Featured Linguists

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.

 

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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.

 

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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

 

Featured Linguist: Picus Sizhi Ding

Picus Sizhi Ding

 

The LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015Please donate!

 

丁思志

我在90年代初踏足语言学领域,自认是与‘语言学家名单’一起成长的语言学者之一。 当我第一次听闻这个组织,它正是以电邮形式运作,那种兴奋的感觉跟我发现语言学是一门学科不遑多让。

出生于仰光的一个福建家庭,我早年的婴孩生活是在一个兼具闽南语和缅甸语的双语环境里度过的。那时候在东南亚的海外华人坚守祖先的语言,把它看作自己身份认同不可或缺的一部分。 后来,我家搬到澳门,伴我成长的语言变成是粤语和闽南语。那个年代英语是澳门大部分学校教的唯一一门外语。大概是升读初一的时候,我开始对国语/普通话产生兴趣,主要是通过听诸如邓丽君的流行歌曲接触到国语发音。在高中的最后一年,澳门电台推出了一个学习初级葡萄牙语的小节目,出于好奇,我学了一点点。 回想起来,原来自己对语言一直有着浓厚的兴趣。 这就是为什么当我看见北美大学长长的本科专业名单上出现‘语言学’这个专业时,我马上决定我要主修语言学。 由于各种的原因,我在美国、加拿大和澳大利亚都留下了留学的足迹,但在我的‘游学’生涯中,我的主修专业始终如一。 就这样,我分别从三个不同的国家取得了本科、硕士和博士学位,全都是语言学。

在南伊利诺伊大学本科毕业那年,我给Usha Lakshmanan教授任教的句法课写了一篇有关普通话的把字句的论文。顺理成章,硕士论文我也继续往这个题目下功夫,但我觉得研究自己熟悉的语言似乎太过容易。我开始有了日后攻读博士要研究、描述少数民族语言的想法;毕竟这是锻炼、造就一个全方位的语言学家的有效方法。我把这个想法告诉了我在西蒙·弗雷泽大学的导师Nancy Hedberg教授,她非常好人,把R. M. W. Dixon教授写的《寻觅原住民语言——田野工作者的回忆录》借了给我。 最终,我在1994年去了澳大利亚国立大学,准备把我的博士研究放在一个不为人熟知的语言上。我知道太平洋地区是澳国大的科研焦点,我对自己要研究的语言保持着开放的态度。 事实证明,校方没有要求我去描写波利尼西亚或澳大利亚的语言; 相反,我要研究的语言完全取决于我。

早在199212月,我从不列颠哥伦比亚大学的亚洲图书馆借了三本中国大陆出版的少数民族语言简志,供我圣诞期间阅读​​。 其中一本就是《普米语简志》,它是三本书中给我留下最深印象的一本。 这是我第一次听闻普米族和普米语。我对普米语的同部位复辅音做了一些分析,所以,这个藏缅语几乎是我首选的研究对象。但最大的问题是我不认识任何普米族,我甚至从未去过云南。我幸运地在澳国大找到了一个昆明人,而他的父亲又是当年云南省民族学院的教授。

我的田野调查中最难忘的经历之一是1995年的元旦除夕。我赶着要从县城返回普米村寨,便冲忙地登上了一辆正要启动的面包车。车子拐了一个弯、继续往跟以前不同的方向驶去 之后,我就觉得有点不对劲,问了身边的乘客我才知道面包车要前往一个我未到过的村庄,但那里有几户普米人家。 有了这个信息,我才稍稍松了一口气,我可以试着找一户普米人家帮忙。就在村子的大街上有一户普米族,我便进去了。用我有限的普米语告诉人家我的普米名字。结果,主人家热情地接待我。 但这跟我的普米语没有关系;恰好他是一个我认识的普米老人的弟弟。 真是太巧了! 另一个冒险的经历发生在2005年三月初。我随着一个家住四川木里、川滇交界地区的普米‘韩规’ 在山区长途跋涉超过12个小时。 当夜幕开始降临的时候,我看见一个大黑影跃过一条小溪。 我以为是豹子,但韩规告诉我那是一头熊,而这一区的熊是素食的,就像熊猫。 之后,他叫我呆在那里,天快要黑了,他先赶回家,然后再让人来接我。 在漆黑中,我看到前方微弱的光点;于是我举步维艰地走向村落,膝盖疼痛,鞋子全湿(高山覆盖着积雪)。 一个小时左右以后,韩规的儿子拉着一匹马把我接走。

我在中国的田野工作充满了挫折、喜悦,还有一点危险和幸运。在我第一次到云南进行研究之前,我有幸遇到了La Trobe大学的David Bradley(大卫·布莱德利)教授,而之后的几个月实地考察期间,我又在昆明遇见了他。 然而,我田野工作所取得的成果全赖于艰苦奋斗。 这些田野工作经历是我人生的缩影。 值得高兴的是,我能够随着自己的兴趣去研究中国这片语言多样性程度极高、但又被严重低估的土地上(这可能是当今语言学家最少研究的地区)的少数民族语言。从描写语言学到语言纪录和保护,中国,尤其是包括台湾地区的南中国,有着许多吸引田野语言学家到来的东西。

 

Read the English version of the letter.

 

Featured Linguist: Stephen Morey

During the past nine weeks we have been sharing the most inspiring stories from linguists all around the world with our readers and subscribers. Today we are completing our journey with a truly motivating and encouraging story from our Featured Linguist Stephen Morey. Read below how Stephen became a linguist!

Stephen Morey with Jonglem Khilak

Stephen Morey with Jonglem Khilak

I have just returned from my twentieth field trip to North East India, documenting and describing the Tai, Singpho and Tangsa languages spoken in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, in the parts that border Myanmar.

Although I grew up in a monolingual community I’ve always been fascinated by different languages. As a teenager I wrote to the late Dr. Adam Murtonen at Melbourne University asking how I could go about learning ancient languages: Hittite, Assyrian, ancient Egyptian and Sumerian. He advised me to learn German first, because so much literature on these languages was in German. This advice disappointed me, and while I did learn a bit of German subsequently, I have never learned Hittite, well not yet.

Around the same time, feeling that someone who lives in Melbourne should know about this area, I went to the State Library of Victoria and copied out by hand word lists from books about Aboriginal languages, particularly Victorian Languages: A Late Survey by Luise Hercus. I met Luise about 30 years later and have been delighted to work with her on projects to combine her knowledge gained from native speakers of Victorian languages with the 19th century written records .

At age 16, however, I was seduced by music, specifically the mandolin, and for a decade and a half I concentrated on learning, and then performing, teaching and researching this instrument. Some friends and I formed a group to play mediaeval music, joined by Kate Burridge, singer, hurdy-gurdy player and Morris dancer. I used to listen with fascination as she told us in the coffee break at our rehearsal about her day job: linguistics, and her coming book on euphemism. So when in the early 1990s I developed some physical injury in my hand and had to abandon mandolin, I went to Kate to find out what linguistics was.

I had a year before I could start a University degree. I had researched my family history and learned that some of my ancestors were among the last speakers of Cornish; and then I learned that you can study revived Cornish and so with my spare time (not too much of that these days) I learned Cornish by Correspondence and passed the Gorsedh exam after which I was invited to become a Cornish Bard. It is an inspiration to put more effort into language documentation that my own ancestors spoke a language that was lost. But European languages were not really what I was looking for. By chance, one day I was marching in a huge demonstration against the policies of the then government and I met an old friend. “What are you doing, Gareth,” I asked and he answered “Learning Thai”. At once I decided to learn Thai as well.

After several years of a double major in Linguistics and Thai, I got me an overseas study grant for a semester at the Prince of Songkla University in Pattani, Thailand. I took three subjects (all taught in Thai), Principles of Thai Language, Thai Dialectology and Malay language (Introductory).

My dialectology teacher, Dr. Thananan Trongdi, had heard that my wife and I were planning a trip to India. He said, “Why don’t you go to Assam, there are Thai people there.” I thought Assam was closed to foreigners, as indeed it had been, but by October 1996 it was open and we went there, armed with a name: Nabin Shyam. On the day we arrived and met up with him, he said to us that he would be going to his home village in three days, if we wanted, we could come too. So on the night of 21st October 1996 I spent my first night in a village in Assam: Ban Lung Aiton village in Karbi Anglong District. More than 1000 nights in at least 40 villages over 20 field trips have followed that night!

The Tai people in India have their own writing system; it is based on the Shan alphabet which is itself based on Burmese, but it is unique. We had visited a second village, Namphakey in Dibrugarh District, and there I had mentioned to my hosts that I had learned how to make fonts (I called it ‘computer printing block’). Nobody in the village and ever seen a computer at that time, but they gave me a hand-copied book and a request to make the font. Back in Australia I thought it would be a good PhD project to learn about their language. So a year later I returned, with the font made and a laptop to work on. There followed 5 years in which I studied the Tai languages, then two fellowships over 4 years to work on Singpho, and for the last 7 years I’ve concentrated much of my effort on Tangsa.

Recording devices have changed much in that time. At first, with only my own resources to cover costs, I had just a small cassette player of dubious quality. Over the years sound recorders have changed from Cassette through Minidisc and Microtrack to the Zoom H4n and video from those with cassettes to those that use SD cards. I’ve recorded songs and stories and linguistic information in 5 Tai varieties, 4 Singpho varieties and (at latest count), 32 Tangsa varieties. Although the Tai varieties are all mutually intelligible, and the Singpho ones more or less so, the Tangsa varieties are very diverse and it remains a huge task learning enough about each variety to really understand what’s going on. The immense task of transcription, translation, analysis and archiving is ongoing and will go on for a good deal longer!

All along I’ve had two special interests: manuscripts and songs. Of the three groups I’m working with, the Tai have a long written tradition. Tai Phake and Tai Aiton communities still contain people who can read manuscripts, though not too many in the Aiton; but the Tai Ahom language ceased to be spoken 200 years ago, and the manuscripts, which are different from those of the Phake and Aiton, are hard to interpret. The problem is like this: Tai is a tonal language, with perhaps 5 tonal contrasts likely to have been present in Ahom. But tones are not marked and so a single written word can have many meanings.

Song language, in all three language groups, is equally challenging, differing in form from the spoken language to a lesser and greater degree. It has been very exciting to record songs, to learn about the context, and then record an explanation of their meaning and try to translate it all.

In North East India there are usually not places to stay in villages apart from someone’s house. So I’ve got to know many families in all the different communities that I have stayed in. Because I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the languages, it may sometimes seem to my hosts that I’m always working (it certainly seems so to me at times!). I have found that I can only really enjoy sitting and chatting with people when I have got good enough at the language to be able to chat easily. In my more recent work on Tangsa, because of its huge diversity, this hasn’t really happened, and these days the younger people are usually more fluent in English and so we end up using that. I wish I could learn each Tangsa variety to the level I learned Tai Aiton, but that would take several lifetimes.

Stephen Morey

Featured Linguist: Jost Gippert

Please welcome our new Featured Linguist Jost Gippert! Jost was born in Western Germany and is currently working at the University of Frankfurt. Find out below what led him to linguistics and why he chose this path.

Jost Gippert

How I Became a Linguist
by Jost Gippert

“Buenos dias”, “buenas noches” – this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French – there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. The first foreign language I had to learn “officially”, in secondary school, was Latin – fascinating as well, not so much for its sounds (as nobody “spoke” it) but for its structure, with case endings, perfect subjunctives, and the accusativus cum infinitivo. Then, when I was eleven years old, my father gave me a textbook of Russian he had received for evaluation (as a school teacher of German, so it made no sense for him). Yet another fascinating experience: first, I had to deal with a different script here (actually, not for the first time, I had learned the Greek alphabet long before, but not so much the language); and second, the textbook came along with a disc which contained the first five or so lessons, spoken by well articulating native speakers (of course there were no “normal” Russian speaking people around on our side of the Iron Curtain then) – I still have their voices in my ears today after listening to them for many hours in those times. Finally, when I was 15 years old, I had the opportuny to apply what I had learned from the discs, on a one-week trip to Moscow, which turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments in my “early linguistic career”: I had to realize that the “stagy” pronunciation of the speakers on the disc (presumably all elder emigrants from Tzarist St. Petersburg) had barely anything in common with the colloquial Muscovite slang with all its vowel reductions etc. I was confronted with on that trip. Nevertheless, I did not give up – after four days I had accustomed myself to that sufficiently for an intriguing conversation with a young lady of my age (whom I never met again, alas!).

Russian was decisive indeed for my choice to become a linguist, not so much because of the (delayed) success in speaking it but rather because of its stunning similarities with Latin: common words like luna “moon”, common grammatical features as in feminines ending in -a, common preverbs like pro-, etc. Even though I had heard nothing concrete about the parentage and affinity of Indo-European languages at school, it was clear to me that Comparative Linguistics was “my” subject when I took up my university studies at Marburg, and it has remained so down to the present day, in both its senses: as a discipline investigating genetic relations of languages, and as a discipline trying to classify them according to their typological characteristics. After a “career” of more than 40 years, I can tell for sure that the more languages you get acquainted with, the less you will be deterred by strange sound systems (and sound changes), anteablatives, or antipassives, and yet every new language will be fascinating for you, especially if you try not to miss the cultural background behind it.

Jost Gippert

Featured Linguist: Neil Smith

Today we are introducing our next featured linguist Neil Smith from the University College London. If you have ever wondered why you should become a linguist, read Neil’s story where he tells you why this is the best profession in the world!

Neil Smith

How I Became a Linguist
by Neil Smith

It all began at secondary school when I specialised in languages – French, German and Latin – simply because the man teaching French and German (Leonard Priestley) was an inspiration. Reading Voltaire’s Zadig was an excuse to discuss astronomy and the nature of the senses; studying Molière led to ruminations on hypochondria. Syllabus? What syllabus? So I went to Cambridge (UK) and read ‘Modern and Medieval languages’.

In my final year I had to select five optional subjects (out of some 77) to be examined on. I had chosen the History of the French Language, the History of the German Language, German Literature before 1500, Vulgar Latin & Romance Philology, and was about to put down German Literature in the 20th century, when a friend asked if I knew what ‘Linguistics’ was. After we had agreed that neither of us had the slightest idea, he persuaded me to join him in adding it as our final option. So in October 1960 we enrolled on John Trim’s course on “The Principles of Linguistics”, and I have been hooked ever since.

The bulk of the course consisted of phoneme theory, with a healthy admixture of morphemes and even a smattering of syntax in the form of Immediate Constituent analysis. Banal by today’s standards, but Trim was an inspiring teacher and I was soon converted from my desire to be a medievalist to a desire to understand everything about the phoneme. In fact, my understanding even of that was minimal. I still remember with stark clarity at the end of the first term being given a passage and told to transcribe it both phonetically and phonemically. I had no idea what that meant. Similarly, I remember endlessly searching in my dictionary for some insight which would enable me to distinguish ‘syntax’ and ‘semantics’, but again to no avail. These memories have made me tolerant of students today who have problems with a much more rebarbative jargon.

We took finals. I got distinctly mediocre marks, and was told unofficially that my worst paper had been linguistics, which I nearly failed. So I applied for jobs. Fortunately, none of librarianship, school-teaching or the British Council would touch me and, faute de mieux, I started a PhD at UCL. I had a hankering to do field-work and planned to go up the Amazon and find some unwritten language to study. I was advised that Nigeria was more likely to leave me alive at the end of my trip and I finally picked on Nupe. The Central Research Fund of the University of London gave me my air fare, but it seemed more interesting to go overland so I hitch-hiked to Bida in Northern Nigeria… The journey lasted two months, took me through 14 countries, and included every conceivable form of travel – from aeroplane via pilgrim-lorry to dug-out canoe.

A year’s field-work is wonderful training for any linguist. Being confronted with a complex tone language, whose syntax was unlike anything I had ever heard of was chastening, exhilarating, illuminating, educative, and fun. It was also intermittently very lonely and extremely hard work, but it set me up with stories to dine out on for life, and it also brought a PhD. Better still, my new found expertise as an Africanist seemed to have qualified me to become a lecturer in West African Languages in the Department of Africa at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies).

SOAS was strange. My colleagues were mostly a delight, but relations between the Linguistics department and the Africa department were strained, and those between the Linguistics department and the sister department at UCL where I had come from were icy. It was ‘not convenient’ for me to use the library of the Linguistics department or attend seminars there, and some of the students were warned not to talk to me “in case they get confused”. To escape the suffocation of the rivalries at SOAS, I applied for a Harkness Fellowship and went to MIT and UCLA for a couple of years.

MIT was a revelation. There was huge enthusiasm, appallingly hard work, and remarkable talent. I had gone to MIT because of Chomsky, but when I arrived, he was away and, to my great good fortune, Morris Halle took me under his wing. Partly because of this and partly because I am married to a medical doctor I later wrote a book on the acquisition of phonology. How come? As my work wasn’t essential like that of a doctor is, it often fell to me to look after our elder son, Amahl. To stay sane I made endless notes and recordings. Who but a linguist could sit on the floor playing trains and claim it was research? It was such fun that I did it again nearly 40 years later and wrote a book on the acquisition of phonology by his elder son, Zak.

When I had arrived at MIT the place was buzzing with the ideas of Generative Semantics, and the demise of Chomsky’s ‘Standard theory’ was widely assumed to be imminent. Chomsky’s response was electrifying. In the spring semester of 1967 he delivered the lectures which became “Remarks on Nominalization”, widely interpreted as a systematic attack on Generative Semantics. Chomsky’s arguments were illuminating: at once critical, penetrating and innovative (X-bar theory first saw the light of day in these lectures), and ultimately set the scene for much of the linguistic theorising of the next decade. But it was another thirty years before I thought I understood enough of his ideas and ideals to write about them.

Being a linguist has brought other pleasures: beautiful people and places to visit, the chance to straddle disciplines and popularise one’s favourite findings, wonderful colleagues and co-authors, inspiring students, awe-inspiring subjects of research like the polyglot savant Christopher. The list is almost endless. Be a linguist!

Neil Smith