycholinguistics and other areas of cognitive science. I had wonderful colleagues like Tom Bever, Elissa Newport, Greg Carlson, and graduate students who were bright and motivated friends from whom I learned a lot. I spent five wonderful years at the University of Rochester; then I decided it was time to go back and give back. Either I went back then, after nine years in the US, or I would never do it.

Featured Linguist Itziar Laka

Featured Linguist: Itziar Laka

I went back to the University of the Basque Country in 1996, after a visiting period in Holland (NIAS and Utrecht) for which I will always be grateful. Going back home, the first years were tough: small daughter to raise, heaviest teaching load with the subjects no one wanted to teach… hard work, time and patience slowly changed things bit by bit and today I am a full professor and I direct a research group where we combine theoretical linguistics with the experimental methods of psycholinguistics, to study language and bilingualism. You can find out more about us here:

http://www.ehu.eus/HEB/

Featured Linguist: Itziar Laka's Research Group

Featured Linguist: Itziar Laka’s Research Group

The linguistic landscape I grew up in has totally changed: Basque and Spanish are both official languages, and Basque is present in the media, schools, university, government… I teach in English, Spanish and Basque, a big distance away from the imposed monolingualism of my childhood times. I strongly believe linguists are important people. Our research can help us know more about how languages can coexist in peace, both in mind and in society, increasing justice and human well being across the globe.

 

Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2015 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List really needs your support!

Featured Linguist: Kleanthes K. Grohmann

LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015

Featured Linguist: Kleanthes K. Grohmann

Kleanthes K. Grohmann

University of Cyprus & Cyprus Acquisition Team

(kleanthi@ucy.ac.cy)

Born and raised in Herford, Ostwestfalen, with Greek roots, I left for university at age 21 after the usual, school (9 years of torture) and alternative civilian service (13 months back then). I found salvation in beautiful Wales where I enrolled for a BA (Hons) in Linguistics at the University of North Wales, Bangor (Bangor University nowadays). As it happened, of all courses listed in the catalogue, Linguistics was the only subject I didn’t have much of an opinion about (like, “I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do that”) — in fact, I didn’t even know what it was. Good start. Little did I know that this process of elimination would shape my future (i.e. current) life. (Well, truth be told, I had a wonderful Ancient Greek and Philosophy teacher in high school who got me started thinking about Indo-European language families and relations, but that was about it.)

Kleanthes K. Grohmann

Featured Linguist: Kleanthes K. Grohmann

After getting hooked on generative grammar (with many thanks to my excellent teachers Ian Roberts, Bob Borsley, and Anna Roussou!), I concentrated on theoretical linguistics, spent an Erasmus exchange semester at the Université de Genève (taking courses with Liliane Haegeman, Luigi Rizzi, Ur Shlonsky, Adriana Belletti, and others), and graduated in July 1996 with an Honors Thesis on scrambling and weak pronouns in German. With a BA in my pocket and a lot of hope in my heart, I enrolled for doctoral studies in the Department of Linguistics’ graduate program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Kleanthes K. Grohmann

Featured Linguist: Kleanthes K. Grohmann

Studying with brilliant teachers such as Juan Uriagereka, David Lightfoot, Paul Pietroski, Stephen Crain, and many others — not to forget my fantastic supervisor Norbert Hornstein — I first achieved candidacy with my main generals papers on superiority and was then awarded a PhD in December 2000 for my thesis on anti-locality in grammar. In the meantime, I had my first experiences at international conferences, attended the GLOW Summer School in Thermi, Lesvos (Greece), started Punks in Science with my dear friend Jeff Parrott (a project we unfortunately had to give up a few years ago), and made contact with the great people at ZAS in Berlin. Thanks to Ewald Lang, I landed my first job there, in January 2001. That was short-lived, however, since, thanks to the efforts of my now close friend Joachim Sabel, I was offered the first postdoctoral position in syntax at the Graduiertenkolleg Satzarten in Frankfurt, then coordinated by Günther Grewendorf.

Kleanthes K. Grohmann

Featured Linguist: Kleanthes K. Grohmann

After a good year there, a semester at the Institut für Linguistik: Anglistik in Stuttgart (thanks to Artemis Alexiadou), and two semesters at the Englisches Seminar in Cologne (thanks to Jon Erickson), I was hired by the then Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Cyprus in 2003. In my first year, I was a Visiting Lecturer in the fall and Visiting Assistant Professor in the spring semester, subsequently hired as full-time academic faculty at the rank of Assistant Professor in 2004 in the then restructured Department of English Studies. In this period, I brought to life and nourished the GACL workshop series, a student-oriented workshop where our under- and post-graduate students presented their work in a relaxed atmosphere with some famous colleagues from abroad. I also organized the by now infamous InterPhases conference (“definitely the biggest conference on Phase Theory and Interfaces ever held, which brought together some 200 linguists in Nicosia to exchange ideas on various issues regarding these topics”; see http://linguistlist.org/issues/21/21-1718.html). It featured several invited speakers (Richard Kayne, Howard Lasnik, and Gereon Müller) and Noam Chomsky for the keynote address, who also received an honorary doctorate from UCY at the occasion.

During these years, I also founded the free online journal Biolinguistics with Cedric Boeckx in 2007 (now with a new Biolinguistics Blog, set up by Bridget Samuels and other Biolinguistics Task Team members and even a Facebook group), carried out my first UCY-internally funded research project on minimalism (2007–2009), for which I compiled a glossary of key concepts and definitions with the help of my research assistant Christos Vlachos, and participated in COST Action A33 on language development in 5-year-olds coordinated by Uli Sauerland (2006–2010). Subsequently, I developed an ever-growing interest in Cypriot Greek and its development, especially first language acquisition in typically developing and language-impaired children.

With the creation of the Cyprus Acquisition Team in 2009, I ventured deeper into this world and later participated in COST Action IS0804 on bilingual SLI (2009–2013), coordinated by Sharon Armon-Lotem, for which I also served as Dissemination Officer. My next grant was another UCY-funded research project, Gen-CHILD (2010–2012). The Cyprus Research Promotion Foundation then funded two further projects of mine. One was a Young Researcher’s project on the L1 Acquisition of Pronominal Object Clitics in Cypriot Greek, for which I coordinated research by Theoni Neokleous who at the time pursued a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and a big project on SLI, on the Early Identification and Assessment of Preschool Children with Specific Language Impairment in Cyprus.

At the moment we’re working on a small research project funded by the Leventis Foundation through the University of Cyprus in which we created an adaptation to Cyprus and collect data for the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories, with the postdoctoral researcher Loukia Taxitari. Another postdoctoral researcher, Christiana Christodoulou, landed a prestigious Marie Curie Career Integration Grant under my supervision for a project investigating language abilities in Greek Cypriot children with Down Syndrome (in comparison to typically language-developing children).

Much of this work is highly collaborative and interdisciplinary, including people from theoretical and applied linguistics, psycho- and neurolinguistics, developmental and cognitive psychology, statistical research methodology, and speech–language pathology. The great thing about this kind of research is that one never runs out of collaborators — or ideas!

I was awarded tenure at UCY in November 2009 and am currently Associate Professor in the Department of English Studies, up for my final promotion as we speak. Since then, I have served, among other things, as Chair (= Head of Department), elected member of the University Senate, and (currently) Vice-Dean of the School of Humanities.

These days, my main activities revolve around research related to activities within and beyond, but always inspired by, CAT (http://www.research.biolinguistics.eu/CAT): socio-syntax of language acquisition and development, comparative bilingualism, multilingual development in typical, atypical, and impaired children — and all of that with a biolinguistic angle. Speaking of which, check out the cool journal: it’s free, it’s open access, and it’s becoming better every year! Biolinguistics can be accessed through http://www.biolinguistics.eu and doesn’t even require registration. We can also be found on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/BIOLINGUISTICS.Journal) — and very soon on Twitter with lots of additional social media activities.

Last but not least: And keep reading my daily news bulletin of the past two decades: Linguist List!  :-)

Featured Linguist: Picus Sizhi Ding

Picus Sizhi Ding

Featured Linguist: Picus Sizhi Ding

Picus Sizhi Ding

 

The LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015Please donate!

 

Entering the field of linguistics in the early 1990s, I consider myself to be one of those growing up professionally together with the Linguist List. When I first learned of the List, which was precisely in the form of a mailing list, the kind of excitement I felt was about the same as I first discovered linguistics as a discipline.

Born in a Hokkien family in Rangoon at a time when overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia strongly upheld their ancestral language as part of their identity, I spent several years of my early life as a bilingual child in Hokkien and Burmese. Then my family moved to Macao and I grew up bilingually in Cantonese and Hokkien. The only foreign language taught in most schools of Macao in those days was English. I started to get interested in Mandarin around Grade 7, with exposure to its pronunciation mainly via pop songs such as those sung by Teresa Teng. In my final year of high school, Radio Macao launched a series of mini-programs for learning elementary Portuguese, I learned a little bit out of curiosity. In retrospect, there has always been an interest in languages in me. This explains my immediate decision on electing linguistics as my major when I discovered it on a long list of majors available in some universities in North America. For variegated reasons, I had moved and studied in the states, Canada and Australia, but my field of study remained intact. As a result, I have received all my three degrees in linguistics, each from a different country.

In my senior year I wrote a term paper on the Construction in Mandarin for a syntax course taught by Prof. Usha Lakshmanan at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. I continued to work on this topic for my M.A. thesis, but I felt that it was rather easy to do linguistics on a language one knew well. I began to develop the idea of describing a minority language for my doctoral study, regarding this as an effective means to train an all-round linguist. After I told Prof. Nancy Hedberg, my supervisor at Simon Fraser University, about this idea, she kindly lent me a copy of Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker by Prof. R. M. W. Dixon. Eventually, I went to Australian National University in 1994 with the goal of investigating an obscure language for my doctoral research. Aware of ANU’s focus on the Pacific region, I had kept the option of languages to study open. As it turned out, I was not expected to write a grammar for a Polynesian or Australian language; instead, I could find my own language for research.

Back in December of 1992, I borrowed three grammatical sketches written in Chinese from the Asian Library at University of British Columbia for my Christmas reading. One of these was 普米语简志 (A Brief Account of the Pumi Language), which impressed me the most among the three books. This was the first time I learned of this language and the Pumi people. I had done an analysis of the homorganic consonant clusters of Prinmi, and thus this Tibeto-Burman language was on top of my short list of languages to study.¹ The biggest problem, however, was that I didn’t know any Prinmi speakers and, in fact, I had never been to Yunnan. Luckily, I found a native of Kunming at ANU whose father was a professor at the then Yunnan Institute for Nationalities.

One of the most memorable experiences during my fieldwork was the New Year Eve of 1995. I was in a hurry to return to the Prinmi village from the county seat and I got on a van that was about to depart. After the van took an unexpected turn and continued running in a different direction, I found out from other passengers that the van was heading to a village unknown to me that a small number of Pumi lived there. With this information, I felt a bit released, as I could try to get help from the Pumi there. I went to a Pumi household which sat right on the ‘main’ street of the village. Using my rudimentary Prinmi, I tried to introduce myself with my Prinmi name. I was welcomed warmly by the master of the household. This had nothing to do with my Prinmi, but rather, he happened to be a younger brother of an old Pumi whom I knew well. What a coincidence! Another adventurous experience took place in early March of 2005. I trekked for more than 12 hours on the mountains with a Pumi priest whose home village was just across the Yunnan-Sichuan border in Muli, Sichuan. When the nightfall began, I saw the shade of a big animal jumping over a creek. I thought it was a leopard, but the priest told me it was a bear and that bears in this region were vegetarians just like pandas. After that he asked me to stay there, as it was getting dark, he would go to the village by himself and send someone to pick me up later. In the dark I could see some lighting ahead, so I walked slowly toward the village with my knees painful and my shoes all wet (the mountains were covered by snow). After an hour or so, I was picked up by the sons of the priest with a horse.

My fieldwork experiences in China are filled with frustrations, joy and, to a lesser extent, danger and luck. I was fortunate to have met Prof. David Bradley at La Trobe University just before my first field trip to Yunnan and a few months later in Kunming amid my fieldwork period. However, it is hard work that has contributed to my fieldwork achievement. These fieldwork experiences are a microcosm of my life in general. I feel glad that I have been able to follow my interests to conduct research on minority languages of China, which probably represents the least studied region with a high degree of linguistic diversity under-estimated. From descriptive linguistics to language documentation and conservation, China, especially south China (including Taiwan) has much to offer to field linguists.

¹ I use the direct transcription of autonym Prinmi, rather than Mandarin pinyin, to refer to the language.

 

Read the translation of Picus Ding letter in Chinese