Featured Linguists

Featured Linguist: Matthias Brenzinger

Matthias Brenzinger from the University of Cape Town is another Featured Linguist from the region of Sub-Saharan Africa where we are traveLING with our Fund Drive this week. Find below Matthias’ story about his way to linguistics.

Linguist Matthias Brenzinger

How I Became a Linguist

by Matthias Brenzinger

It was about one and a half years ago that I finally I arrived where I had always wanted to be and do what I had always wanted – teach students, support small language communities and conduct research on African languages on my doorstep. The University of Cape Town and my new colleagues welcomed my efforts to establish the Centre for African Language Diversity – CALDi as well as The African Language Archive – TALA and I was recently appointed the Mellon Research Chair: African Language Diversity this initiative. The main aim of CALDi is to train young African scholars in descriptive linguistics and open up space for research into African languages at UCT with the hopes of countering the dominance of African linguistics outside the continent. It has been a great challenge for which my whole career has been a form of preparation.

I was born (1957) in Baiertal a small village squeezed into a narrow valley between the Black Forest and the Odenwald mountain range, not far from Heidelberg (Germany), and I I felt alien there as far back as I can remember. I grew up with an urge to escape and when a Catholic priest came to our small school and showed slides from Portugal, I knew I had to go there. I had, however, misunderstood and thought the pictures where from somewhere in Africa. At the age of 11, I was sent to a Catholic boarding school a long way from home where I was taught by retired, often frustrated missionaries. From then on, I rarely went back to visit my home village. After about four years I was discharged from the mission school, most likely because I was not Catholic enough. For several years I lived in the servants’ chamber of a farm above the pigs stable, but somehow I still managed to attend and also complete high school. After that I travelled extensively in Asia and Africa and it was on these trips that I developed a serious interest in languages, driven by the desire to understand the thoughts of the people I encountered from all these different cultures.

In 1980, while passing through Tanzania on my way to Zambia, I had my first encounter with an Africanist when I met Herman Batibo, who taught African linguistics at the University of Dar Es Salaam. On my return to Germany I went straight to the University of Cologne where Bernd Heine welcomed me to his Institute of African Language Studies. The institute soon became the centre of my world and remained so for 28 years. No other person has had a greater impact on my life – we became friends from the first day we met and our close friendship continues to this day. Bernd is a linguist 24/7, needs very little sleep and is highly efficient in what he does. Above all he is brilliant thinker and all this results in his enormous research output with regard to quality and quantity; but what I admire most about him is his generosity in sharing his vast knowledge with everyone without discrimination on any grounds.

Right from the beginning of my own research into African languages, I focused on languages spoken by marginalized communities in remote areas. I enjoy being in remote places in mountain regions, in semi-desert regions or in the deep bush. I have often spent many months in settlements without electricity and limited water supply.

My first fieldtrip took me to the Marakwet in the Cherangany hills of Kenya followed by several trips to visit speakers of Ma’a-Mbugu in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania. Fieldwork near Mount Kenya on Mukogodo Maasai and Yaaku came next. Honey and bees are to these former hunter-gatherers what milk and cattle are for pastoralists: precious commodities and extremely important in their daily lives and thinking. For that reason, the special vocabularies for traditional beekeeping and honey hunting were my main interests for several years. Together with Mukogodo hunters, I followed honey guides, small birds that are known throughout the African continent for leading humans and honey badgers to wild bee nests. After harvesting the honey, the birds expect their share as reward for their service. For linguists it is important to participate in such important cultural activities, in order to be able to understand stories, technical terms and most importantly, to get an idea of the specific concepts that are underlying the languages they study.

In the early 1990s, while I was teaching at the University of Addis Ababa, I conducted fieldwork in Southern Ethiopia and collected language data on several little-known languages. Bayso and Harro are both spoken by small communities on the Giddicho Island in Lake Abaya. When the new transitional government of Ethiopia approved its new liberal language policy in 1993, I was more than happy to support the implementation of mother-tongue education. As a language consultant I visited hundreds of schools all over Southern Ethiopia and collected information on the distribution and use of languages use as well as speaker attitudes towards those languages. I interviewed teachers, students and parents, and it has been great to see that my research findings have had a direct impact on the languages used in some schools. This is very rare in the kind of studies we are usually involved in.

A year later a new phase in my research career opened up when I began working on the Khoeid, !Xun and !Gui-Taa, language families, most commonly referred to as the Khoisan languages of Southern Africa. I spent many months with Khwe and //Ani in Namibia and Botswana and analysed and described various aspects of their language. Together with the community, I developed a practical orthography for Khwe-//Ani, which then became a written language on 15th September 1996. Since then I have contributed to community publications on and in the Khwe-//Ani language. In my view, supporting community efforts to develop their language is an important duty for linguists today. The most difficult aspect in long-term fieldwork for me is to deal with all the friends and language consultants who are dying at a young age. Members of marginalized communities on the African continent generally have much shorter life expectancies than the national averages. Poverty and hazardous environments result in malnutrition and high rates of tropical diseases, as well as AIDS.

I had already observed on my first field trip that young members of many of the small language communities no longer acquired the ethnic languages of previous generations. I found that unlike language shift in most other parts of the world, English was no threat to small African languages, at least at that time. African languages were instead replacing other African languages. As a result, I became involved in UNESCO initiatives on Endangered Languages and supported the establishment of the Endangered Language Section in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Unit right from the beginning. In 1995 the Red Book of Endangered Languages was launched at the University of Tokyo and a year later, the very rough first edition of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing was edited by the late Stephen Wurm. He was instrumental in advancing UNESCO’s activities and I remember his frequent phone calls from Australia to Germany, much to my wife’s consternation as they came always in the middle of the night and went on for hours.

Christopher Moseley edited a significantly improved edition of the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger in 2010 and invited me as the regional expert for Africa. Since then, the online version has been constantly revised and updated and I am responsible for the section on the African continent south of the Sahara. In 2009, Lyle Campbell, Helen Aristar-Dry and Anthony Aristar developed the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) project, which was launched in 2011 by the University of Hawaii, The Linguist List and Google. The aim of ELCat is to provide detailed information on endangered languages worldwide and Anna Belew from the Linguist List is doing a great job in coordinating inputs from the regional directors, as which I serve for the African continent. While the ELCat and UNESCO overviews on language endangerment make no difference for the languages and their situations, they do an important job in raising awareness and also assisting in the development language documentation projects.

Another long-term professional commitment close to my heart concerns the World Congress of African Linguistics – WOCAL, which is held every three years. I consider WOCAL to be of eminent importance since it constitutes the only truly international and pan-theoretical Congress of African Linguistics. By organizing summer schools and special workshops at the WOCAL congresses for young linguists, I have supported the participation of scholars from African universities since its inception in 1993. For the last 10 years I have served as General Secretary of WOCAL and ensuring a strong representation of African scholars at the congresses is one of my main concerns.

Amongst all the linguists profiled on the Linguist List, one sees an absolute commitment to the study of language and languages. Like them, I feel particularly fortunate to have been able to forge a career in such a fascinating field of study. Although I have spent a lot of time in the far flung corners of the world studying languages and cultures most people have never heard of, my career in linguistics has given me the opportunity to fulfil my childhood dreams whilst bringing into sharp focus the very important issues of language endangerment.

Matthias Brenzinger

Featured Linguist: Herman Batibo

Today’s Featured Linguist represents the region of Sub-Saharan Africa. Please welcome Herman Batibo from the University of Botswana – it is now his turn to tell us a story about his path to linguistics.

Linguist Herman Batibo

Linguist Herman Batibo

My History as a Linguist

Herman Batibo

My late father used to tell me, when I was a teenager, that I should follow my passion and not my instinct.  What he meant was that I should pursue what fascinated me most and not what I thought to be my natural career.  That became true when I went for my senior secondary school.  I thought I was talented in music, as I played the organ in Church and had composed local music for the school brass band.  But my interest in music faded as soon as I went to University.

However, what had fascinated me most, during my secondary school days, was the multitude of languages that the students spoke.  The students came from at least 10 different language backgrounds.  Although the lingua franca was Kiswahili, many spoke Shisukuma, my mother tongue, which was dominant in the area, spoken by over 3 million people.  Many of the non Shisukuma playmates were even more fluent in Shisukuma than in their own languages and some seemed to lose their identity in favour of that of Shisukuma.

I wondered why the speakers of the smaller languages were proficient in Shisukuma, but not the other way round.  The only other languages I knew, apart from Shisukuma, were Kiswahili and English. Some of my playmates spoke as many as five languages.

During my secondary school education, I was exposed to a number of other languages, namely, French, Spanish, Latin and classical Greek, as the school was a Seminary and championed at teaching many tongues to its students. The exposure to many languages permitted me to compare between the forms and structures of these languages in term of order and complexity.  I was puzzled that the levels of complexity differed from language to language.  I spent more time memorizing declensions and conjugations in Latin and Greek, but had an easier time with the grammatical features attached to English or Kiswahili.  This trigged in me the curiosity about the unique system and behaviour of each language. I convinced myself that if God created every person differently, so did he make languages different from each other.  This fascination about languages slowly gave me the drive to investigate the nature and functioning of language and how languages were interrelated.

At the University of Dar-es-salaam that I joined after high school, there was no Linguistics as a single discipline.  Linguistics was done as part of English or French study.  I chose to do French and linguistics, as French was another subject that excited me. I considered it to be romantic and flowery.

When I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, I was appointed a Staff Development Fellow in the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics, to specialize in the teaching of French in the Department.  A scholarship was arranged for me to proceed for my graduate studies at the famous La Sorbonne University, in Paris, where I would study French and the teaching of French as a foreign language.

Before my departure for Paris, I was invited to attend a conference which was taking place in Limuru, Kenya, on African Linguistics. Prof. Ayo Bamgbose from Nigeria and Prof. Gilbert Ansre from Ghana were among the few Africans at that gathering, being the pioneering African scholars in Linguistics.  Both of them were surprised that I was going to Paris to specialize in French, when the bulk of the indigenous languages in Tanzania and Africa had no any meaningful description or codification.  They convinced me that rather than specialize in French studies, I should focus more on linguistics.  I still went to the La Sorbonne University, but focused more on General and African Linguistics.  At that time, Parisian linguistics was heavily influenced by the School of Prague perspectives. The main proponents were Professors André Martinet, Emile Benvenie, Bertil Malmberg and Jean Perrot.  In the area of African and Bantu linguistics, I was taught by renowned Professors, like Serge Sauvageot, Pierre Alexandre, Jacqueline Thomas and Luc Bouquiaux.

Being in Paris, I was also privileged to meet and learn from famous linguists, like Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Pike, Peter Ladefoged, Michael Halliday, Larry Hyman and others. My being able to speak both English and French gave me enormous advantage in the scope of my reading and discussing with other scholars.  Also my basic knowledge of Latin, classical Greek and German, which I did during my secondary school days, became an asset in comparing between word and syntactic categories and structures.

From the above, I can say that my focus on general and African linguistics was prompted by the advices given by the senior colleagues at the Limuru conference. Although I was very fascinated by theoretical linguistics, especially the generative approach, I became conscious that, in Africa, we needed to focus more on descriptive and sociolinguistic aspects, in order to respond to national and community issues, as well as use the indigenous languages as resources and vehicles for socio-economic development.

After my studies in Paris, I returned to Tanzania and was appointed Lecturer in African Linguistics. I became instrumental in the promotion of Kiswahili as national language of Tanzania and regional language for most of Eastern and Central Africa. I also carried out extensive descriptive and sociolinguistic surveys of the other indigenous languages which numbered over 120 in Tanzania.  I was particularly concerned about the highly endangered languages in the country, especially as Kiswahili, as both lingua franca and national language, was predominating and marginalizing all the other languages, as it assumed most of the communicative domains.

After working for over 17 years in Tanzania, I decided to move to the University of Botswana, to meet new experiences and challenges. The Botswana linguistic scenario was identical in many ways to that of Tanzania, as they also had a single dominant language which enjoyed most privileges. The majority of the other indigenous languages were in a critically endangered position. The problem was compounded by the small size and vulnerable nature of the minority languages. Hence my research was directed towards crucial linguistic phenomena like language domination, patterns of language use, the role of language attitudes, the processes of language shift and the measures which could reverse this trend. I came up with interesting results, remembering my late father’s advice to follow my passion.

Herman Batibo

Featured Linguist: Nicholas Evans

Today’s Featured Linguist of the Pacific region is Nicholas Evans from Australian National University. Find out below about his life adventures as a linguist.


How I Became a Linguist

Nicholas Evans

It took me a long time to realise I wanted to become a linguist. I had a resolutely monoglot childhood in 1960s Canberra, Australia’s ‘bush capital’, and can’t even remember hearing any language spoken but English. Nor was school any better when it came to languages: the teachers were dogmatic types who obviously couldn’t speak the languages well and were irritated by why-questions. So like my fellow nerds at Campbell High School I took science  subjects and when it came to uni studied biology and psychology.

During my third year at the Australian National University (ANU) I had a spare slot in my degree and decided to take first year Russian – mainly so I could read Russian literature in the original. For the first time I experienced what it could be like to learn a foreign language from a teacher  (Prof. de Bray) who could lay out its individual logic. He placed great stock on students getting a good pronunciation, and in week two we had to hand in an account of all the phonetic realisations of Russian vowel letters under different stress conditions. This wasn’t the last time I benefited from a teacher with what many would think were unrealistic expectations – I don’t think any of us had studied phonology before, but somehow that planted a seed in me.

In my fourth year, as I was finishing off my honours in psychology and feeling less and less that I wanted to continue with that, two things made me change course.

One was a fourth-year course I took on the psychology of language. Another demanding lecturer (Dr Trotter) set us one whole linguistic classic book per week – I lapped up John Lyons’ Theoretical Linguistics, and Whorf’s Language, Thought and Reality crystallised my feeling that studying languages could offer a much more direct route into other thought-worlds than the methodologically overwrought and conceptually oversimplified approaches of psychology.  (That was what I thought then – now psychology has become much more interesting.) But the most decisive reading was Chomsky’s review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. I’d had far too much behaviorism during my psychology courses and hated its corny reductionism. Reading Chomsky’s deft disembowelling of Skinner’s position made me want to get seriously into linguistics.

Around the same time was that a friend of mine, Cliff Goddard, suggested I come along to one of the classes  on Aboriginal languages taught  by Prof. Bob Dixon. The students had a page of Yidiñ text to translate and analyse before the class with the help of a glossary and the grammar taught so far. Bob stood up the front, playing little snatches of Yidiñ on a reel-to-reel recorder, while a story of two brothers and the origins of death, order and chaos gradually took shape in the process of analysis.

Hearing the Yidiñ-speaking voice come out of that recorder was a decisive moment in my life. I had never heard an Aboriginal language before and was completely hypnotised by its sound. I think most Australians grow up with an aching sense of unconnectedness to their land, stemming from the invisibility and inaudibility of Aboriginal culture and the brutal way it was swept aside by the British colonisation process. So there was something deeply and indefinably fascinating about the conjunction of the storyteller, his language, Yidiñ culture, and the whole process of making sense of what he was saying. That one-hour class decided me on the spot that I wanted to study linguistics, and focus on Aboriginal languages.

I went on to take a coursework Master’s in linguistics with some brilliant teachers – Bob Dixon, Anna Wierzbicka, Bill Foley, Tim Shopen. Lecturers often came to each other’s courses, and most classes had a broad mixture of participants ranging from first years to distinguished visitors. This lack of status-consciousness was an educational blessing: it’s very hard to write linguistics until you know how to argue in a more oral setting. Learning from the cut-and-thrust between the more seasoned members of the class was about the best way imaginable of getting into the subject.

We got a lot of Australian and Papuan problem material – often composed straight from the lecturer’s field-notes. A key part of the training was the range of language-focussed courses on offer – especially for Aboriginal languages, which had three semesters’ worth of offerings, and which really trained us to put together what we had learned and apply it to a real but exotic language.  But the part of the departmental ethos which I most appreciate, in retrospect, was the confidence to find our own solutions to crack new codes in our own way, without being bound too much about the latest theoretical fads and how they said languages should work.

For some perverse reason, after finishing my thoroughly enjoyable Master’s training, I decided I wouldn’t keep studying.  I think I was just sick of being a poor student. Meanwhile  I had been offered a job teaching English in Beijing, accepted it, and bought a suit in readiness.

But that’s not what life intended for me. I was two days off flying to China, when Bob Dixon rang and called me in for a chat. He’d received a letter from Mornington Island in northern Australia, asking him to find a PhD student to work on the Kayardild language. Ken Hale had recently been on Mornington to present a draft Lardil dictionary, the fruit of fieldwork he’d done there. Kayardild speakers, concerned at the fate of their own language, had wanted him to work with them on their language. He’d told them he wouldn’t have time himself, but that through Bob Dixon he’d find a PhD student to do it. I thought it over: Mandarin was hardly in danger of disappearing, while Kayardild was on the ropes. Pretty much on the spur of the moment I told Bob I’d take up the offer, pulled out of the Beijing job at the last minute, and applied for a PhD scholarship.

In the Australian system then you just dived straight into your thesis without coursework. So a couple of months later I took a series of flights from Canberra to Mornington Island, flying in on a vintage DC3. It was a strange place. Somehow I had expected a lush tropical island. But it was more like a bit of savannah plonked into the sea, not far offshore from the unpromising saltpans running back from the Gulf of Carpentaria. There was a strong odour of inadequate sanitation, mixed with mangrove-wood smoke from cooking fires and what I later came to recognise as the smell of turtle and dugong fat. A winter wind blew off the sea, but it smelt of the desert not far to the south, rather than like a sea wind.

Late that afternoon on the beach I finally got to meet the Kayardild men, who had been out spearing fish until then. Traditionally monolingual, they were lousy language teachers. (Five years later when I began work in the polyglot universe of Arnhem Land I realised how unusual that was in Aboriginal Australia.)  They fired words and sentences at me at machine-gun speed, all talking at once, working their way through my body-parts which they grabbed one by one. It was hard to write any sort of transcription in the circumstances. So much sand and ash was blowing around in the wind that I didn’t want to take my Uher reel-to-reel recorder out of its case.

Despite their lack of pedagogical technique I warmed to them immediately. Their tribal leader Darwin Moodoonuthi and his wife May had missed out on having children of their own. Like many in their generation  the trauma of their forced relocation from Bentinck to Mornington Islands had taken its toll on their fertility and they welcomed me into their lives as a son. They became my second father and mother.

In this way I was immediately welcomed into the Kaiadilt world, without emotional reserve. That open-hearted reception was crucial in getting me hooked as a field linguist. I think it’s important for linguists to learn the languages they study on as many fronts as possible – simultaneously trying to figure out the structure through elicitation, building up a corpus to replay and trawl through endlessly while it slowly sinks in, but also trying to speak and hear it as much as possible. Usually the speaking part lags far behind – especially when the language is on the retreat and there are few people to speak it to – but if you don’t work at that, your teachers don’t get the pride and encouragement that always brings out the best in a teacher. And you won’t get inside the language, or notice all the unofficial things which show you how it really works. Yet  if I don’t feel close to people emotionally, I find it very hard to learn their language: it starts to feel coldly technical, or even like satirical acting, rather than like the natural and loving emulation that makes learning a language from our family so easy.

Kayardild is probably the most unusual and interesting language I have ever worked on, from a grammatical point of view. But my Kayardild teachers weren’t very good at explaining what things meant. Mostly this was because there were very few bilinguals. The whole population had gone over very quickly from speaking Kayardild to speaking English, so there were only a few people who could speak both. But it was also because they just weren’t traditionally interested in language difference. Later, when I’ve worked in Arnhem Land and in New Guinea I’ve encountered a very different situation: people who were very used to learning many languages, and fascinated by fine differences of meaning that made their explanations a delight.

Nor did Kayardild people like doing very structured work – they were just too anarchical. So in some ways I developed bad habits for a while, of not pushing for every combinatoric possibility or asking for acceptability judgments. It just never worked with them, or else they just assented to everything I said, so that I didn’t trust the results. This made me something of an extremeinductivist during my Kayardild research, an approach that only worked because the social setting was so conducive to language learning. Perhaps because it was my first field experience and had the open identity you have in your twenties, I developed a very strong secondary ethnicity as a sort of Kayardild person. But you have to beware of taking that too seriously and tread a tightrope there, accepting people’s invitations into their lives and doing what you can to help from your outside perspective, but accepting that indigenous people have enough outsiders trying to usurp their rights.  So even while trying to fit in linguistically and culturally as much as possible, you should never kid yourself that you’re more than a privileged outsider who doesn’t have your family hurt by alcoholism or early deaths and who hasn’t had to deal with generations of disenfranchisement.

This photo was taken two years ago with Sally Gabori, one of the last Kayardild speakers

This photo was taken two years ago with Sally Gabori, one of the last Kayardild speakers

Since my PhD I’ve often gone back to Mornington, working up a dictionary and revising my grammar for publication, following up on other more subtle questions. But the number of speakers has just gone on dwindling to the point where most are now in the graveyard by the sea. When I first went there in 1982 there were about forty speakers, aged forty and up.  The language was exuberantly bellowed out every day, especially in the women’s camp on the beach.  Hearing it spoken has increasingly required special orchestration, and now even the old ladies who spoke it well in 1982 use a pretty attenuated version, by habit of having to communicate with younger people who don’t understand the full form of the language. It’s still possible to get the odd new word, but impossible to get at complex grammatical patterns.

I’ve just given one part of my fieldwork experiences and one part of my career – working on Kayardild has led out in all sorts of other interesting directions (typology, historical linguistics, semantics…). My other fieldwork experiences in Arnhem Land and Papua New Guinea have each had their own stories. And working on little-known languages is only one part of the total challenge of our field.

Linguistics has a unique but unfulfilled destiny, as the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. Our quest for meaning within and across languages is intimately tied in with our quest for meaning in life more generally. Linguistics is also a field with a thoroughly democratic appreciation of human creativity – as well as an ability to give voice to every one of the world’s cultures. With the right balance of humanistic insight and scientific rigor, it has the potential to reach what Ortega y Gasset referred to as the revelation of the secrets that peoples and epochs keep from each other and which contribute so much to their dispersion and hostility – in sum, an audacious integration of humanity[1].

When I started into my PhD, or even when I finished it, I don’t think I was conscious of where it would lead me, or how much my encounters with my teachers of Kayardild and later of other languages would change my ways of looking at language and at life.  Nor was I even thinking about where it would lead, professionally or intellectually. I was just pulling a thread which I found intriguing, and the more I listened the more interesting things were there to be discovered.

______________________________________________________________    [1] Ortega y Gasset (1937), Miseria y esplendor de la traducción. La Nación (Buenos Aires) May-June 1937; translation mine.

Featured Linguist: Nick Thieberger

As the Fund Drive moves on and we are now traveling to the Pacific region of the World, we are proud to introduce the Featured Linguists from this region. Please welcome Nick Thieberger, our Featured Linguist from the University of Melbourne. Read below why he chose linguistics and where it led him in his life way.


Biography by Nick Thieberger

I was brought up in a multilingual setting, with parents who between them spoke Italian (Standard and Veneto and Triestin), German, Friulian, Polish, Russian, and Uzbek, so I developed an ability and interest in languages that I just followed when I began my studies. My first linguistics degree in the late 1970s was based entirely on Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax and at first I enjoyed the calculus of phrase structure grammar and transformations. However, I was also interested in Australian languages and could see a mismatch between theoretical constructs based on ideal examples and the use of language by speakers.

My first experience of working with Aboriginal people came when I was a volunteer at Friends of the Earth and we organised a demonstration against a uranium mine site near Broken Hill in South Australia. I got to know some Paakanji Aboriginal people from Wilcannia who were the traditional custodians of the country there and then in the early 1980s went up there to see what use a new linguist could be. I ended up writing some introductory materials in the language based on Luise Hercus’s grammar and recorded speakers to use in an audio guide to the language.

I tutored in linguistics at La Trobe University and after my honours year I got a short contract to teach at the University of Western Australia. My next job was at the School of Australian Linguistics, an institute set up (partly by Ken Hale) to train indigenous Australians in language work. Having that experience encouraged me to apply for a job to prepare a survey of Aboriginal languages of Western Australia that led to writing a handbook of those languages, and, in 1988, to setting up a language center in Port Hedland (Wangka Maya). This involved a long process of consultation with local Aboriginal people who formed the management committee of the Centre. A trained teacher and Banjima/Yinhawangka woman, Lorraine Injie, started work with me as we recorded local speakers, prepared new material, and set up a resource center for the 25 or so local languages. I made friends with a family of Warnman speakers and spent some time with them, recording the language from the Great Sandy Desert.

The task of preparing new materials based on older materials taught me the value of regular expressions and text conversion in those early days of personal computers. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies advertised for someone with these kinds of skills to build an archive of texts related to Aboriginal languages and I moved to Canberra to set up this collection. I had two children in the early 1990s and we wanted to go somewhere where they would be immersed in another language and culture, so we went to live in Vanuatu as Australian Volunteers Abroad (like Peace Corps) where I worked at the National Museum. I got to know the local language (South Efate) which then became the topic of my PhD dissertation. It was of concern to me that, in the course of doing a PhD at a university linguistics department, I got no training in the methods for recording, transcribing, or using new tools for analysing the materials in the language, and that there were no tools available for accessing recordings via text, nor for citation of primary recordings in the analysis. In those (pre-Elan) days I wrote some software (Audiamus) to allow me to create a text/media corpus and then to link examples and texts in my grammar of South Efate to the media so that they could be verified by readers. The corpus continues to be extremely useful in my ongoing work with South Efate.

This all drove home to me the value of making good records, and coincided with the development of language documentation as a stream within linguistics. With Linda Barwick I established the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC), in order to look after field recordings, and we located a number of collections of tape recordings that we digitised, created a catalog for, and made accessible for ongoing research. PARADISEC has been going for ten years and we have digitised nearly 4,000 hours of recordings that would otherwise have been lost. In order to support sharing expertise on new methods I (with Margaret Florey) set up the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity (rnld.org) as a mailing list and website.

I was an assistant professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa from 2008-2010 and taught in the language documentation stream there. That program attracts great students and, under the leadership of Ken Rehg, we started the journal Language Documentation & Conservation (LD&C) and hold the first international conference on LD&C. I now have an Australian Research Council grant to work at the University of Melbourne and this lets me continue to develop PARADISEC, and to work on South Efate and Warnman.

Language documentation allows us to be scholarly researchers and, at the same time, to create records for the people we record. I have been lucky that my interest in this work has coincided with the realisation within linguistics that field-based research and resulting corpus-creation are valuable activities that are necessary for the scientific foundation of linguistics.


Our First Featured Linguist: Martin J. Ball

As our Fund Drive goes on, every week we are going to present you a Featured Linguist from the current TraveLing region of the world. As our first region is Eastern North America, please welcome our Featured Linguist from this region – Martin J. Ball. See below what Martin has to say about his career and love for linguistics.

Linguist Martin Ball

Linguist Martin Ball

Biography, by Martin J. Ball

I was born in the heart of Welsh-speaking Wales (Tywyn in Meirionydd), but my family moved to southern England not long afterwards. This move was a cause of some dismay to me when I first became aware of other languages (I started French in primary school – so quite early on!). I was really miffed that we hadn’t stayed long enough for me to acquire this interesting language. So, from the age of 11 or so, I set to with a Teach Yourself Welsh book, BBC Radio Wales courses (which you could hear even in Exeter, Devon), and much later on an intensive Wlpan course in Cardiff. So, starting on a journey of learning ‘iaith yr angylion’ led me to an interest in other languages. Like others who have written for this feature, I became a devourer of language manuals from the local library, and eventually discovered books on linguistics.

My undergraduate degree was in Linguistics and English literature at what was then the University College of North Wales, Bangor, and is now Bangor University. I studied under great teachers such as Alan Thomas, Ken Albrow, Robert Owen Jones and Tony Bladon. These scholars fostered a particular interest in phonetics and sociolinguistics in me. I determined to follow up my undergraduate degree with further studies in these areas, and took up a place on the Master’s program in Linguistics and Phonetics at the University of Essex, under the excellent leadership of Mark Tatham and Kate Morton. I was lucky enough also to meet Chris Code at this time, then a fellow student on the Master’s program. He is now a leading aphasiologist; back then, he helped introduce me to the field of communication disorders, and he has remained a lifelong friend and academic collaborator.

Almost immediately I finished at Essex I was offered an assistant lectureship in linguistics at a university in Libya. An interesting year spent deep in the Sahara was followed by the offer of a lectureship at the Cardiff School of Speech Therapy – a chance to get back to Wales couldn’t be missed! Here I was able to combine my academic interests in Welsh and in communication disorders. Indeed, as the program was about to undergo accreditation I had to immerse myself into the then relatively new field of clinical linguistics. Luckily, I got help from the writings of David Crystal (later, I was lucky enough to meet and collaborate with David), and from meetings with Pam Grunwell – a pioneer in the field of clinical phonetics and phonology. So, by the early eighties I felt I had a grip on teaching clinical linguistics and phonetics and therefore enrolled part-time in a doctoral program at University College Cardiff (now Cardiff University). I was fortunate to have Prof Glyn Jones as my Advisor – one of the most influential linguists working on Welsh of recent times. He was not only a great mentor and friend, but patiently helped correct my Welsh on those occasions that I ventured to present papers at conferences or prepare articles for publication in the language. My dissertation was a sociolinguistic study of the initial consonant mutation system of modern spoken Welsh. In the mid-eighties I attended a conference on minority languages held at the National University of Ireland in Galway. There I met my future wife, Nicole Müller, who was a scholar of medieval Irish and Welsh – but later also became a clinical linguist. We have clearly started a trend of moving from Celtic to Clinical!

In the late eighties I spent a few years teaching at what is now the University of Glamorgan, and in 1992 I moved to the University of Ulster. There I was promoted in quick succession to Reader then full Professor. I had the opportunity to become course director of a brand new program in Linguistics that ran alongside the Speech Pathology program. By the late nineties I was based in Ireland (though my interests were in Welsh), and my wife held a post at Cardiff University Wales (though her interests were in Irish)! So, to solve this dilemma we both moved to Lafayette, Louisiana! Instrumental in this move was our friend Jack Damico, and we have been able to collaborate with him on various projects, including articles, books, a book series and a journal.

Here at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette we have undergraduate, Master’s, and doctoral programs in Communication Disorders. The ability to work with doctoral students interested in clinical linguistics has been especially rewarding. I’m also co-editing two journals, and two book series with colleagues here and elsewhere in Louisiana, and these keep me busy! However, linguistics isn’t all I have time for – as the photo shows, I also like preserved railways. I’m on the footplate of a steam locomotive on the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway in north Devon, England, in the picture. (Yes, academics are just like the characters in the ‘Big Bang Theory’…) I’ve just accepted the position of professor of Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics at Linköping University in Sweden – so I’m returning to Europe with a new language to learn!

It’s a long way from ‘Teach Yourself Welsh’ to professor of clinical linguistics, and I have to admit to fair amount of being in the right place at the right time. But, mostly it was having the good fortune to have good teachers and good mentors, and parents able to help me through college and graduate school!

Martin J. Ball