Of interest to Students

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

We have a John Benjamins journal with your name on it! Donate today!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

We’ve given away three subscriptions from John Benjamins so far, with our latest winner being Dr. Vieri Samek-Lodovici at the University College London! And today we have another subscription to give away, which means if you donate before 11:59 p.m. today, you could be lucky winner number four!


Of course, everyone who donates $35 or more is always a winner, because they get their choice one of our great premiums!


Good luck!

-The LINGUIST List Crew

Making the Most of LINGUIST: Resources for Students

Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing with you our ‘Making the Most of LINGUIST’ letter series. This series of messages will identify the main types of resources on LINGUIST, and will explain how they can best be utilized to meet your needs.

The series will mirror the typical development of a professional linguist, beginning with resources for students, then for conducting research, followed by help with professional development, institutions, conference organizers, and employers, then finishing up with special interests.

For those of you who are new to the mesmerizing field of linguistics–or have a passing interest in language–LINGUIST has an area specifically for you:

  • Ask-a-Linguist: Ask-a-Linguistic contains answers to frequently asked linguistic questions. This area of LINGUIST covers a lot of great, general linguistic information.

If you’re thinking about making linguistics your life’s work, LINGUIST has several resources for students trying to make the most of their degree:

  • Student Portal: An essential for students looking to develop an academic career in linguistics. Great starting point.
  • Internships: For linguistic experience outside of the classroom, check our internship listings!
  • Supports: Announcements of fellowships and resources for degree programs are contained here.
  • FYI: There’s a lot of diverse information presented in FYI, including scholarship opportunities, grants, and new degree programs.

Looking for more research-oriented resources? Stay tuned for the next letter!

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 to offer your support.

Our LINGUIST-Lister Danuta is sending you greetings in Polish!

Drodzy użytkownicy LINGUIST LIST!

Nazywam się Danuta Allen i jestem studentką lingwistyki na Uniwersytecie Eastern Michigan. Dopiero rozpoczęłam pracę dla LINGUIST LIST, i jestem niezmiernie wdzięczna za to doświadczenie. Każdego dnia uczę się czegoś nowego o tworzonych i rozwijanych tutaj projektach, czego przenigdy nie dowiedziałabym się z zajęć teoretycznych na uczelni. Uwielbiam swój kierunek studiów i uważam pracę dla LINGUIST LIST za cudowne i bardzo ważne doświadczenie w mojej przyszłej karierze zawodowej. Bez Waszego wsparcia finansowego, studenci tacy jak ja nie mieliby tej możliwości.

LINGUIST LIST odgrywa znaczącą rolę w językoznawczej społeczności, jako że wspomaga wielu absolwentów w konynuowaniu nauki i otrzymaniu wyższych dyplomów. Bez Waszych dotacji nie byłoby to możliwe. Pamiętajcie proszę długoterminowe korzyści jakie LINGUIST LIST dostarcza dla dziedziny lingwistyki poprzez szkolenia oferowane studentom. Pewnego dnia, dyscypliny językoznawcze skorzystają na wiedzy i ich doświadczeniu jako w pełni wykształconych, profesjonalnych językoznawców.

U przejmie apeluję do Was o rozważenie przesłania dotacji dla LINGUIST LIST. Wspomóżcie dziedzinę lingwistyki poprzez dostarczenie środków umożliwiających takim studentom jak ja zdobycie ważnego doświadczenia zawodowego. To jest okazja, która pojawia się tylko raz  w roku, a zatem nie przegapcie jej! Możecie dokonać wsparcia finansowego poprzez poniższy link:


Serdecznie dziękuję za Waszą hojność, 
Danuta Allen

Win Brill’s Handbook of the Syllable! Donate Today!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

We’re excited to announce our second prize from Brill, a copy of Handbook of the Syllable, edited by Charles E. Cairns and Eric Raimy!


This title, perfect for any phonetician or phonologist’s library, is valued at $240, but can be yours for as little as a $5 donation! But hurry, because to be entered to win you must donate before 11:59 p.m. today!


And whether you’re a phonologist or a syntactician, you can always get the premium of your choice by donating $35 or more!


Good luck!

-The LINGUIST List Crew

Featured Linguist: Doug Biber

Today we are traveLing to Western North America with our Featured Linguist Doug Biber from Northern Arizona University. Read below about his life journey that led him to the field of linguistics.

Boug Biber

How I Became a Linguist
by Doug Biber

In grade school, no one would have ever guessed I’d grow up to become a linguist – I was the kid who got Cs in French and couldn’t produce a trill to save my life! I went to university majoring in civil engineering – relieved that there was no language requirement for that major. But I ended up switching to geophysics, thinking that it would be less restrictive than engineering, and that it would allow me to spend more time in the mountains (which turned out to be wishful thinking).

Two things happened during my undergraduate education that got me interested in academic research, and specifically linguistics. The first was a technical writing course, where I was shocked to learn that the point of writing was to tell the reader something that they didn’t already know. (I had believed up to that point that the reader – of course, an instructor – always already knew the correct answer, and so the point of writing was just to impress the reader.) And the second was an introduction to English syntax course, where I discovered that analyzing language could be really fun!

After a year and a half working as a geophysicist, I got laid off – and used the severance pay to go into a graduate program in linguistics at the University of Texas. After graduation, I ended up getting a 3-year position coordinating a Somali mother-tongue literacy program in the NE Province of Kenya. That experience shaped my world view, but also gave me the opportunity in my spare time for firsthand experience doing linguistic fieldwork. I was especially interested in working on Somali phonology and dialect variation.

Towards the end of that time, I started to think about PhD programs in linguistics. Luckily, around the same time, I had sent a paper that I had written on Somali focus markers to Larry Hyman at USC – a really scary prospect for me, given Larry’s stature in the field of African linguistics. Of course, Larry responded with extremely helpful comments, and also facilitated my going to USC for my PhD.

While at USC, I gradually shifted my research interests from phonology and African linguistics to patterns of (socio)linguistic variation. I had a background in computer programming, and so I got a full-time staff position as a programmer at the university computer center. But I was somehow blissfully unaware of corpora or anything called ‘corpus linguistics’ – and I had no thought that I might be able to apply my programming skills to any useful research questions in linguistics. In fact, during early stages of my dissertation research on the linguistic characteristics of speech and writing, I spent hours counting linguistic features by hand in texts! Then one day my dissertation chair – Ed Finegan – showed me an article that he had been reading about corpora, and suggested that I could apply my programming skills to corpus analysis for my dissertation research. Ed helped me obtain university funding to purchase the Brown Corpus – and helped to launch a 30-year linguistic research agenda involving corpus analysis.

Doug Biber

LINGUIST List: Networking for Linguistics

Dear Fellow Linguist,

Hi, I’m Bryn. If you have ever donated to the LINGUIST List, you are the reason that I was able to complete an exciting and enriching internship at the LINGUIST List this summer. If you have yet to donate, you have the opportunity now to help fund my work and the pursuit of my MA in Linguistics at Eastern Michigan University, while I continue serving you as a LINGUIST List student editor and team member of the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat).

Ever since I earned my BA in Linguistics and Russian Language & Literature from the University of Michigan in 2011, I have been compelled by the wildly idealistic passion to rescue endangered languages, or at least to document them for the advancement of the science. Beginning with a summer internship, the LINGUIST List has focused my energy on ELCat, one of our many projects desgined for the benefit of the linguistic community. The goal of ELCat is to assemble research on endangered languages into one up-to-date, vetted, searchable resource, which is now live at www.endangeredlanguages.com. My job is to find the best information on endangered languages and bring it to you, which has cultivated in me the important scholarly skills of resource retrieval, fast but thorough processing of linguistic literature, and bibliography management.

More than just an enthusiastic ELCat team member, I am also your editor for conference calls for papers at the LINGUIST List. That’s right: I am the one who makes sure you know that the deadline to submit to your field’s biggest conference is fast approaching, that your abstract must be no longer than 500 words, and that your submission will be rejected outright if it’s anything but a hyper-anonymized PDF with exact-to-the-milimeter margins. If you have ever submitted a conference to the mailing list, you might remember me as the one who triple-checked your spelling and painstakingly formatted your submission, who emailed you at 6 a.m. Sunday morning when you need to change your deadline, or who distributed your appel à communications in three more languages than I can personally speak.

As a linguist, I am incredibly grateful to be part of a discipline with such a well-established infrastructure to help us navigate the labyrinth of academia. Not every field has a resource like the LINGUIST List. You would be surprised how many calls for papers I have to reject for lack of linguistic relevance: submissions pertaining to economics, business, and ecology, submitted to LINGUIST for lack of a better way to distribute their announcements among their own colleagues. Our linguistics network is a great source of pride for me and, I hope, a great service to you.

If you believe in the service we provide, or if you just want to make sure graduate students like me continue to receive their stipend checks, please follow this link and donate to the LINGUIST List:



Bryn Hauk
Calls & Conferences Editor
ELP/ELCat Team Member

Donate Today and Win! It’s As Easy As ABC!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

Do you have a young, budding linguist in your life? Then today’s prize is perfect for you! If you donate today before 11:59 p.m., you’ll be entered to win a copy of An ABC for Baby Linguists!


This charming book is entertaining for linguists of all ages, and can be yours if you donate today!


And don’t forget, you can always donate $35 or more to receive a premium for the adult linguist in your household!


Good luck!

-The LINGUIST List Crew

Win a Subscription to Morgan & Claypool’s Entire Digital Library! Donate Today!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

The weekend is almost at hand, which means it’s almost time to relax (or more likely, do lots of grading!). However, we here at LINGUIST List still have one more prize we’d like to give away this week, so hang in there for just one more day! If you donate today before 11:59 p.m., you’ll be eligible to win a one year’s subscription to Morgan and Claypool’s entire digital library, which includes the Synthesis Digital Library of Engineering and Computer Science! This great resource, valued at $99, is a must if you’re a computational linguist, and can be yours for as little as a $5 donation!


And don’t forget, if you donate $35 or more, you can be sure to walk away with one of our great premiums!


Good luck, and have a great weekend!

-The LINGUIST List Crew

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