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