Featured Linguist: Christian Di Canio

Featured Linguist: Christian DiCanio

Featured Linguist: Christian DiCanio

I was brought to linguistics partly by accident, though it has ended up being the perfect match to my strengths and interests. As a child growing up in Buffalo, NY, I was mainly interested in the natural sciences and did not have much of any experience with foreign languages. Yet, when I had the chance to study Spanish in primary school and high school, I discovered that I excelled at it and had a knack for quickly memorizing new words and the idiosyncrasies of grammar. Moreover, in high school, I do recall coming up with a new alphabetic system for English which had different symbols for syllabic consonants (you know, just for fun).

Nevertheless, at that age, it certainly seemed more practical for me to devote my attention to the sciences, which I also loved. So, as an undergraduate, I went away to Brandeis University where I planned to pursue a degree in Chemistry with a minor in Spanish. As a freshman needing guidance in which courses to take, I was assigned a random faculty advisor. That person just so happened to be a linguist named Joan Maling. She nudgingly mentioned to me “Many students who are interested in the sciences and in languages like linguistics.” So, I enrolled in my first linguistics class with Ray Jackendoff. Ray’s enthusiasm for the topic and interest in engaging with students’ ideas proved contagious. Rather simultaneously, Chemistry became rather dull to me. Yet, could one actually study language with scientific rigor and make a career out of it? I didn’t really know if this was true at the time, but I took the plunge and switched majors.

Due to financial circumstances, I transferred to the University at Buffalo where I continued my studies in Linguistics and Spanish. I excelled there and gradually became convinced that linguistics was a useful discipline that might make me employable some day. During my penultimate year, I decided that I wanted to study abroad for a semester in a Spanish-speaking country. Yet, studying abroad in Spain seemed boring to me. As luck would have it, there was a very affordable (and interesting) program for studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico. I inquired about this program, but was disheartened to find out that they did not offer many advanced courses in Spanish. My undergraduate advisor, Jeri Jaeger, suggested that perhaps I could study Zapotec there instead. I had never even considered this a possibility. As luck would have it, when I asked if this was possible, the program seemed keen on finding a speaker to teach me Zapotec. My time in Oaxaca was magical and I fell in love with how different Zapotec was from everything else I had learned beforehand. As my semester project abroad, I wrote a paper about Zapotec syllable structure and sent it along with my applications for graduate school.

I started graduate school at UC Berkeley in 2002. When I got to Berkeley, I knew I wanted to study phonetics, but felt a bit overwhelmed by all the possibilities that I could pursue. I dabbled a bit in syntax and morphology (which remains a “secret” interest of mine), but was finally convinced to focus on phonetics and phonology through a combination of Keith Johnson’s move to the department and Larry Hyman’s addictive energy for all things phonological. During my second year, I was contacted by Seth Holmes, an anthropologist working with a Triqui [ˈtɾiki] community in Oaxaca, Mexico. He was interested in finding a linguist who wanted to help the community develop a dictionary. I wanted to return to Oaxaca and this was a good chance to do so.

I dove into fieldwork with the Triquis and, in doing so, I learned a gigantic amount about linguistic analysis, phonology, and phonetics. Like many other Otomanguean languages, Triqui has a complex tonal system (9 contrastive tones on a single syllable) and a complex morphophonological system involving tonal mutation and spreading. I have been endlessly interested in figuring out the details of the language over the years and investigating different aspects of tone production and perception. Though, as a graduate student, I was certainly concerned that I couldn’t both focus on big picture issues in phonetics (what I imagined to be marketable) and do phonetic fieldwork (what I was most passionate about). Two of my dissertation committee members, Larry Hyman and Ian Maddieson, convinced me that I could do both. I also learned an incredible amount about phonetic theory and methods from my advisor, Keith Johnson, who supported my endeavors even when they didn’t seem to jibe so much with his own research interests. So, I wrote my thesis on the phonetics and phonology of Itunyoso Triqui.

After graduation, I accepted a postdoctoral position in Lyon, France at Le Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage, where I stayed for 2.5 years. I spent my time in France exploring the perception the suprasegmental contrasts in Triqui and gastronomie lyonnaise. I benefitted greatly from meetings with François Pellegrino, who helped me with issues related to experimental design and data processing. It was during this time that I also began to expand my interests in the phonetics of endangered languages. I was recruited to do fieldwork on Ixcatec, a moribund Otomanguean language in Oaxaca, Mexico and, then, to start work on Yoloxóchitl Mixtec (also Otomanguean). I embraced both of these new opportunities and, in doing so, really began to see myself as a Mesoamericanist in addition to being a phonetician.

After France, I took another postdoctoral position at Haskins Laboratories working with Doug Whalen on extracting phonetic data from endangered language documentation corpora. As luck would have it, one of the languages on the project was Yoloxóchitl Mixtec. As someone working on this language, I was well-qualified for the position. At Haskins, I began to focus on the efficacy of computational methods for extracting phonetic data and from endangered language corpora. In the process of exploring these new methods and examining vowel production data, I gained much greater confidence in my abilities as a phonetician. At Haskins, Doug Whalen instilled in me the outspoken belief that phonetic research on endangered languages is, a priori, of no lesser scientific value than phonetic research on non-endangered languages. His special knack for putting phonetic research from endangered languages on the same playing field as research on more commonly-spoken languages was a strong influence on how I began to think of the larger ramifications of my work. With Doug’s encouragement, I applied for my own grant to apply computational methods to the corpus analysis of tone in Triqui and Mixtec and to examine the prosody-tone interface in these languages. I was thrilled to receive a National Science Foundation grant to do this work and pursue my research on tone.

In 2015, I was also thrilled to join the Linguistics Department at the University at Buffalo where I continue my research on the phonetics of endangered languages and speech production. Though I’m now an assistant professor and professional linguist, much of what drew me into linguistics many years ago lingers still – an interest in applying a scientific approach to examining the atoms of speech and discovering how this most human of all systems works. At Buffalo, I hope to instill in budding linguists a sense of how much of the world is still wide open to be explored and give them the skills to grasp the endless possibilities in linguistics.



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