ILIT-related news and updates

Featured Linguist: Irina Nevskaya

Today we are traveLING to Eastern Europe and Russia. So let’s welcome our new Featured Linguist Irina Nevskaya who comes from Mountainous Shoriya in the heart of southwest Siberia. Read below what led her to the path of linguistics and what research she is currently undertaking.

Irina Nevskaya

How I Became a Linguist
by Irina Nevskaya

I was born in 1958 in Mountainous Shoriya, named so after the Turkic indigenous people – the Shors. I learned that fact in the Museum of Natural History of the Region when I was a school-girl. However, I had never suspected that the Shors had still survived in these mountains until I started to work as a University teacher at the Chair of Foreign Languages of the Novokuzneck State Pedagogical Institute, today it is the Kuzbass State Pedagogical Academy, Russia. At that time, the head of the Chair was Ėlektron Čispijakov, a Shor person himself. He organized a Circle of the Shor language for young University teachers of the Chair, graduates of the Faculty of Foreign Languages of this University. He taught us Turcology and the Shor language in 1980-1986. There were no Shor textbooks, no Shor dictionary at that time. He wrote textbook and taught us using the written lessons. I learnt that the Shors still spoke their language which had survived in spite of the absence of any official support and persecutions. I also learnt that the language had had a written form, but could not preserve it. At that time, it was neither written, nor taught at school. I studied the language and the people and went on field work among the Shors during my summer vacations – by train, by bus, by boat, on foot, or by a helicopter which was and still is the only way to get to some Shor villages. The more I learnt about the Shor language and the people, the more I wanted to help the people to preserve (or even to revive) their language. I also got interested in Turkic languages and in their language structure, different from that of the Indo-European languages I had been familiar with until that time.

You might be interested in the question why teachers of foreign languages were engaged in language research on indigenous languages. You see, there were no chairs of indigenous languages of Siberia, where specialists in these languages could be trained at that time. Foreign language teachers were the only language specialists available in Siberia. And this is kind of a tradition in Siberia that foreign language teachers were the first linguists doing research on indigenous languages of Siberia, starting from Wilhelm Radloff, a German language teacher in Barnaul in the nineteenth century (who later became the first Russian Academician – Turcologist and is considered to be the father of Russian Turcology), followed in the middle of the twentieth century by Andrey Dulzon in Tomsk and his apprentices, one of which was Ėlektron Čispijakov.

As a student of the Department of Germanic Languages I was already interested in various linguistic issues. In my first year at the University, I chose to write a course paper to the topic “Language as a System of Systems”. A very ambitious topic for a first-year student! However, the work on the topic showed me that Language is a well-structured phenomenon, even if one might not see that at a first glance. I was actually very good at Mathematics and other Natural Sciences at school and even won various competitions of school children in Mathematics. But I chose to study Linguistics, partially following a family tradition – my mother was a teacher of Russian at school, an excellent one, by the way, and many of my relatives were, – and partially because I thought that Mathematics would be too easy to deal with for me. To try to understand language structures and how they reflect reality was much more exciting. I remember my being absorbed in thoughts on the functions of the Infinitive in English once to such degree, that I even did not answer when my fellow-students applied to me. They asked me what I was thinking about, and I honestly answered that I was thinking about the infinitive functions. You realize that that became a running gag when they spoke about me after that. Nevertheless, exactly the functions of gerunds in Shor became the topic of my Doctoral thesis I wrote in 1986-1989 at the Institute of Philology of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

It was already the time of “perestrojka” in the Soviet Union and that of the rise of national sentiments of all its nations which was not always peaceful. It was a very difficult, but also a fascinating time! Students and teachers were starving. In order to survive I had to do five different jobs at a time – from teaching at the University to translating cartoons for the local TV. However, I also wanted to help the Shor people to revive their language. Together with some colleagues of the Chair of Foreign Languages I organized Shor language courses, started a Shor electronic database and organized and headed the club of Shor young people named after a national epic hero Ölgüdek for a few years. One of the activities of the Club was publishing a Shor Youth Journal in the Shor language which was the first published book in Shor after a break of more than half a century. In 1988, the Chair of the Shor Language and Literature was created at my University; the language got its new orthography and became to be taught at the University and at schools in Shoriya, first by the graduates of the Shor language courses, and then by graduates of the Shor Department. An Association of the Shor people was created; the Shor language was included into the list of indigenous languages of Russia to be supported by the Government.

Because of the lack of financing we had to freeze the program of creating a Shor electronic database. I concentrated on the individual research and wrote my second Doctorate (called Habilitation in German) on spatial constructions in Shor and other Siberian Turkic languages. I applied for and got a Humboldt stipend in Germany. From that time, I have been in Germany teaching in Frankfurt and Berlin and participating in various projects, most of which I have conceptualized myself. They are mostly connected with Siberia in some way. In particular, we have resumed our project on Shor electronic database thanks to the support of German and Russian Foundations. Another project was on documenting Chalkan, another endangered South Siberian Turkic variety.

For the last ten years I have been documenting Old Turkic Runic inscriptions in Mountainous Altai doing field research in the Altai Mountains during my University vacations. Together with colleagues from the Republic Altai I have published a “Catalogue of Altai Runic inscriptions” (2012), and created a database of the collected materials on the Internet. Now I hold a replacement professorship in Turcology at the Frankfurt University and I am engaged in deciphering archive materials on Siberian Turkic, in documenting various Turkic varieties and Old Turkic inscriptions, in investigating various language categories (Prospective, Depictive, Clusivity, etc.) among other things. I am very happy that I have an opportunity to do what I really like. The only problem is that there is so much work to do and so little time to do all I would love to.

Irina Nevskaya

Making the Most of LINGUIST: Resources for Professional Development

Once you’ve conducted research you’re especially proud of, you may wish to share it with the rest of the linguistics community. LINGUIST makes it easy to find a venue that is specific to your interests, and to submit your work for review! All of your published work can then be attributed to your name on our site.

To begin, you may wish to create a listing for yourself in our People Area. Here you can list your affiliations, degrees, areas of interest/research, and publications.

Once your People entry is submitted, explore the services below to help you develop as a professional.

LINGUIST also maintains a database of Publication information which contains the following features:

  • Journals: Look at our Journal listings to find an appropriate fit for your research. Also, many of the journals use LINGUIST to announce Calls for Papers.
  • After your information is published, you can announce it as an Academic Paper or as a Dissertation (PhD only).
  • Books: Have a book? Here is information on how to get your book announced.
  • Reviews: All books announced on our website can also be made available for review by the Reviews Team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. These reviews are often the first reviews to be distributed to the linguistics community.

Once you have built up your CV, it’s time to look for potential careers in linguistics! “How do I do that?” you may ask. Well, we’ve got an area for all your career-finding needs!

  • Jobs: This popular area is a great resource for finding a position in linguistics.

With over 350 active job announcements in our listing, we have one of the most comprehensive databases on linguistic jobs in the world. You can choose to either browse the list or search by such categories as subfield, rank, or location. Because we only keep active jobs in our browse and search area, all positions you find are open and relevant to the field.

Remember, these services are available to the linguistic community by your donations. To help us keep these services available in the future, remember to donate for our traveLING fund drive 2014.

LINGUIST: Supporting Linguistics Internationally

Dear subscribers,

I am Xiyan Wang from China. I graduated with my M.A. in Linguistics in April 2013 and continued my editing work at LINGUIST List until now. In addition to the data and tools for scholars in their research and field work, LINGUIST List provides the unique resources and information for the whole linguistic community.

Please donate so that our service for all the users and the linguistic community could continue:

Since last summer I have been working with other crew members on Calls & Conferences, Institutions & Programs and LL-Map. Through Calls & Conferences services, users can announce conferences and find conferences relevant to their interests. Institutions & Programs provide information on institutions and programs that specialize in particular languages or fields of study for students and faculty. LL-MAP not only helps the user with dynamic search for language data, it also gives scholars the opportunity to utilize our site for the creation of their own language maps.

The idea of keeping the resources and services free and easy to access for scholars, students and all users is deeply held in LINGUIST List. However, we could not fully achieve these goals without your generous donation every year. I have been working at LINGUIST List as an international student for about two and a half years. I have always been grateful to this organization’s support with which I finished my MA study and graduated last April. The study and work here is already part of treasure in my life that I will never forget. Your support and donation has always been very significant to assist the many international graduate students like me and help us continue our efforts of providing better services to the linguistic community. Even a small sum of money will be valuable to LINGUIST List and eventually all the users benefit from your generous donations. We need your help, please donate with just one click:

Xiyan Wang

Making the Most of LINGUIST: Resources for Research

As a researcher, there are a lot of ways to formulate research questions and gather linguistic data. LINGUIST offers several features you can use to reach out to the linguistics community as you conduct your research.

  • Queries: You can submit research surveys, tests, and ask for resources relevant to your research here:

If you think someone may have already asked a similar question, check out Summaries to see if our readers have provided a response.

For general research needs, LINGUIST features a Publications Area where you can find bibliographic resources:

In this area, you can find:

If you’re doing language documentation research or your research is more technical in nature, you should visit our

for technical tips.

In fact, all of our projects can be used to gather information, and generate and support language hypotheses:

So once you’ve finished your research, how can you use LINGUIST to make the most of your career? Stay tuned for the next letter on LINGUIST’s resources for professional development.

Remember, these services are available to the linguistic community by your donations. To help us keep these services available in the future, remember to donate and help support.

Featured Linguist: Eitan Grossman

As our Fund Drive is traveLING to North Africa and the Middle East, we are going to meet our next Featured Linguist Eitan Grossman from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Read below his story on how he became a linguist.

Eitan Grossman

How I Became a Linguist
by Eitan Grossman

I grew up in a small town in New York, and like a lot of North American eighteen-year-olds, I went to college right after finishing school. Focusing on languages and literature, the one class I took in a particular brand of New England linguistics was enough to turn me off. As it turned out, the American college experience wasn’t meant for me, and neither was America, and I quickly found myself living in Israel. I waited tables, served in the army as an infantry soldier, worked in a screw factory, and milked cows, among other sundry jobs, none of which I was particularly good at. After a few years, I was good and ready to go back to activate my brain a bit.
Up until three weeks or so before I was supposed to begin my BA, I was convinced that I was going to be a water-and-soil engineer. How this idea got into my head remains a mystery till today. But over the summer, I got my hands on (and actually read) de Saussure’s Cours, which had been recommended to me by an English professor years ago. This led to reading Chomsky’sSyntactic Structures and Langacker’s Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Although I didn’t really understand any of them, I did understand that I was going to be a linguist, which pretty much scuttled my dreams of building irrigation pipes in exotic places.

I began studying linguistics and Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, focusing mainly on Semitic languages. I can only describe the experience as electrifying. Now, I should say a few words about the linguistics department at the Hebrew University which was a bit of an oddity, at least from the point of view of most North American linguistics programs. The oldest linguistics program in the country, it was firmly European structuralist in orientation and the studies were based on the intensive study of quite a few languages. In my first year, I studied Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, and a lot of Hebrew, including the ridiculously difficult course in niqqud, the science (or art) of vocalizing an unvocalized Hebrew text. The theoretical and methodological courses embodied a particular blend of structuralism, typology, and functionalism, but also medieval Arab grammarians, Romance philologists, and the rock stars of 19th and 20th century linguistics, those nonconformists Otto Jespersen, Edward Sapir, Hugo Schuchardt, Hermann Paul, Joan Bybee, and T. Givón. My teachers in linguistics were Ariel Shisha-Halevy, Eran Cohen, Lea Sawicki, Moshe Taube, Orly Goldwasser, Gideon Goldenberg, Dana Taube, Olga Kapeliuk, Nimrod Barri, Anbessa Tefarra, and others, many of whom are still friends and mentors in various ways.

I came to Coptic, as it happens, in a fairly invisible-hand way. I had to pick another language in my first year, and my choices were either Syriac Aramaic or Coptic. Not knowing what to pick – being equally and completely ignorant about both language – the BA advisor told me that I should go to the library, open a book, and see which struck my fancy. The Syriac script – which to my eyes looked like a lot of squiggles – send me to the warm embrace of Coptic, with its more reasonable Greek-based alphabet.

The first year course in Coptic was probably the most challenging course I took in my entire BA. The professor, Ariel Shisha-Halevy, was – and is – a radical thinker, who showed me that most of what I thought I knew about language was just a collection of prejudices. I don’t want to eulogize someone who I still see often, so I’ll just say that I kept studying Coptic because I wanted to keep hearing what Shisha-Halevy had to say. I also ended up studying Welsh, Irish, Greek, Somali, Yiddish, Ge’ez, Sidamo, and a little Swahili and Polish, but I was mostly focused on Ancient Egyptian in all of its phases.

I wanted to keep studying, which meant I had to do some more degrees. I was lucky enough to come into the field of Egyptian linguistics when a lot of the established scholars were a bit tired from some titanic clashes about the nature of the Ancient Egyptian verbal system. This meant that those of us working on the later phases, from Late Egyptian to Coptic, could work on new topics, and I think that our teachers were happy to encourage us in this. Also, a lot of us were reading functionalist and typological literature, which gave us a different perspective. All in all, the community of linguists working on Ancient Egyptian and Coptic is a tremendously exciting and supportive one, and it’s a privilege and a source of ongoing happiness to be a part of it.

In the end, I wrote a dissertation about an undescribed Coptic dialect, but since I wasn’t exactly in love with the subject, I spent a lot of time working on other topics, mostly related to language variation and change, such as language contact, grammaticalization, dialectology, and historical sociolinguistics. I was lucky enough to meet (and correspond with) fantastic scholars, who were really generous with their time and encouraged me in every imaginable way, and even though I worked on a weird dead language and didn’t speak the right lingo, took me seriously (I think).

I did post-doctoral research in Liège, Be’er Sheva, and Jerusalem. For the first year and a half, I shuttled every two weeks between Liège, where I was working, and Jerusalem, where my wife and kids had to stay. Not an easy period, and one that left a pretty massive carbon footprint, but a wonderful one nonetheless. On the one hand, the stress of being uncertain about one’s future is tough. On the other hand, I could basically do what I wanted in terms of research, and I was lucky enough to find remarkable partners with whom I could talk endlessly – and eventually write – about the questions that have come to occupy me for most of my waking hours, and some of my dreams: why are languages the way they are? what is the relationship between form and function? what is the role of listeners in shaping linguistic form? why do languages change? A lot of the work from this period, much of it joint productions with Stéphane Polis and Sebastian Richter, is still in preparation, in print, forthcoming, and most of all, staring me down from the hard drive of my computer. At the moment, I’m in the middle of my first large-scale typological project, which deals with the typology of adposition borrowing.
I now teach linguistics at the Hebrew University, where I give courses in historical linguistics and typology, as well as various phases of Ancient Egyptian. I have to admit that the course I enjoy teaching most is the introduction to linguistics: first year students often have the best questions, the ones that still trouble most of us.

Studying a dead language attested for more than 4000 years is pretty different from working on a living oral language. First of all, there’s that pesky lack of native speakers. But it means embracing working on a corpus, which I think is a good thing. It also means that you get to look at really long-term diachronic changes, which is also a good thing.

Here are a few wet-behind-the-ears words of advice for my fellow rookies. Linguistics is a fantastic field, but it’s also a tough one, and a thick skin helps. Make the most of opportunities. Write about things that really excite you. Be generous to others. Change your mind once in a while. Don’t be afraid to be intellectually incorrect.

Eitan Grossman

LINGUIST: A Hub for Open and Free Services

Dear LINGUIST List Subscribers,

My name is Andrew Lamont. I’m a student editor at the LINGUIST List. I came to the LINGUIST List last January to volunteer on LL-MAP and MultiTree. Prior to this exposure, I had only dreamt of such a central hub of linguistic resources as accessible and open as these. As I began delving deeper into the treasure trove of the LINGUIST List, I came to realize what an incredible resource our community has.

The time I spend supporting the LINGUIST List has been one of the most valuable experiences of my working life as a tyro linguist. Not only am I working towards goals shared by the entire community, but my time here enables me to pursue graduate studies, pursuing my own academic goals. Like many of you, I depend on the LINGUIST List.

Here in the office, I work on announcements of publications, act as a listserv administrator, and run the tech team. Like everyone else here who works hard to keep the LINGUIST List running smoothly, I know the LINGUIST List depends on me.

The LINGUIST List also depends on our subscribers for their support. While we in the office keep everything running smoothly, you keep everything running. I hope you’ll take the time to consider supporting this vital resource we all benefit from.

Please visit the link below to read more about this year’s fund drive and to make a donation.

Thank You,

Andrew Lamont

Featured Linguist: Lina Choueiri

This week we are traveLING to North Africa and the Middle East, and today we are going to meet our Featured Linguist Lina Choueiri from American University of Beirut. Let’s take a moment and hear Lina’s story about her path to linguistics.


How I Became a Linguist
by Lina Choueiri

I did not come into linguistics by accident, nor did I know from a young age that I
wanted to be a linguist. As a teenager in the early 80s, growing up in Lebanon
during the civil war, I had in fact never heard of linguistics.

I was preparing myself for a career in medicine, because my family and my
teachers all said I could do it. The thought of becoming a psychiatrist, and
perhaps unlocking some of the mysteries of the mind stayed with me throughout
my high school years. By the time I was ready to go to college, I had stopped
romanticizing about the idea of a career in medicine; I chose instead to study
mathematics, a subject I excelled at in school. I also joined some friends of mine
studying French literature at the Université Saint-Joseph. I wasn’t quite sure
what I would do with a degree in mathematics, but my advisor was encouraging
me to consider a career in academia. The French literature curriculum included
one course in linguistics, which was taught by a Jesuit priest, Père Aucagne, who
had no formal training in linguistics. He had studied Greek and Latin and had a
passion for languages. When I raised my hand for the first time, to ask a question
in his class, Père Aucagne told me that I was the only literature student he had
ever had who seemed to show an interest in linguistics. He also gave me a book
to read and suggested that we could discuss it together. He added that he found
the book difficult, but that my training in mathematics could be an asset, and that
we might work together to understand it. That book was Syntactic Structures. It
was the summer of that year that I decided to pursue a degree in linguistics.

This was easier said than done: we were in the late 80s, before email and the
Internet, and the civil war in Lebanon was still raging. I needed to find out how
and where to apply. I also needed advice from someone knowledgeable about
the field, but I had chosen a specialization that very few in Lebanon had heard
about. Père Aucagne put me in touch with the chancellor of the Université Saint-
Joseph who knew Joseph Aoun. They thought that I should write to Joseph and
ask him for advice. I sent Joseph a naïve letter inquiring about linguistics
programs in the US and their admissions requirements. Meanwhile, the
hostilities of the civil war had intensified, and I left Lebanon before receiving his

I arrived in Virginia in May 1990 to stay with family. Soon after, I started
applying to graduate programs in neighboring universities. I joined the program
in general linguistics at the University of Georgetown in spring 1991. This is
where I was first introduced to the different areas of specialization in linguistics,
and by the time I completed my course work there, I knew I needed to spend
even more time reading, studying, and catching up. I also knew that I wanted to
focus my research on Arabic in particular, and Semitic languages in general.
While completing my degree at Georgetown, I started applying to some PhD
programs in the US, including USC, where I hoped to be able to work with Joseph.
I joined USC in fall 1993, and I have been working on the syntax of Arabic ever
since. I am now at the American University of Beirut. My work on the
comparative syntax of Arabic dialects continues to be a source of excitement and
pleasurable new discoveries.

Lina Choueiri

LINGUIST: A Guide to Linguistic Resources

Dear LINGUIST List Subscribers,

As the Managing Editor, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve gained is how to guide linguists to resources that are relevant to their needs. The LINGUIST List has the ability to provide a multitude of features to the linguistic community without requiring a subscription fee. Without this fee to provide our services to the entire community, we rely on your donations to keep our services available to everyone. Please consider donating again so we can continue to offer the latest resources in linguistics:

I started working at The LINGUIST List as a volunteer in September 2011 simply because I wanted to gain some experience in linguistics and network within the linguistic community. It turned out that later I was offered a position as a student worker, then as a graduate assistant, and now, as the managing editor. I know that I would not have been offered these opportunities had it not been for your donations in past fund drives.

During this past year, our office has been able to work in redesigning project websites. Most recently we were able to release a beta-edition of MultiTree ( and have been able to begin the infrastructure for the new LINGUIST List website! We are excited to be working on this and we are relying on your donations more than ever to allow us to show results from our current and future staff.

If you donate today, you will ensure that our services for the linguistic community will continue, as well as support the work of students like myself. I greatly appreciate any donations that ensure more students will have the same opportunities that I had.

Thank you so much for your generosity!

Sarah Fox
Managing Editor

Springer Book Giveaway: Donate and Win!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

It’s the start of a new week, and we here at LINGUIST List are more than happy to kick it off with another Fund Drive Drawing! Today’s prize is a set of three books, generously donated to us by Springer!

Language Alternation, Language Choice and Language Encounter in
International Tertiary Education Edited by Hartmut Haberland, Dorte
Lønsmann & Bent Preisler

English as an International Language in Asia: Implications for Language
Education Edited by Andy Kirkpatrick & Roland Sussex
Spelling Morphology by Dorit Diskin Ravid

Current Issues in Bilingualism Edited by Mark Leikin, Mila Schwartz &
Yishai Tobin

These titles, valued at almost $400 dollars, could be yours for as little as a $5 donation!

Plus, if you donate $35 or more, you’ll also be able to get one of our great premiums!

As always, good luck!

-The LINGUIST List Crew

Featured Linguist: Henry Davis

While we are traveLING through Western North America, we are happy to introduce you to our next Featured Linguist – Henry Davis. Read below Henry’s story about what led him to the study of language and how he got where he is today.

Henry Davis

How I Became a Linguist
by Henry Davis

I first learned that linguistic knowledge mattered at the age of four. I began my academic career in a tough primary school in Paddington, London, where I was regularly bullied for my non-Cockney accent. When the bullying got too much, my parents moved me to a posh preparatory school in St. John’s Wood, where I was regularly bullied because my accent was not upper class enough. And then my family moved to Manchester. I spent hours in the boy’s toilet, practicing [phæθ] and [khæsḷ]instead of [phαθ] and [khαsḷ] as though my life depended on it; which, at least in the school playground, it did.

My uneasy relationship with educational establishments continued. I hated my high school with such intensity that every morning I imagined the school buildings sliding beneath the playing fields like some landlocked Titanic. I and a band of fellow misfits even hatched a sub-Fawkesian plot to burn it down, but were discovered in the basement at an early stage of our conspiracy. Were it not for the fact that I was a good prospect for Oxford or Cambridge, I would certainly have been expelled; as it was, I left for London immediately after sitting my Oxbridge entrance exams, and fell, serendipitously, into a company of clowns. I learnt to juggle, stilt-walk, and fire-eat, and for the next fifteen years, vacillated between the life of an itinerant performer and that of a still-reluctant academic.

After what I suppose would now be called a ‘gap year’ (though there weren’t meant to be any gaps in those days), I returned to academia in the form of King’s College, Cambridge, where I was to read English literature. I had originally chosen King’s specifically because my headmaster had warned me against it, on the grounds that it was “full of women and homosexuals”: he was, thankfully, correct. However, in spite of the typical Cambridge mixture of overgrown intellect and overheated hormones, fueled by a readily available pharmacopeia, I felt lost, intellectually and otherwise; and though I toyed with the fashionable obscurities of Lacan and Derrida, I couldn’t help sensing that in taking them seriously I might have fallen for an elaborate French intellectual joke. I took a year off (not a gap year this time – more like a gaping void year) and ended up on an island off the west coast of Ireland tending goats and planting potatoes for a primal therapy commune.

Back at Cambridge, I stumbled upon linguistics through politics, more specifically through an anarchist reading group led by Raf Salkie, which led me to start reading Chomsky. I found Chomsky’s political writing incisive, but not particularly inspiring. However, I was intrigued by his linguistics, which seemed hard in the right way – if you worked hard enough at it, it would get clearer rather than more confusing. So I looked around for linguistics lectures at Cambridge. I found a single course, taught by Terry Moore, with one of those catchy obituary titles like ‘The Funeral of the New Grammarians’ or ‘The Death Rattle of Generative Linguistics’ or ‘Another Nail In Chomsky’s Coffin’ or…well, you know the type. Of course, the rush to bury Chomsky’s ideas just made me all the more intrigued to unearth them, but I couldn’t get any further with generative linguistics at Cambridge. I ended up doing the second half of my degree in Social and Political Science, graduating in absentia while street performing in Italy.

The Thatcher years had begun to cast a pall over the UK. The last two places I lived in England – Toxteth, in Liverpool, and Dalston Junction, in London, both went up in flames. The Toxteth conflagration was particularly spectacular, since it was fueled by a large furniture warehouse on the end of the street where I lived. Things looked grim: either Thatcher was going to win, or anarchy was about to be loosed upon the UK (the genuine, frightening kind, not the genteel intellectual version). Neither seemed like an attractive prospect, so I decided to cash in my Cambridge degree and apply for graduate programs abroad. In the end, it came down to a choice between doing psychology at UCL or going to Canada to do linguistics. (I had no intention of studying in the States, since running into the arms of Ronald Reagan would have defeated the purpose of fleeing Mrs. Thatcher). I chose the latter, and ended up in Vancouver because David Ingram called me up from UBC and offered me money and I liked the look of all those little islands on the map.

I never left. I learned some linguistics, and was given a more or less free hand to do what I wanted – probably a mistake, because it turned out to be an 800-page dissertation, nominally on the acquisition of the English auxiliary system, but including what I imagined to be a comprehensive theory of parametric syntax and its relation to language acquisition. Ken Wexler was my external examiner, and he did me the honor of showing up to my defense. He pulled from his bag a giant stack of paper – my thesis, single-sided, double-spaced, and heavily annotated – and commenced to ask questions, starting at the beginning, and going on – and on. An hour passed, then another. The atmosphere became thick with the fug of stale thought, and finally, reduced to a gibbering idiot by nerves and exhaustion, I stumbled over deep ergativity and could not go on. The Chair rescued me, the examination ended, and it was announced that I had passed. I took revenge by blowing fire over the heads of the examining committee.

And that was the launch of my linguistic career – except that it wasn’t. I now suspect that like many others, I went through a kind of post-doctoral post-partum depression, but at the time I did not recognize that I had a bad case of it – perhaps because of the misshapen monster I had just delivered. I didn’t want to do linguistics anymore, let alone work on language acquisition, and so I dropped out once again and went back to clowning. But the life of a clown is hard on the body and yields mostly spare change, and so, in order to pay the rent, I ended up in the twilight zone of sessional teaching.

Then, nearly five years after I had finished my dissertation, I had a stroke of enormous luck. I had begun to learn a little about Salish languages through Dwight Gardiner, who was writing his dissertation on Shuswap at Simon Fraser University. An opportunity arose to do syntactic research on St’át’imcets (Lillooet), through a grant held by Pat Shaw at UBC: I jumped at the chance, and began work on the language in the summer of 1992. That fall, a further opportunity arose: Simon Fraser advertised for an instructor in St’át’imcets through their nascent First Nations language teaching program, based in Kamloops. They needed someone with a Ph.D., and since I was in the right place at the right time, I got the job. Of course, it was a ridiculous situation: I was teaching a language I knew almost nothing about. But my teaching ‘assistants’ were three fluent elders, who decided if I was going to teach their language, I’d better learn it, and learn it properly. So began my apprenticeship in St’át’imcets.

And that is what finally made me into a linguist. A couple of months after I began working on St’át’imcets, one of the elders I was working with asked me simply: ‘Are you on our side or theirs?’. Though I’m not sure I quite recognized it at the time, my answer (‘Yours!’) constituted a long-term commitment to the language and its speakers, which continues to this day. Though many of the speakers I have worked with over the years have passed on, it is my hope that at least some of their deep knowledge of language and culture will be available for future generations.

Over the years, I broadened my commitment to include several other indigenous languages of British Columbia. For me, the documentation and analysis of these critically endangered languages is a huge responsibility and an extraordinary opportunity; I feel very privileged to do the work I do, and though the route I took to get here was circuitous, it is where I – finally – feel at home.

Henry Davis