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.
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.