Featured Linguist: Gillian Ramchand

Featured Linguist: Gillian Ramchand

My mother is from Scotland and my father is from Trinidad. When those two met in Edinburgh and had kids, they eventually ended up living in the Caribbean, first Jamaica and then Trinidad. The world was less connected then. I grew up in a tropical paradise, which I despised for its smallness and lack of connection to the world. I could not wait to get out. (Now I am much more appreciative). When I was 14 I wanted to be an Astrophysicist. My favourite book was a book on physics and philosophy and I spent many fruitless hours trying to get my head around quantum mechanics. I’m sure I must have been unbearable. I applied to universities in the Big World outside and got funding to go to MIT for my undergraduate education where I double majored in Math and Philosophy. The MIT decision was a turning point— it could have been very easily another university and another path. I remember filling out the forms to accept Princeton, and waking up at six am to retrieve the envelope so that my mother wouldn’t mail it, and replacing it with the envelope accepting MIT instead. If I hadn’t gone to MIT, I would not have taken my first linguistics class as an undergrad in the philosophy programme. It was with Sylain Bromberger, and I remember my epiphany moment. He put the following sentence up on the board `The girl saw the boy with the telescope’, and drew two different structures corresponding to the two different meanings. That just exploded in my head. Ever since then, I have been obsessed with the syntax-semantics interface and particularly structural meaning.

While I was an MIT undergraduate, I joined the incoming graduate class and took classes with Ken Hale, Richard Larson and Jim Higginbotham who were my first teachers and inspiration. I am also embarrassed, but grateful to Noam Chomsky for agreeing to do an independent study with a cocky undergraduate on Burzio’s generalization, when I was so green and naïve it hurts to remember it.

I went to Stanford to do my PhD. I turned down MIT for grad school because my boyfriend at the time had been admitted to Berkeley for a PhD in English Literature, and then eventually also Stanford. It turned out to be a good choice since I got a wider exposure to different theories of grammar than I would have got otherwise and I was constantly on the back foot to justify my own approach to things, as opposed to being part of a dominant paradigm. I think it taught me to think more openly and critically, and reinforced my dislike of being a member of a club, any club. I also met my great linguistic friend, colleague and collaborator Miriam Butt who even now keeps me up to speed with the latest doings in LFG and computational things. Stanford is also the place where I met K.P. Mohanan and started my lifelong work and interest in South Asian languages, particularly Bengali. Mo never let you relax. He pushed you to always question, and think things through from first principles, and never to accept dogma or sloppy thinking.

Another pivotal moment during grad school was going to Edinburgh one summer to learn Scottish Gaelic just because. What a great language! It inspired me with great challenges for problem solving when I was getting bogged down with theory internal concerns. Scottish Gaelic is still one of my very favourite languages.

My first job after my dissertation was at Oxford University, where I was hired by Jim Higginbotham as University lecturer in General Linguistics. I stayed there 10 years. Those were good years, and I learned a lot about teaching by teaching extremely smart people. I taught standard GB theory and began to feel very dissatisfied with it, and dissatisfied with the lack of progress being made on interface issues. After a bit of a lull in motivation, where I did a lot of Scottish Gaelic singing, I started to get interested in linguistic theory again thanks to newly found colleagues and linguistic buddies David Adger and Peter Svenonius whose enthusiasm for syntax made me realise that there was exciting and brilliant new work out there and that I wanted to be part of that conversation.

For me, the great thing about linguistic research is the constant dialectic between the empirical and the theoretical. Maybe that is the same in any science, but in linguistic theory it feels as though those interrelations and feedback loops are at a degree of granularity to be perceived and appreciated on the practical day to day level rather than at an institutional or historical scales. Linguistics is unique for the richness and continuous stimulation of its data, dripping from almost any language you bother to look at carefully for more than two seconds, and which is accessible to anyone without fancy equipment or big counting devices. On the theory side, I like symbolic elegance and simplicity and I like the fact that we are in a field where most things have not been figured out yet. I also like the fact that language is so deeply connected to human minds and how we think as a species. The human brain is the final frontier for science, and linguistic theory is going to have big part to play in helping to figure that stuff out.

I joined the Linguistics department at the University of Tromsø in 2004 when they became a national centre of excellence, CASTL. This was another pivotal moment. I am extremely happy that I ended up in Norway, a country that I knew nothing about and would never have thought of emigrating to, but which now has become my home: beautiful landscape, a mature and humane democracy, with equal measures of equality and freedom. And the linguistics is not so bad either. I have the freedom to do my research, and pursue my own ideas about things. I still work at the syntax-semantics interface, and I still don’t belong to any club.


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