Author: Clare Harshey

Featured Linguist: Robert A. Coté

Featured Linguist: Robert A. Coté

I am not your typical linguist. In fact, my first degree is in meteorology with a minor in math! Despite this, I have always been fascinated with languages – most likely because I grew up in a multilingual environment: my father and his parents spoke Quebecois, my maternal grandmother spoke Pugliese, and my maternal grandfather spoke Neapolitan. Clearly, hearing people around me speak something other than English was normal for me from a very young age, but I never gave much thought to the rich sociolinguistic world in which I lived. I always enjoyed reading and writing as well, so it only seems natural to me that I became an applied linguist.

How I discovered the wonderful world of LINGUIST List is even more interesting. I had completed my PhD coursework, comprehensive exams, dissertation proposal, and data collection, and I was working full-time as an administrator at an English-medium college in the United Arab Emirates. Like many doctoral students, I had really grown tired of my research and had fallen out of interest with academia. One of my professors suggested I look into writing a book review, not only to read some current literature related to my area of research, but more importantly, to practice the type of writing required for a dissertation. This was probably the best advice I received in my entire 10-year doctoral process.

I was really excited the day my textbook arrived and immediately began to read and highlight. It was about a month before I started writing my review. After submitting it, I waited anxiously for feedback. When it arrived, most of it was positive, but it took three edits to get it published. I knew I could do better, so I requested another text. This time, the reading and writing went faster, and the feedback I received was more positive and required only two edits. Reading what the editor had to say about my review not only gave more me confidence, but it also pointed out where I needed to improve, which in turn allowed me to focus on specific aspects of my writing. By the time I completed my third book review, I didn’t require any edits! The entire process took me nearly two years. But now, I was ready to complete my dissertation. And believe me, it was no surprise when all three of my committee members gave me the same feedback: “Your dissertation was organized, enjoyable, and easy to read. You really have a great sense of audience.” I am absolutely certain that writing book reviews for LINGUIST List was the most important factor leading to this success.

Why am I telling you all this? Because now, I am returning the favor to LINGUIST List. I have reviewed and edited dozens of book reviews pro bono over the past few years. I want to give other reviewers, many of them non-native speakers of English and/or graduate students like I was, the same publishing and writing improvement opportunities that I was given several years ago. I believe anyone can become a good writer, and everyone can become a better writer. LINGUIST List allows people this chance. I am fortunate that I am in a position to donate my time to help others, and I hope that some of you reading this are in a position to donate your money to help LINGUIST List. This may sound a little forward of me, but I sincerely believe the few paid staff at LINGUIST List made me the writer I am today, and I am doing my best to help others with their writing. You just never know the impact that your donation, no matter how big or small, can have on someone, who in turn can help someone else.

Robert Cote, PhD
Director, Writing Skills Improvement Program
College of Humanities
University of Arizona, Tucson

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

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

The game is still on!

The most recent edition of the GeoLing Scavenger Hunt has proven to be our most challenging yet! Because we have no winner yet, the deadline has been extended for another week, and we will reveal one hint for the final puzzle each day next week!

The puzzle will test your skills in geography and cryptography, and we are raising the stakes to provide an even better prize to the winners.

To play, you’ll need to go to GeoLing. To navigate the globe, click on the menu button in the upper left hand corner. You can select and unselect Local Events, Jobs, Conferences, and more to view them on the map. Game clues will be found in different locations on different kinds of pins.

The initial clue:

Featured Linguist San San Hnin Tun has taught on three continents, but she taught at one university for over two decades. You will find your next clue there!

Good luck!

Featured Linguist: Osamu Sawada

Featured Linguist: Osamu Sawada

I grew up in the family of linguists (my father is a linguist, my mother used to be a school teacher), so it is not a coincidence that I became a linguist. (My younger brother also became a linguist.) However, looking back, I see that there were several important turning points and experiences that lead me to the field of linguistics.

I was born and grew up in Japan, but when I was 10, I had the chance to spend a year in Boston with my family. There, we had many positive experiences interacting with people/students from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. My brother and I went to a public school, and the atmosphere was one of respect for diversity. Thinking back now, this positive experience affects my stance as a scholar/teacher.

When I returned to Japan, however, the center of my daily life gradually shifted to tennis (soft tennis). In high school, I participated in national athletic meetings, and/but I neglected my school studies. I did, however, learn the importance of continuation and preparation through tennis.

It was in a rounin period, ‘a preparation period between schools’ that I studied in a responsible way with a true spirit of inquiry. I became interested in the grammars of English and Old Japanese. After being accepted into Waseda University, I continued playing tennis, but at the same time, I took various linguistics courses, including syntax, pragmatics, and functional linguistics. Although I also earned a teacher’s license, I felt that I wanted to study linguistics further, and I decided to enter graduate school.

One important turning point for me as a researcher was encountering scalar phenomenon. When I was a MA student, I had a chance to read Fillmore et al.’s (1988) paper on let alone (e.g., He couldn’t even eat Tempura, let alone Sushi). I found it very interesting that this small expression is relevant to many interesting linguistic phenomena, such as scalarity, comparison, polarity sensitivity, focus, information structure, ellipsis, etc. Looking at various related scalar phenomenon, I also gradually felt that very interesting things were happening in the field of formal semantics in the abroad, although it was still an unknown world to me.

It was miracle and very fortunate for me that I was able to study at the Ph.D. program of the University of Chicago (2005‒2010). The atmosphere of the department of linguistics was great; faculty members, students, and researchers were enthusiastic, energetic, and warm-hearted. Although I focused on formal semantics and pragmatics, I was also exposed to many other fields of linguistics, including morphology, syntax, phonetics, phonology, socio-historical linguistics, etc. There were many workshops, colloquiums, and discussion groups, and I was able to interact with various renowned scholars and colleagues/friends in a collaborative way.

In my dissertation, I focused on the pragmatic aspects of scalar modifiers and considered the similarities and differences between semantic scalar meaning and pragmatic scalar meaning in terms of the semantics/pragmatics interface. For example, in Japanese the minimizer chotto ‘a bit’ can not only measure an object or event at the semantic level, but it can also weaken the degree of imposition of the speech act at the pragmatic level (not-at-issue level). The committee members were Chris Kennedy (chair), Anastasia Giannakidou, Karlos Arregi, and Chris Potts, and I had extremely thought-provoking and valuable discussions with them. The experiences I had at the Ph.D. program have been my backbone as a researcher/teacher.

After earning a Ph.D., I was fortunate to conduct research at Kyoto University as a JSPS postdoc, and since the fall of 2010, I have been teaching and conducting research at Mie University. It took some time to get used to the Japanese university systems, but thanks to the support of my colleagues, I feel that I am creating a basis as a scholar and a teacher. At Mie, I co-organized various linguistics workshops/conferences with my colleagues, and I have also had opportunities to co-organize various international/domestic workshops outside the university, including local workshops such as the modality workshop and the semantics workshop in Tokai. These venues have been important for activating research.

Looking back at my past, I realize I have received much help and support from many people— my parents, family, teachers, colleagues, friends. Although I am still a developing scholar, I would like to try my best to become a full-fledged linguist. Society is changing rapidly (both globally and locally), and I feel that the study of linguistics (and the humanities in general) is becoming more and more important. Although I have focused on theoretical linguistics, I would also like to think about how linguistics in general and my research in particular can contribute to society.

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

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

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.

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

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

 

Enjoy a weekend getaway… all from behind your keyboard!

Dear Linguist Listers,

Happy Friday! It’s the weekend, and you know what that means… another edition of the Great LINGUIST Treasure Hunt!

This game involves traveling the (virtual) globe and testing your linguistics wits. The winner will receive a sweet prize, so don’t miss out!

To play, you’ll need to go to GeoLing (http://geoling.linguistlist.org/). To find the buttons you’ll need to navigate the globe, click on the menu button in the upper left hand corner. You can select and unselect Local Events, Jobs, Conferences, and more to view them on the map. Game clues will be found in different locations on different kinds of pins.

To get you started, here’s your first clue:

Featured Linguist San San Hnin Tun has taught on three continents, but she taught at one university for over two decades. You will find your first clue there!

kan kaung ba zay—may the best linguist win!

-Your LL Team

PS: You will need this valuable hint to complete the race: after you’ve found the first clue, which will take you beyond Geoling, you will need to return to Geoling, with your answer from clue 2 to find clue 3!

Featured Linguist: Rosa Vallejos Y.

Nanay River, 2013

Linguistics arrived in my life in the most unexpected way. It was 1983 when I heard about it for the first time. I was about to start high school, and a new language instructor arrived into Lámud, a little town of about 2000 people in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes. He came from Lima, the capital of the country, full of enthusiasm and all these “new” ideas about language. And one day, he taught as to draw syntactic trees. This is how I first became fascinated by language structure.

For most high school graduates from the interior of Peru, going to college means moving to Lima to compete with thousands of others from around the country to get a spot into a university. At that point, my high school instructor, who by then became my brother-in-law, suggested that I seriously consider linguistics. The prospects of getting into a field that almost nobody had heard of was not very attractive at the time. But given that I had limited choices, in 1988 I applied to the Linguistics program of the National University of San Marcos, still the only public university in Peru that offers a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics. I was admitted together with 31 others. I soon noticed that the majority in my cohort had less idea than me of what linguistics was about. Most of them were hoping to change their major at the first opportunity. I considered that possibility as well, the big problem was that I didn’t have any other preference either.

Given the constant political turmoil, during my freshman and sophomore years our classes were quite intermittent, but full of excitement. I quickly discovered that at the university of San Marcos I could interact with inspiring professors. For example, I was lucky to take Andean linguistics with professor Rodolfo Cerrón-Palomino, Amazonian linguistics with Gustavo Solis, phonetics with Aida Mendoza, phonology with Maria Cortez, dialectology with Gertrude Schumacher, syntax with Felix Quesada, sociolinguistics with Madeleine Zúñiga, among others. What all of them had in common was a commitment to not only train young aspiring linguists, but also to conduct original research in the most difficult circumstances. Linguistics slowly grew on me, and I finished the program.

The most important moment of my career took place in February of 1997, when I embarked on my first trip to the Kukama-Kukamiria territory, in the Peruvian Amazon. I was hired by a project that trains bilingual teachers known as FORMABIAP, for its initials in Spanish, as the linguist responsible for working on the description of the Kukama-Kukamiria language. The Amazon was an entirely new world for me. After a short flight and nine hours in a boat, I arrived at a small village completely flooded by water. It was the rainy season! This trip lasted only 32 days, but that was enough time to recognize the challenges of working in this region of the world. Having to learn basic skills –– such a riding a canoe, which, by the way, is mastered by five-year-olds–– together with the limited contact to the outside world made an immense impact on me. Yet at the same time, I was deeply attracted to the idea of doing something meaningful. On the one hand, there was an obvious sense of urgency to work towards the preservation of this highly endangered language. The few surviving speakers that I met reported having no one with whom they could use Kukama-Kukamiria on a daily basis, and lamented the disappearance of their language. On the other hand, the complex socio-political context made it a real challenge to implement initiatives that focused on the preservation of the language. At that moment, the survival of Kukama-Kukamiria was only one component of a bigger movement initiated by indigenous organizations to address primarily land, education and health issues among indigenous Amazonian groups.

Huallaga River, 2006, with collaborators Rosa Amiras and Victor Yuyarima

During my five years in the FORMABIAP project, I had the amazing opportunity to interact with members of fourteen different ethnic groups. I also participated in sporadic workshops delivered by Francesc Queixalós, a linguist from the CNRS-France. These experiences made evident that, to continue to work with Amazonian languages, I would need more advanced training. So, I started to look for opportunities. In 2001, I was granted a Ford Foundation Fellowship that would allow me to pursue graduate studies anywhere in the world. I got in contact with several potential mentors in the US and Europe, and Spike Gildea, from the University of Oregon, came across as someone not only passionate about Amazonia, but also eager to support international students. In addition to Spike’s enthusiasm, I choose Oregon because of its focus on documentary and descriptive linguistics, its faculty with active research in Latin America, and, most importantly at the moment, its offer of a scholarship to study English before starting the graduate program. I started the MA in January 2002. Oregon introduced me to a whole new world: colleagues from around the world and professors working around the world. Beyond functional-typological approaches to grammar and empirically-sound methodologies, I learned from Scott DeLancey, Doris Payne, and Spike Gildea, among others, that linguistics is not only about languages; it is about communities that speak those languages.

Because keeping the connection with the Kukamas was crucial to me, I was determined to find the resources to conduct field visits every summer. During these visits, I began to entertain the possibility of launching a larger project to document the Kukama-Kukamiria language. I graduated with an MA in June of 2004, and at that moment, it became obvious that I would have more opportunities to access to research funding as a PhD student than as an MA graduate. Thus, I decided to stay in Oregon to continue with the PhD.

In 2005, during my second year in the PhD, I was awarded a small grant from the Endangered Language Fund. This was the seed money that helped me — in collaboration with elders Rosa Amías Murayari and Victor Yuyarima Chota — launch The Kukama-Kukamiria Documentation Project. During my 2005 visit, I collected video data mainly from both of them: short stories and descriptions using drawings and pictures as stimuli. But we were well aware of the fact that the speakers of the languages were elders spread in small villages, often away from the main navigable rivers. Thus, visiting the villages to interview those speakers became urgent. In 2006, I was awarded a Graduate Studentship from the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Program, and a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation. With this support, Rosa, Victor, and I were able to conduct multiple fieldtrips in 2006. Rosa Amías and I continued to travel to conduct interviews in 2007 and 2008, and subsequently also transcribed, translated, and analyzed a portion of the collected data.

Village San Martin de Tipishca, Samiria River, 2015

By the end of the project, we had interviewed 42 speakers from 16 communities, and recorded traditional narratives, stories from daily life, personal experiences, spontaneous conversations, songs, etc. Speakers were interviewed individually, in pairs, and in groups. We recorded approximately 20 hours of video and four hours of audio. Note that it was not a trivial undertaking to make these recordings, as they were collected in communities where this highly endangered language is no longer used for daily communication. From this raw data, I have created 249 files, including video, audio, transcriptions and morphological analysis, and deposited them in the archive ELAR of the Hans Rausing Endangered Language Program. On the basis of this data, I wrote a grammar of Kukama-Kukamiria for my dissertation, which I defended in 2010. This grammar was the recipient of the 2011 SSILA Mary Haas Book Award, an award bestowed on the best doctoral dissertation on a native language of the Americas, and also received Honorable Mention for the 2011 ALT Panini Award, given for outstanding typological studies and reference grammars. A revised version was published by Brill in 2016. Another outcome that derived from this line of work is the Kukama/Spanish dictionary I published in 2015 in co-authorship with my longtime friend and collaborator Rosa Amías Murayari. My current areas of research ––morphosyntax and language contact–– also grew out of my documentary work.

I have had the privilege of working with the Kukama-Kukamirias for almost two decades now. During this time, I have witnessed amazing progress regarding the revitalization of their language. This positive outcome is the result of several initiatives carried out by community members themselves with the support of many allies. These efforts range from teaching the language through instructional programs in elementary schools, teaching the language in neighboring midsize towns and cities, daily radio programs, radio ads for health campaigns, and more recently successful music videos that have been broadcasted nationwide. As a result, in the last decade there has been a significant positive shift in attitudes towards Kukama-Kukamiria identity and a renewed sense of community. I will continue to support their efforts to keep fighting for their language, their land, their self-determined way of life.

Secoya Village Bellavista, 2012

Maybe because I started my journey as a linguist in a teacher training program, it feels natural to me that the results of my research should not only be available but also accessible and useful to the speech communities where I conduct my research. It is important to note that for the children of many Amazonian ethnic groups, the lack of language resources makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to have access to primary education in their first language. For many languages, there is not even a writing system in place. In that context, carrying out language development projects, such as orthography design, production of school materials, and teacher training, among others, has become a natural extension of my endeavors. In the last few years, I have started to extend my documentary work to Secoya (Tukanoan), another minimally documented language spoken in the borders of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. There is a sharp contrast between Kukama-Kukamiria and Secoya with respect to their sociolinguistic contexts. The Secoya language is the main means of communication for all the generations, and monolingualism among women is high. I have been involved in the creation of the language resources for the speech community, including the first reading books for children and a writing system.

The applications of linguistic research to real-world issues continues to be the motivation for my studies. I hope to inspire others to engage in this type of work now in my role as a professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico.

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

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

Featured Linguist: San San HNIN TUN

San San HNIN TUN

Myanmar

To introduce myself, I am a Burmese Citizen (ethnically Arakanese, also known as Rakhine now), born and raised in Myanmar, also known as Burma in English, and did my formal schooling up to a Masters at the University of Yangon. I currently teach Burmese
at INALCO (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations) in Paris, France, after 20+ years of teaching Burmese (and French) at Cornell University in the US. So with this multicultural/lingual experience, I should certainly be considered as a linguist, right ? At least according to some members of my family in Myanmar, I am a linguist, because I speak « several » languages.  If I found their reasoning rather amusing, I think it is not far from reality, since I have always been working with languages (be it by teaching, learning, playing with languages, etc. which require reflections on the functions of languages …)

Defending my thesis in front of the jury Maison de la recherche, Paris, Decembre 2013

But please rest assured, if I am on “Linguist List”, I do have some formal training in linguistics to be qualified for the status of a linguist: first as an English major with specialization in Linguistics at the University of Yangon in Myanmar ; then a thesis on “Discourse marking systems in Burmese and English” at the University of Nottingham in Great Britain ; and last but not least another thesis on “Grammar of Spoken Burmese” at the University of Paris III, Sorbonne Nouvelle in France.

Map of Pangloss: languages under study at research unit LACITO (http://lacito.vif.cnrs.fr/)

In my current job as an “enseignant-chercheur” in France, 50% of my work is officially dedicated to research in linguistics (except that numbers do not correspond to the reality, for obvious reasons that people in Academic worlds are familiar with), and I am very lucky to have been welcome as a full member of the research lab LACITO-CNRS (National research laboratory on languages and civilizations with oral tradition) since I came to France in 2010, where I have opportunities on a regular basis for stimulating and inspiring exchanges on linguistic research with colleagues working on different areas and aspects of languages. In my opinion, the field of linguistics is quite broad, and the role of language in all societies is so fascinating that it is hard not to be interested in linguistics.

I was first introduced to linguistics when I was accepted as an “English major” student at the University of Yangon in the early 80s. I remember that I wrote a Master’s thesis (Master’s students were required to write 4 “theses” for each of the 2 years study course,
which I realized later, were more like research papers in universities abroad) on a comparison of negative structures in Burmese, English, and French (at that time I had started learning French at Alliance Française in Yangon ). I was interested in this comparison because in both Burmese and French, the verb comes in between two elements (/məә/ and /bù/ in Burmese; and ‘ne’ and ‘pas’ in French), which is different from English. Looking back now, my analyses were very superficial and naïve, but I was happy to have done something different, as it was not very common to include languages other than English in linguistic studies there and then.

In 1989, I was hired to teach Burmese at Cornell University in the US (which is the beginning of my career as a language teacher outside Myanmar) and I thought I would pick up linguistics again. I sat in different theoretical linguistic courses, and realized that I was not
prepared enough to pursue my studies in theoretical linguistics with what I had learnt in linguistics in Myanmar. I tried to learn more languages instead (namely Spanish, German, Italian, American Sign Language) at Cornell, while teaching Burmese and French, and sitting in some linguistics courses as well. Surrounded by linguists, applied linguists and different language instructors who have passion for languages and language pedagogy, I was bathed in
linguistics (or language studies), but probably more on an applied side of the linguistics, which of course is not just about “how to teach languages” (a common misconception).

Example of discourse particles in imperative utterances. Extract from thesis, Hnin Tun (2006)

In any case, I kept thinking about the ways different languages function in given societies, among which one particular aspect of Burmese intrigued me increasingly: namely so-called “particles” (for lack of a better term – lexical items that do not fit into a specific category such as nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc.) that do not always have grammatical or syntactic function, but are frequently present in spoken Burmese.

When I first discovered corpus linguistics in the late 90s, in a course entitled “Working with spoken language” (I hope I remember the exact title) at Cornell, it was a turning point for my linguistic studies. I realized that corpus linguistics and studies of discourse marking systems would be the key to a better understanding of my Burmese particles. I decided to pursue a further training in linguistic studies, and luckily I could apply to a recently established program at the University of Nottingham in Great Britain (where Professor Michael McCarthy, one of the co-organizers of the course above taught) called “jointly-supervised PhD program”, which allowed me to pursue my PhD without having to leave my teaching job at Cornell. And I am grateful that Professor John Whitman from Cornell kindly accepted to be the co-supervisor (after changes in different co-supervisors, due to their departure from Cornell) for my thesis: his input was invaluable since besides his expertise in the field of Linguistics, he also knows Burmese. With this decision, I just had to use all my “spare” time working on my thesis and spending parts of the year in GB for consultation . If my chosen life style looked rather sad (doing nothing but “work”), I was thrilled every time I found a new lead in my corpus, and it was a (fun) challenge trying to figure out how to talk about it in English. In other words, my “work” was like a game (in which one tries to win something but has fun trying at the same time).

Entrance to INALCO (and BULAC – University library for languages and civilizations), Paris, France

While I was working on my thesis for Nottingham, I often stopped in France (during my visits to Great Britain), where I got a chance to engage in many stimulating discussions on Burmese language with Professor Denise Bernot, who founded the Burmese program at INALCO (where I currently teach). As I finished up my thesis at Nottingham, a decision was made to do a second thesis in France. People often asked me why I did two theses. I probably do not have a rational explanation, but I considered writing down my thinking in another language in a way that should be comprehensible for someone else but me, as a challenge and every challenge is like a “game”, since I cannot know in advance whether or not I would reach my goal. And I often jokingly said that if I wrote articles, I was not sure who would read, but as a thesis, there would always be at least one attentive reader, my thesis director, who would furthermore provide me indispensable guidance.

So in short, one might say that I started off officially as a language teacher, and became a linguist. But in reality, I think during my now almost 30 years of experience in teaching, and learning different languages in the mean time, I have always been doing (be it in a less official manner) linguistic analyses. My further studies provide me different theoretical frameworks for my research in linguistics, and to do linguistic research in a more structured manner. For the moment, I am focusing my research on the Burmese language only, and as I often tell my students (in language classes or in a linguistic class as an initiation to Burmese that I teach at Sorbonne), if you are interested in doing linguistic research on Burmese, it is a gold mine: there are yet so many things to discover that are so far under investigated. I believe that there are so many different ways of doing linguistics, and when I am asked what kind of linguistics I do, I often do not know what to answer, since in my opinion, everything seems related between sounds and words and utterances. More importantly for me, there is always a human being behind those elements, who uses them differently according to situations and linguistic communities concerned, and who are governed by their respective socio-cultural codes. My job as a linguist is to figure out as many as possible reasons why a certain thing is said by one person and how it is or can be interpreted by another. And that I am determined to continue doing for the rest of my life.

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

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

 

It’s time for another round of the Great LINGUIST Treasure Hunt!

WANDERLUST (n): a strong desire to travel and explore the world

If you have a bad case of wanderlust today, we have good news: it’s time for another edition of the Great LINGUIST Treasure Hunt! This game involves traveling the (virtual) globe and testing your linguistics wits. The winner will receive a sweet prize, so don’t miss out!

To play, you’ll need to go to GeoLing (http://geoling.linguistlist.org/). To find the buttons you’ll need to navigate the globe, click on the menu button in the upper left hand corner. You can select and unselect Local Events, Jobs, Conferences, and more to view them on the map. Game clues will be found in different locations on different kinds of pins.

To get you started, here’s your first clue:

Today’s featured linguist Fabiola Henri’s research interests were greatly influenced by her childhood experiences. Travel to her home country for your next clue…

Bon voyage, bon vwayaj, and boa viaji—may the best linguist win!

-Your LL Team

Featured Linguist: Fabiola Henri

Featured Linguist: Fabiola Henri

Featured Linguist: Fabiola Henri

My identity as a formal creolist has been shaped by interplay between my country of origin and my formative educational background. I am a native speaker of Mauritian, a French-based creole spoken in Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar.

At a young age, I became painfully aware of how prejudices plague Mauritian creole-speakers and, in my particular case, the Creole community. I learned on the playground that speaking patois marks one as uneducated. My formal education was conducted in a colonial language but my family spoke creole at home. Mauritian education is built on the British colonial system but strives to accommodate the linguistic heritage of Mauritians—other than those of African descent. Mauritian creole—natively spoken by more than 95% of the population—only gained ancestral language status in 2011. Before that date, Mauritian pupils of African ancestry before took Chapel and etiquette classes instead of the rigorous courses offered to students from other ethnic backgrounds. And if at higher levels Creole students were authorized to register for Hinduism, they were not allowed into the classroom.

Private tutoring likewise has been institutionalized to the benefit Mauritius’ most privileged citizens. Acquiring a Mauritian education is thus a considerable struggle for Creoles—especially those raised in a single-parent household with only a modest income.  Despite facing some deplorable prejudices regarding Creoles’ intellect, I was fortunate enough along the way to come across many people who believed in my abilities. For instance, my high school French teacher, Mrs. Desha, provided my private tutoring for free.

I was determined to navigate my way successfully through these ingrained prejudices in the Mauritian educational system. I graduated high school with arts and languages A-levels—a momentous achievement considering I was the first member from my family to graduate high school. My mother then urged me into full-time work, but I was resolved to attend university. I had accumulated savings doing factory work in the summer since I was 13, and my mother helped as much as she could. I gratefully registered for a French BA at the University of Mauritius in 1997.

Ongoing debate on the status of Mauritian creole and language policy fascinated me. Yet I wanted to contribute in a new way. People routinely insinuated that creoles were broken languages devoid of grammar or complexity. If I emphasized how creoles actually possessed complex systems of grammar, these languages could come to be regarded differently. But the training that I sought was not available in Mauritius.

The University of Paris 3–La Sorbonne Nouvelle accepted me in 1999 to begin an undergraduate degree in Linguistics. Paris proved challenging. I juggled multiple jobs alongside school. By the end of my Maîtrise, I was ready to return home when I was awarded a scholarship from the French Government. This began another exciting chapter of my academic journey. I had time to attend seminars and even attended classes at other Parisian universities. My Master’s research focused on the Mauritian Noun Phrase with a formal and computationally efficient description in HPSG.

After graduating in 2004, I went back home to teach in an underprivileged Mauritian high school. Creole-speakers were continually penalized in an education system still so foreign to them. One pupil complained to me about conducting lessons in English, “If you had been on TV, I would have switched channels.” Already struggling students gained little knowledge from being instructed in a foreign language and subsequently found classes boring. Alongside local creolists, I participated in rallies asserting the sophistication of Mauritian creole grammar, urging for its formal introduction into the education system.

The French government again granted me funding for pursuing a PhD in Linguistics. I registered at the University of Paris 7 to work with an outstanding syntactician, Anne Abeillé. Graduate work allowed me to present my research internationally and network with renowned linguists in both creolistics and theoretical linguistics. One of my academic life’s most memorable and inspiring moments happened at the HPSG 2008 Conference in Kyoto. Ivan Sag talked with me over coffee about my work and the possibility of my moving to Stanford University. This was the first of many wonderful opportunities.

I completed my PhD in 2010 with a dissertation on verb form alternation in Mauritian. My research adopts a generalist perspective on creolization, according to which creoles emerge from a combination of factors including natural language change, language contact, input from the lexifier (e.g. forms, frequency, collocations), substratic influence, cognitive processes (e.g. untutored SLA, regularization, grammaticalization), among other factors. This work provides a unique view of creole morphology, one which challenged the simplificational model of creolization. Building on my Mauritian findings, I extended my research to include other French-based creoles as well as Portuguese-based creoles.

After postdoc and adjunct positions at Paris 7, Paris 3 and Lille 3, I accepted another postdoc at the University of Kentucky to work with Gregory Stump, an eminent morphologist, before being promoted to Assistant Professor in the Linguistics Department. My associations with international scholars have led to formal collaborations in international research groups like the SEEPiCLa (Structure and Emergence of Pidgins and Creole Languages). I also collaborate with scholars in Mauritius to prepare creole pedagogical materials for Mauritian primary schools.

My academic career devoted to exploring the formal complexity of creoles has taken me across the globe and has established me as a major figure in contemporary creole studies—quite the far cry from that little Mauritian girl dreaming of improving life through education.

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

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

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!