Featured Linguist: Richard Sproat

Featured Linguist: Richard Sproat

Featured Linguist: Richard Sproat

I remember well the day I decided to major in Linguistics.

When I started at the University of California at San Diego, I was a biology major: I wanted to be a mycologist. What changed my plans was a two-credit chemistry lab course where, basically, I could never get the experiments to work. One experiment was about measuring an impurity in a sample of iron filings, and the first stage involved dissolving the filings in acid. Mine would not dissolve. It was then and there that I realized that my chances of success in laboratory science were slim, and I decided to switch my linguistics minor to a major.

I had long been interested in language. I studied several Celtic languages by myself when I was in high school.  I even made up a language, and I invented several properties for it that I thought were novel, and at the same time within the realm of what a language logically might do.  First, the language was ergative, where I arrived at the possibility of such a way of marking case by a process not too dissimilar to Sandra Chung’s old passive-to-ergative reanalysis proposal.  The language had second-position clitics. The language made a distinction between alienable and inalienable possession because these seemed logically distinct to me. Finally, for similar reasons, the language distinguished inclusive and exclusive first person plurals, with the exclusive being the morphological plural of the first person singular.  At the time I was not aware that there were languages that actually had these properties, and it was with some pleasure that I learned later on that these features were after all widely attested.

Apart from the failed chemistry experiment, what drew me to linguistics as a major, and then to make a career out of it was that properties of language deeply fascinated me. They continue to fascinate me, and while I have admittedly moved fairly far away from the sorts of issues that most academic linguists concern themselves with, an awareness of how languages vary is still crucial in my day-to-day work developing speech and language technology.

*********************************************************

Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2017 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List needs your support!

Leave a Reply