Featured Linguists

Featured Linguist: Artemis Alexiadou

Featured Linguist: Artemis Alexiadou

Featured Linguist: Artemis Alexiadou

I was born in Volos, a medium sized city in Greece, by the sea, more or less half way between Athens and Thessaloniki.

My parents thought it would be good for me to learn foreign languages very young, (sometimes I wonder whether they had heard about the critical period hypothesis), so next to normal school I had French and English classes. That was fun but did not trigger any interest in linguistics. I loved to read books, the longer the better.  Maybe I secretly wanted to become a writer.

What I did want to become, however, was an archaeologist, and go on expeditions.

During my final year of high school, we were told about the Indo-European language family and how e.g. French, English, German, and Greek all belong to the same family but to different sub-branches. I entered university to learn more about these issues, but soon changed my mind. It all happened during our first session of introduction to linguistics in Athens; our Professor, Dimitra Theophanopoulou-Kontou, mentioned Noam Chomsky, and the idea of Universal Grammar.  I felt that this all makes perfect sense. It has to be right. I then wanted to read everything that Chomsky had written; of course, I could hardly understand most of the things I was reading.

After graduating from Athens, I went to Reading, UK to do an MA in Linguistics. I wanted to go to England, because of the English league and Charles Dickens. I also wanted to learn more about syntax. It turned out that the English I had learned back home had nothing to do with the English spoken there. I realized then what it means to speak a standard as opposed to a dialect.

My year in England was very exciting. Towards its end I started thinking about pursuing a PhD, but I was not quite sure about that yet.

I moved to Berlin at the end of 1991, mainly for personal reasons, but hoping to seriously pursue a PhD there. I thought it could be on the syntax of adverbs, as my MA thesis was on case and adverbial nouns. Berlin was a whole new world for me. I spoke no word of German, I knew nobody, and nobody knew me. I spent my first months going to German school. It was hard, and ask Tibor Kiss and Gereon Müller, they will tell you that my nominal inflections are still all over the place, and we should better not mention my use or rather non/mis-use of the German verbal particle system.

In 1992, I applied for a PhD position at the center that is now called ZAS (Center for General Linguistics). I was ecstatic when Ewald Lang asked to meet me, and when I was invited for an interview. I believe it all had to do with the topic I wanted to write my dissertation on, namely adverbs, a topic several people at this institute have been thinking about. I got the position and started working there in the summer of 1992; soon after other PhDs joined and we had a fun group, for instance my office mate André Meinunger and my dear friend Ursula Kleinhenz.

The two years of my scholarship were very important for my development. I am thankful for numerous things: the intellectual environment at the institute, the cooperation with Manfred Bierwisch’s group Structural Grammar, the possibility to travel to conferences and summer/winter schools, where I met both peers as well as more senior linguists and was taught by many renowned linguists. This is how I met Elena Anagnostopoulou in Holland; we kept supporting each other during final stages of our dissertations and later started working together. Several workshops were organized in Berlin and many people came to visit, so there was always something happening and there were so many people to talk to.

During the 1994 GLOW in Vienna, I met Gisbert Fanselow, who had recently been appointed as Professor in Potsdam, and asked him if he would be interested in supervising my thesis. He was, so I became the first person to get a linguistics PhD from Potsdam. Some years later, in 1999, I had my Habilitationskolloquium in Potsdam; my Habilitation (or second book as they say here) was on nominalization and ergativity, and owes a lot to discussions with Alec Marantz and Melita Stavrou. I have been trying to understand nominal structure ever since. In 1999 I spent a semester teaching in Tübingen, and am thankful to Arnim von Stechow and Wolfgang Sternefeld for this opportunity. That year I also joined the GLOW Board, and profited enormously from interactions with Henk van Riemsdijk, Ian Roberts and later Anders Holmberg.

Between 2000 and 2002 I spent some time abroad, visiting MIT, Princeton and UPenn and then returned to Potsdam, all on a Heisenberg fellowship from the German Research Foundation (DFG). In 2002 I was offered a Professorship in English Linguistics in Stuttgart, so I moved from Berlin to the south of Germany, looking forward to working together with Greg Dogil, Hans Kamp and Christian Rohrer. Many collaborative initiatives took place between linguistics and computational linguistics in Stuttgart, a graduate school, and later a collaborative research center (SFB), whose director I had the privilege to be till September 2015. Interdisciplinary work is really exciting, and I am very happy that I was part of this enterprise.

Perhaps the greatest moment of my linguistic career was when I received a call from the DFG that I was awarded the Leibniz-Prize 2014. People call this the German Nobel Prize, and all the money goes to research, which is fantastic! First I was speechless, then I was screaming. It was, and still feels, simply amazing.

While I am clearly a syntactician, interested in the interfaces between syntax and morphology and syntax and the lexicon, more recently, I got interested in multilingualism for a very simple reason. I noticed that I started transferring all sorts of features from English to German to Greek and back, ending up often thinking that I really do not have a native language anymore. Understanding this mixing will help us understand how the human brain deals with the multi-tasking of handling multiple languages. I also got interested in the properties of grammars of heritage speakers, as these have been argued to deviate from native grammars, so I would like to find out more about thess issues. Some of this work is in collaboration with Terje Lonhdal and his group in Trondheim. In this and other recent research we are applying psycholinguistic methods and I am very happy I can use my award money to do research in these areas.

In October 2015 I moved back to Berlin (Humboldt University), and, thanks to Manfred Krifka, back to ZAS. Quite a journey!

I consider myself very fortunate for all the support I have received in my career. I am grateful that I have made great friends in linguistics, collaborating with them is inspiring and entertaining. Most of all, I am extremely proud to have had and still have great students. I am thankful to each and every one of them.

 

 

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

Featured Linguist: David Adger

Featured Linguist: David Adger

Featured Linguist: David Adger

A few months ago, I was asked by a TV programme to make up a language for their monsters to speak, and with that, my linguistics life completed a cycle. When I was about 11 or so, I grew fascinated with language, mainly from reading Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, a book I still completely love. Le Guin envisaged a world where the words actually created the reality, and every single piece of existence had its own particular name. Fascinated by this idea, and already developing my inner language geek, I started making up languages to explore whether they could work like that. To do this, I had to learn how real languages actually worked. At school, they just taught French and German (and later some Latin), but my local library (sadly closed this year because of government cuts) was full of teach-yourself books on weird and wonderful languages, as well as some pretty impenetrable linguistics books. I think the librarians were a bit perplexed by a twelve year old taking home tomes on philology and grammar he couldn’t possibly understand. They were right, I didn’t understand them at all, but I was so hooked by that point, that I read them anyway, and I guess some stuff sunk in. I remember winning a competition for local schools at St Andrews University, when I was about 16, and buying, with my £20 prize, second hand copies of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (which I still have). Again, I wasn’t really able to understand these books in much depth, but the idea that you could use rigorous, mathematical, means to try to get under the skin of language was, and still is, just endlessly fascinating to me.

I went to Edinburgh University to do Linguistics with Artificial Intelligence, a course that, in classical UK university style, didn’t really exist (they were borrowing the final year of the course from a Master’s programme). There Mark Steedman took us, in ten short weeks, on a whirlwind tour of syntax: from Syntactic Structures, through the context-free debates, to the Dutch Infinitival Complement construction, Combinatory Categorial Grammar and Winograd’s Eliza program. It was, intellectually, one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, and I remember a couple of cases where the security guards had to come throw us out because we were all still pestering Mark with questions an hour after the lecture was meant to have finished.

From then I was really a budding categorial grammarian, and, given that it was Edinburgh, and unification-based frameworks were de rigeur, my undergrad theses (we had to do two) were a Unification Categorial Grammar analysis of purpose clauses and an analysis of fluid-ergativity in Eastern Pomo that suggested unification graphs should be allowed to be cyclic—both of these now lost in the fire that destroyed the old Artificial Intelligence department library in Edinburgh. A natural progression, as I moved to doing a Masters in Cognitive Science, was to HPSG (I was really a bit overly dismissive of the GB research program, thinking it relied too much on filters, and not really realizing that HPSG was really a giant set of filters!) At the same time, though, the power of unification based approaches began to make me feel very unsatisfied as to how good a job they were doing of explaining why languages seemed to be cut from very similar cloths.

My undergrad thesis!

My undergrad thesis!

Just about then, Chomsky’s Minimalist work began to appear, and I thought to myself: hey, this is like categorial grammar with movement, that’s very cool. I’d already begun a PhD in Edinburgh working with Elisabet Engdahl on whether it was possible to graft a Discourse Representation Theory type semantics to a minimalist syntax in order to try to understand the semantic effects (or lack of them) of various object movement operations in Scottish Gaelic as well as other languages. Elisabet suggested I spend some time at UMass Amherst, where I got a taste of what a North American graduate programme was like (way more intensive than the British one!), and there I really learned how to think like a syntactician in Hagit Borer’s syntax course. My thesis ended up arguing that Agr nodes (all the rage then) were associated with a Heimian style semantics (constraining the elements in their specifiers to be discourse familiar). Cross linguistic variation emerged from conditions on which bit of a movement chain was fed to the semantic mechanisms, so in some languages Agr’s semantic effect was masked by other aspects of the syntax. Then Chomsky decreed Agr dead the following year!

Agr or no Agr, I was very lucky and got a job at the University of York, where I slightly neglected syntax for a short period as I panicked about teaching and found myself dangerously capable at administration. York was strong in syntax, and I had great fun working on all sorts of problems with George Tsoulas and Bernadette Plunkett; but York also had a growing sociolinguistics group, and one of Sali Tagliamonte’s students, Jen Smith, and I ended up sharing a spooky old 15th Century townhouse, with George, in York. I began to get interested in thinking about how to understand the morphosyntax of the sociolinguistic variation Jen was documenting for the Buckie dialect of Scots.

photo 3

15th Century Sociosyntax Laboratory

It was frustrating, but ultimately massively rewarding, to try, with Jen, to bring together two quite distinct parts of linguistics, and, this collaboration was crucial in leading to my next job, at Queen Mary University of London. My partner had been working in London since I moved to York, so, in classic junior academic fashion (he was a post-doc at UCL in environmental science) we were living long-distance lives. Then a job came up at QMUL for a sociolinguist. With my newly found credentials from working with Jen, I went down to QMUL and told them all about the syntax of negative concord in Buckie (I even had some chi-squared test results, in amongst the uninterpretable features and movement chains!). Although QMUL really wanted a sociolinguist, they ended up appointing a dyed-in-the-wool minimalist syntactician. QMUL also appointed Colleen Cotter at the same time, and together with Jenny Cheshire, we began to build the department at Queen Mary.

A lot of the next dozen years involved trying to cram in some syntax in between Chairing the Department, developing new degree programmes, trying to raise funding for PhDs and postdocs, and becoming Head of School (which involved trying to understand what colleagues in Film, Comparative Literature or Mediaeval French wanted). I wrote a textbook I’d never intended to, and Daniel Harbour and I began to work on Kiowa, a language he’d been investigating for his PhD, which led to a slightly impenetrable book, and to me being convinced that our theories of phrase structure were both too complex and too lax (echoes of my earlier worries about unification, I think). I also spent a quiet few months on the Isle of Skye working on Gaelic Noun Phrases (thank you, the Leverhulme Trust!), with further fieldwork trips over the Scottish Hebrides to Barra and Lewis, where I pestered the local populations with what they obviously thought were bizarre questions about their language, and discovered many a fine whiskey.

Linguist with Highland Cows

Linguist with Highland Cows

London is an amazing place to do linguistics. There are hundreds of languages to work on, fantastic colleagues, both at Queen Mary and in the larger linguistics community here, and it’s probably because I’m in London that that TV company called me to ask me to make up a language for them, completing this cycle of my linguistic life.

 

 

 

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

Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

I suppose that there are some linguists familiar with the fact that I began my fieldwork as a missionary. When I decided to become a Bible translator with Wycliffe Bible Translators/The Summer Institute of Linguistics (legally distinct entities with the same membership and doctrinal allegiance required to be a member of the former), I had no idea what linguistics in fact was. I quickly got an idea, though, as my path took me to the University of Oklahoma SIL summer courses, where I took my first-ever linguistics course with Kenneth L. Pike.

Pike was a huge influence on me at the time. I watched him do monolingual demonstrations in front of large audiences and make the case through personal example that linguistics was a holistic enterprise, engaging the full mind, personality and body of the linguist. I learned from him at the time what I have only recently begun to think of as the most important insight of 20th century linguistics, the etic-emic distinction.

But I was not thinking about linguistics any more than I had to at the time. I realized that my courses in Koiné Greek and my experience with Spanish, growing up on the California-Mexico border had first revealed to me my love for languages and had prepared me to also enjoy linguistics. But my primary objective was to build a church among an indigenous community somewhere in the world.

I did not even have a bachelor’s degree. I had a Diploma in Foreign Missions from the Moody Bible Institute. Though I had done more than would have been necessary for a bachelor’s degree, supplementing my Moody education with general education courses at Grossmont Community College in La Mesa, California, I had never thought about graduate school, aside from seminary. But SIL required graduate-level courses in linguistics to become a Bible translator so I took them, becoming more and more interested in linguistics as a discipline, though giving no thought to linguistics as a career.

As my family and I finished our linguistics training, we went with SIL to Chiapas, Mexico, for “jungle camp” – training in survival skills, first-aid, butchering meat, canning and other forms of food preservation, and “survival hike,” the final examination. In survival hike I was required to spend a week alone in the jungle, after a fifty mile hike, called out at random from among the “jungle campers” with SIL, and allowed to carry no food, no weapons, and only what I had on my person at the time (I walked around with fifty feet of rope, matches, two canteens, and a nylon poncho) all hanging from a military surplus gun belt.

After this, my three children, my wife, and I were assigned to a Tzeltal village, where we were expected to participate in village life, help in daily tasks, learn the language as well as we could in six weeks, write up a “phonemic analysis,” a morphological analysis, and a syntactic analysis of the language, as well as compiling as much of a dictionary as we could manage. We were also given a conversation exam, to test our ability in the language. I worked with men in the fields. But my work was cut short by my first field illness – typhoid fever, gotten honestly by drinking a fermented corn drink with the men. After a night of unpleasantness in the outhouse in our village, my blood pressure had dropped to 60/40 and the local SIL nurses had me carried out by mule to catch a flight to a hospital in the small town of Alta Mira.

dan2

After a few days, when I returned to my family in the village, a letter was waiting for me from Steve Sheldon, the new director of SIL in Brazil. He said that because he was now director he could no longer continue his work among a particular tribal group, the Mura-Pirahã, confessing to me that though he spoke the language, he had not been able to “crack its grammar.” Because my grades in linguistics had been high, he wondered if my wife and I might be interested in being assigned by SIL to translate the Bible for these people, whom I had never heard of. He said that three other teams had turned him down before he got to me. I received with this letter an assessment by an SIL anthropologist of the living situation among the Pirahãs. He said it was the most psychologically difficult he had ever seen and that the people had no colorful culture, spoke no Portuguese, and were speakers of a language unrelated to any other living language. I said yes immediately.

JP-LANGUAGE-2-popup

When we arrived in Brazil, October 24, 1977, I went as soon as I could for an initial visit with the Pirahãs. While there, I received a radio message that all SIL teams had been ordered out of their villages and that Brazil was trying to label all SIL members as “persona non grata” in Brazil.

As SIL thought of responses to this, I was asked if I would be interested in applying to the graduate program at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) as a potential way of being authorized, as a graduate student at a Brazilian institution, to continue work among the Pirahãs. I said yes immediately again, even though I still did not speak a word of Portuguese. My family and I boarded a bus in Belém, Brazil and took the 60+ hour trip to Campinas, where I went straight to the home of the linguist SIL had told me to contact, Prof. Dr. Aryon Dall’Igna Rodrigues. Aryon, who was to become one of the closest friends and most admired mentors of my life, presented my GRE scores and grades from SIL-affiliated schools (UT Arlington, U of Oklahoma) to the faculty of UNICAMP’s Institute for the Study of Language, and they accepted me into their Mestrado em Linguística program.

Then a transmogrification began to occur, one that I have recounted in various places, especially in my book, Don’t sleep there are snakes: life and language in the Amazonian jungle. Because of my admiration for and friendship with Brazilian linguists and other intellectuals and because of my growing understanding and admiration of the Pirahãs, I began to question my belief in God, my commitment to converting others to Christianity, and just about every value that had led me from Southern California to the Amazon, from the time I was 17.

There was one big catch to my loss of faith, though. An unbelieving missionary is an unemployed missionary. So I began to think that perhaps I might be able to become a professional linguist.

danev1

I did my ScD at UNICAMP, the first doctorate in linguistics the university ever awarded. I began to try to publish. Although almost 100% of my first submissions were rejected, I was successful at winning an award from the American Council of Learned Societies for Recent Recipients of the PhD and a grant from the National Science Foundation. And with the backing of Professor Kenneth L. Hale, I was accepted as a Visiting Scholar in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I met to discuss my ideas with Chomsky, Thomas Kuhn (just down the hall then from Chomsky), Morris Halle, Jay Keyser, Luigi Rizzi, and others, including my office mates Pino Longobardi, Adriana Belletti, and Shigeru Miyagawa. I began to get work accepted in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, IJAL, Linguistic Inquiry, and numerous conferences. But still, my educational background was weird – a diploma from a Bible school and graduate work at a then obscure, third-world university (far from that now!). I applied for jobs and made a couple of short lists, at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and UCSD.

At Berkeley I was met at the airport by Chuck Fillmore and taken to his house to stay with him and his wife Lily. It was a surreal experience to be so well treated by one of the most famous linguists in the world. I was walking on air. Interviewed by the graduate students they asked me “We specialize in Californian languages here. Why would we want to hire an Amazonianist? No one works on Amazonian languages in the US.” And as I entered the packed room to give my job talk, the professor walking me in commented “I hope you aren’t going to talk about any of that generative s*&t. We don’t do that here.” My talk was on a generative analysis of Inflectional Phrases and clitics in Pirahã. I didn’t get the job.

Then I received an offer from the University of Pittsburgh and began my ten-year working relationship with Sally Thomason and Terry Kaufman, still two of my best friends and most admired linguists. Chomsky helped me all along, by writing letters of recommendation for my job applications and my tenure application. Rich Thomason told me after I received tenure that “There probably aren’t that many people who get letters from both Chomsky and Geoff Pullum.” Perhaps not.

From this unlikely path, I have worked at UNICAMP, at Pitt, at the University of Manchester, at Illinois State University, and now at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where I serve as Dean of Arts and Sciences. Along the way my students have included Iris Berent, Ted Gibson, Rick Kazman, Eric Nyberg, and many others. I have seen how hard it is to get a job. And I have lamented the lack of good tenure-track positions for the brilliant new linguists, smarter than I, who have gone into this field.

My son, Caleb Everett, quit his job as a stockbroker and commodities dealer with Morgan-Stanley, just after they had assigned him to the World Trade Center, about a month before 9/11. He said he was going to become a professor of linguistics. I asked him to reconsider. “The job market sucks,” I put it eloquently. He responded “Dad, if you can get a job, I can get a job.” And so I learned that pessimism is not all that useful as career advice. One should simply say “If it doesn’t work out, you have at least followed your passion. If it does, the life of a professional thinker, the career of an academic is the best I know of.” Caleb applied to four jobs and received four offers, eclipsing me pretty handily.

So my advice to linguists today is similar to what one of my dearest friends, Peter Ladefoged, told me more than 35 years ago – “There may be 300 PhDs chasing 15 jobs and everyone will think that they are the ones who will get the jobs. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But perhaps the best linguistics of the future will come from plumbers, carpenters, and others.” I publish, teach, and spend my life in linguistics because I am passionate about knowing more about this strange species of primate to which I belong. I love people and their languages. And there are few better ways I can imagine to spend one’s life.

images

 

 

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

Featured Linguist: Jaklin Kornfilt

Featured Linguist: Jaklin Kornfilt

Featured Linguist: Jaklin Kornfilt

The Istanbul of my childhood was so multilingual that not to become a linguist would have been impossible for anyone with an ear for language and an interest in figuring out puzzles posed by all those languages and dialects. In my own case, it was German, French, Russian and Yiddish that I was exposed to at home, in addition to the Greek of my nanny and of many neighbors. My cousins had an Armenian nanny. Many acquaintances spoke Ladino at home. It was wonderful to be taken along to my mother’s shopping expeditions, because, depending on the merchant, she would speak a different language: Turkish, Greek, Ladino—and with some, even Russian. It was fun to listen to the two rather different-sounding Yiddish dialects of my grandmothers, one of whom lived with us and the other used to come for a day-long visit once a week. They didn’t like each other very much and so they used to sit and have very polite but very poisonous conversations for hours. Once I learned to write, I devised an alphabet for transcribing those conversations, and when I ran out of topics for my letters to my father, who used to be away a lot on business, I would include some of those transcriptions; they amused him very much, or so he claimed.

That transcribing languages and dialects can actually be part of a real profession is something I discovered in Germany, where I studied German and English literature on an academic exchange scholarship. I had to take an introductory linguistics course where we were told about a new approach to study and understand languages, called Generative Grammar. We read parts of Syntactic Structures and of Aspects, and I now feel inclined to say “… and the rest is history”, only that it still took me some time to find my way to formal linguistics. In Germany, our lecturers in linguistics were sympathetic towards Generative Grammar, but they didn’t understand it very well and thus couldn’t really teach it. I was attracted to it, but there was nobody to explain it all to me in clear terms. It was about then that I visited my aunt in Israel and met, by a chain of coincidences, Bob Lees, who had founded a Department of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and invited me to stay and study formal linguistics, although it was the middle of the semester. This involved driving to the university at least twice a week through heavy morning traffic, to catch Lees’ introductory linguistics course which met at 8 a.m.—a real sacrifice, but one worth making, because the course was an absolutely wonderful introduction to linguistics and got me totally hooked. I took the exams of the course and did well on them, upon which Lees suggested that I should continue towards a PhD in linguistics, and that I should do so in the US. This is how I ended up at Harvard, as a doctoral student in theoretical linguistics. (By a funny coincidence, there, too, I had to go to class to attend an introductory course which met twice a week at 8 a.m.—Jay Jasanoff’s introduction to historical linguistics, and likewise a course well worth getting up early for. At least this time around, campus was in easy walking distance!)

The LinguistList did not exist yet while I was a student. But I envy my own students who make heavy and constant use of it. I was a relatively new Assistant Professor when the LinguistList came into existence, and it was wonderful to find all this great news about conferences, summer schools, books and jobs in one’s mailbox every day. It made me feel connected to the world outside, and I relied on it a lot for news which I used constantly, in various ways; I still do and can’t imagine doing without it.

By the way—the picture that you see was taken recently, a couple of months ago, at a conference in Beijing, on the syntax of information structure in the minority languages of China; when the picture was taken, I was speaking about post-verbal structures in Turkish. This was one of the very few conferences I had not learned about via the LinguistList!

 

 

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

Featured Linguist: Hana Filip

Featured Linguist: Hana Filip

Featured Linguist: Hana Filip

My first memories are tied to the awareness that beyond our small Czech speaking world there was an exciting multiplicity of languages out there, and along with it an exciting variety of very different attitudes and life styles. My mother spoke fluently Czech, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish due to her heritage and childhood in West Volhynia (West Ukraine today). And then there were mail deliveries of paperbacks from another exotic place called “West Germany”. They came each wrapped up in a transparent shrink wrap, a whole bunch of them stacked in a brown cardboard box, which, once opened, wafted the enticing fragrance of freshly printed books and a foreign world. They were printed by the DTV Press (German Paperback Press) in Munich, where one of my dad’s friends worked and regularly supplied him with its most recent publications. I did not know any German, but I heard it on an Austrian radio station (“Autofahrer Unterwegs”) that my dad listened to, and I must have been impressed by the pop songs in German it played. As soon as I learned how to read, one of my favorite childhood pastimes, when I was home alone, was to stand in front of the book shelves with the German DTV paperbacks, imagining being a pop singer singing songs with the lyrics like “Heinrich Böll, Irisches Tagebuch, Christian Morgenstern, Palmström Palma Kunkel, Siegfried Lenz, Der Mann im Strom …”, making up the tunes on the spot. I had no idea what the correct pronunciation was, but I was just mesmerized by the idea that the letters, each of which I knew individually, collectively had a meaning, which I did not understand, but there were people to whom it meant something and I wondered just what it might be. No less fascinating was the idea that these books came from “capitalist imperialism”, as I learned already in kindergarten, a world to be worried about and even afraid of, but something that seemed to me inconsistent with their pretty, inviting book covers (designed by Celestino Piatti). When I was about six years old, I decided to learn German. So I pored over a German grammar book that I found in my parents’ library, but did not get much further than learning the conjugation of the German verb ‘to be’.

Celestino.Piatti

This early experience with a foreign language and the world it evoked might have also been the reason why I was so fascinated by a psychology book, which I found in my parents’ library a bit later, and whose topics covered the connection between language, culture and human behavior. It was the first scientific book I read, and, of course, I could not have understood much, reading it and thinking about it by myself, but I was in awe at the ideas it opened up for me.

When I was about eleven years old, I began filling all my free time with learning foreign languages and reading, mostly French and English classic novels and poetry (in Czech translation). Interestingly, German literature took a distinct back seat, although I loved Christian Morgenstern and Heinrich Heine (I’ll return to them at the end). What stands out is that I loved thinking about grammar rules. That is, I thought that the grammar rules in my textbooks “could have been formulated better”. So I tried to come up with various ways of improving on them, “putting them in a better order”, according to what, to me at least, were underlying regularities and relationships among them. There was also a practical reason behind this, namely wanting to cut down the amount of memorization to an absolute minimum, reserving it to vocabulary, idioms, irregular verbs and such. When I was fifteen I taught myself Italian by going through a wonderful textbook (for native Czech speakers) from cover to cover. I learned the Italian pronunciation by following ingenious informal descriptions in this textbook, and by listening to the Italian radio station “Milano Rai Radio Due” in the dead of night, which at that time was not jammed. I had a very vague, and an intriguing, idea that there was an underlying system behind language use, which was reinforced by my discovery of structuralism in literary theory, its precursor Russian formalism in particular. This again happened by chance: while reading detailed introductions to Czech translations of foreign classics, there was a mention of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. I read and loved it, which in turn led me to finding out about Roman Jakobson’s Linguistics and Poetics, Viktor Shklovsky, Claude Lévi-Strauss and others.

What also stands out about this time (junior high in US terms) is that one of my heroes was Jean-François Champollion, who as a young boy first learned Latin, Greek, followed by Hebrew and other Semitic languages before deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. So my plan was to learn all kinds of languages in the years to come, perhaps forever, and hoping that eventually, just like Champollion, I might discover and solve some terrific puzzle along the way. My enthusiasm for studying foreign languages was not dampened by knowing that I might never be allowed to travel to the countries where they were spoken, or pursue their study at a university (children of East European dissidents often were prohibited from studying at universities).

But then in an unexpected and a breathtakingly swift turn of events, my dad “got an offer” to leave Czechoslovakia (which could hardly be refused) and three months later we were in Munich, the city from which the DTV paperbacks had been arriving. Now, I suddenly found myself in a German high school, but among the languages I had learned in Czechoslovakia, I had amazingly somehow omitted German. Yet, I managed to convince everybody that the ‘taking-no-prisoners’ immersion method would work the best for me, rather than spending a year in a German language learning camp. After graduating from high school, I enrolled at the Munich Ludwig Maximilian University to study Romance and English languages and literatures. I gravitated towards the few linguistics offerings, mainly in Chomsky’s generative syntax, which is how I finally understood that there is a full-fledged academic field of linguistics. What really caught my attention, while doing research for one of my term papers, were the proceedings of the Chicago Linguistics Society, which contained concise, to the point, highly informative papers full of intellectual energy and excitement. So when I happened to see a poster of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) advertizing an undergraduate study abroad program in the USA, I did not hesitate to apply, and in my application proposal I wrote that I wanted to study at the University of Chicago, in the Department of Linguistics.

My year at the University of Chicago was nothing short of life-changing. I realized that I had wanted to be a linguist all along, but had not known it. There for the first time I followed my interests in language not as an auto-didact, but guided by some of the best linguists, including the amazing Jim McCawley. My German scholarship funding ended after one year, however, and because of this and other practical reasons, I decided to return to Germany with the plan to complete my M.A. degree in linguistics there so that I could apply for another DAAD fellowship, but this time for doctoral studies in the USA.

Back at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, I switched to the Department of Theoretical Linguistics, chaired by Theo Vennemann, and took classes in formal semantics with Roland Hausser and Joachim Jacobs who gave lucid and exciting classes on Montague Grammar, and also on Categorial Grammar, the debates between Bar Hillel and Chomsky, Frege’s theory and the state of the art in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Occasionally I attended Godehard Link’s seminars in the Department of Philosophy, and I started exchanging some ideas on aspect with Manfred Krifka, who was just finishing his Ph.D. thesis. While I was finishing my M.A. degree, I got interested in the intersection of meaning in language, psychology, computational linguistics and philosophy, and so choosing where to do my Ph.D. degree, with my DAAD fellowship, I opted for UC Berkeley, which had just established the Institute of Cognitive Studies (ICS), supported by the Sloan Foundation. At UC Berkeley I felt like a kid in a candy store: apart from the Ph.D. thesis qualifying curriculum, we were free to take classes in all the Departments affiliated with ICS, and I took full advantage of it. I especially enjoyed the ICS colloquia, which featured UC Berkeley faculty, but also great scholars from elsewhere in the USA and abroad. Thanks to my advisors Chuck Fillmore and Paul Kay, we had ties to Stanford University, and to their close friend Ivan Sag in particular, who fabulously organized the 1987 LSA Summer Institute at Stanford. One of my favorite grad school memories is the LSA 1989 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, where I gave one of my first “serious” talks. Barbara Partee was in the audience and after my talk introduced herself to me and excitedly told me that she just got back from Prague where she took part in the Velvet Revolution demonstrations; back in my room, on CNN I saw Václav Havel walking across the courtyard of the Prague Castle, having just taken the presidential oath. While wondering about why he is wearing such short pants at this historically momentous event in Prague, I also wondered by what twists of fate I get to watch him on TV in a hotel room in Washington, DC.

I did not plan to be a linguist, let alone a professor. All I wanted to do was what I thought was worth doing, following my hunches. This also meant that I spent a number of years as an academic gypsy, after completing my Ph.D. degree, which I mostly viewed as continuing in the adventurous tradition of the wandering scholars of the Middle Ages, because it allowed me to spend time at some of the best linguistics departments and research universities. Overall, perhaps my path has something to do with my early fascination with the German DTV paperbacks, who knows. In hindsight, it is somewhat intriguing that as a kid I singled out Heinrich Heine and Christian Morgenstern among the few German authors worth paying attention to. Christian Morgenstern was a German poet from Munich, where the DTV paperbacks were printed, and Munich became my hometown after we were exiled from Czechoslovakia. One Morgenstern’s poem that I never forgot has to do with tense and aspect, which became my main specialty:

Unter Zeiten (Among Tenses)
Das Perfekt und das Imperfekt
tranken Sekt (were drinking sparkling wine).
Sie stießen aufs Futurum an (They toasted to the Future)
(was man wohl gelten lassen kann) (which might be deemed valid).
Plusquamper und Exaktfutur (Past Perfect and Future Perfect)
blinzten nur (only kept blinking).

Translation (“An Approach”) by Max Knight (h/t Manfred Krifka)
Perfect and Past
drank to a friendship to last
They toasted the Future tense
(which makes sense).
Futureperf and Plu
nodded too.

As for Heinrich Heine, he was born in Düsseldorf, which is my current hometown; I live next to his museum, and I’m professor of semantics at the university which carries his name: Heinrich Heine University.

 

 

 

 

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

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3206

 

 

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

Featured Linguist: Ida Toivonen

Featured Linguist: Ida Toivonen

Featured Linguist: Ida Toivonen

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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”?

Please support the Linguist List with a donation today.

http://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/

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!