Featured Linguists

Featured Linguist: Colin Phillips

This week, we are pleased to bring you the work of Professor Colin Phillips for our Featured Linguist!

When the LINGUIST editors invited me to write a piece for this year’s 30th anniversary fund drive, I was curious to dig into the LINGUIST archives. LINGUIST started shortly after I started in the field. Like, really shortly. So LINGUIST and me were finding our feet right around the same time, in late 1990.

A quick scan of the first 6 months of LINGUIST turned up this message:

Date: Thur, 04 Apr 91
Subject: Our 1000th Subscriber
If we were not an academic organization, and therefore had some money, we might hand out a prize for this. As it is, all we have to offer is congratulations to Colin Phillips ([email protected]), who is our 1000th subscriber.

I was an exchange student in linguistics at the University of Rochester at the time, taking a year to find some direction in my life. I was definitely finding that direction.

Finding linguistics felt like a kind of destiny for me. In high school in the UK I learned lots of languages and studied mathematics. They didn’t offer psychology, but I would have signed up in a heartbeat if I could. At age 16 my math teacher, who everybody considered a bit nutty, told me there was this guy called Chomsky who I should look into. Living in a farming town, pre-internet, I didn’t know how to follow up on that prescient tip. In college, at Oxford University, I followed a literature path, and focused on medieval German. It was the comparative psychology aspect that interested me the most when learning about the medieval world.

I’m not entirely sure how I got to be in Rochester. There was an exchange scholarship, and I was told that nobody else had applied. I checked a US map in a local bookstore, and it looked like Rochester was just outside New York City. I had no grasp of the scale of the US.

Within two weeks of arriving in Rochester I was smitten. I was surrounded by energetic students and faculty from many different countries who were arguing about language using ideas from multiple fields: linguistics, psychology, computer science, philosophy. They cared deeply about each others’ answers. They were so well integrated that it was hard to tell which students were from which field. It was pure good luck that I had stumbled into this incredibly vibrant pocket of language science. After my years as an isolated medievalist, it was intoxicating. I wanted more. By the time I signed up for LINGUIST List, I was wrapping up a life-changing year in Rochester, and preparing to move to Cambridge, MA to join the graduate program at MIT.

A scan of the first 6 months of LINGUIST turns up some surprises.

There is a post from Andrea Zukowski. At the time we were both graduate students in Rochester. She was in Psychology. We have now been married almost 25 years, and our child is a college freshman at the U of Maryland. Andrea was posting about a conference she was organizing in Rochester. It was the first time the CUNY Sentence Processing Conference was held outside New York City. I wasn’t a psycholinguist at the time, but I have now attended that conference every year since 1995. Not only because it was how I met my wife.

The early issues contain a lot of back-and-forth discussions among well-known linguists, such as a long-running discussion about cognitive linguistics involving George Lakoff, Vicki Fromkin and many others. And since websites were not yet a thing, there are surprisingly many posts asking, “Hey, does anybody have contact information for so-and-so?”

In May 1991 there is a post from John Lawler about the LINGUIST List archive that he was curating, pointing out that the “spectacular growth” of the list over its first few months had led to the archive file reaching 2MB in size.

Innocent times indeed. And so it’s little wonder that fields like psycholinguistics were less accessible to linguists at the time, too.

I went to MIT planning to be a semanticist. Clearly, that didn’t work out. I didn’t intend to become a psycholinguist. Linguistics students at MIT were not doing that kind of work. That was typical of most programs at the time, with a couple of exceptions, such as UMass. If you wanted to do psycholinguistics, you went to a psychology department. By another stroke of luck, my first couple of years in Cambridge coincided with some new grants that aimed to create bridges between fields.

Alec Marantz, David Poeppel and I started exploring MEG research on speech perception in 1993. On our first trip to New York City to collect some data we missed the last flight back to Boston. We were sleeping on the floor of La Guardia airport at 4am.

My dissertation work grew out of another accident. I was embarrassingly delinquent on some class projects. One night I was lying awake worrying, when I realized that I could kill two birds with one stone. A paper on incremental structure building that I owed Ted Gibson for a psycholinguistics class could do double duty as a paper on syntactic constituency that I owed David Pesetsky. The path that I started along that night is one that I have been following ever since, though in ways that I could never have predicted.

When I started my first faculty job, at the University of Delaware in 1997, I was hired as a hybrid syntactician and psycholinguist. I had limited lab experience and was learning on the job. UD was relatively unusual for the time in hiring a psycholinguist into a linguistics department.

In those days a linguist could feel like an outlier in psycholinguistics conferences. I remember feeling particularly despondent after the 1999 CUNY Conference in New York City. The conference was hosted by the CUNY Linguistics Department, but linguists were a small and marginalized group at the conference.

The role of psycholinguistics in linguistics has changed dramatically during my time in the field.

Psycholinguistics used to be something that you would go to the psychology department to do. Nowadays it is an entirely normal part of a linguistics department.

Experimental research used to be exotic in linguistics departments. Now it’s routine. Of course, it’s easier now than it used to be. (Not that today’s psycholinguists are slackers.)

Computational research used to be largely out of reach for linguists. Now it’s more normal. There was a time when I was technically on the cutting edge for a linguist. Nowadays my students leave me in the dust with their computational skills.

The growth of psycholinguistics within linguistics has been remarkable. It is no longer a “Cinderella” field. I no longer feel like an outlier at the conferences that I regularly attend.

Some things have changed faster, such as faculty and student interests, and the range of research methods used. Some things have changed more slowly, such as curricula and publishing practices. Linguistics curricula are gradually moving away from a traditional canon that marginalizes psycholinguistics. Psycholinguistics publishing remains dominated by psychologists. Currently I’m happy to be part of a team that is preparing to launch the new journal Glossa: Psycholinguistics that aims to sit squarely between fields.

A surprise to me has been the rise in popularity of adult psycholinguistics among linguists. When I started in the field language acquisition was taken more seriously by linguists. But the balance of interests shifted at some point. I hope to see a resurgence of interest in learning issues among linguists.

What future directions do I predict or hope for psycholinguistics?

It’s too easy to predict more data using more diverse tools from a wider range of languages. Of course, this is almost certain to happen. Bringing in evidence from more languages is a very good thing. But more data won’t necessarily get us better questions or answers.

There’s no doubt that computational tools will play an increasingly important role in psycholinguistics. I hope that this will be accompanied by more widespread computational thinking. Nowadays we have relatively easy access to complex computational models, and to powerful toolboxes for statistical analyses. There’s a bit of an arms race. But I would place my bets on the most useful insights coming from relatively simple models. We often learn the most from computational models that take us a little beyond what we can do with thought experiments alone. If the model then yields surprises, we can figure out the cause of the surprise. At that point we understand our own hypotheses better, and we can then do better thought experiments.

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly limited the kinds of data that we can gather as psycholinguists. Right now we have no clear sense of when we will be able to do eye-tracking or EEG experiments again. But the pandemic has also launched a time of remarkable creativity in data collection. As I write this, we are planning a Japanese speech production experiment. The speech data will be collected via the internet, taking just a couple of days, while we are mostly isolated in Maryland. This was unimaginable twenty years ago. The new possibilities for online data collection could advance cross linguistic research in psycholinguistics more than anything else in recent decades.

I am generally happy with where psycholinguistics is as a field currently. There are many talented young people who combine linguistic expertise with sophisticated experimental and computational skills. They are asking questions about mental linguistic computation that simply weren’t on our radar when I was cutting my teeth.

I feel really fortunate that a series of accidents led to me finding myself in the middle of this thriving field.

Thanks for reading and if you want to donate to the LINGUIST List, you can do so here: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/

All the best,
– The LL Team

Featured Linguist: Bonny Sands

This week, we are happy to bring you the work of Professor Bonny Sands for our Featured Linguist!

Professor Bonny Sands

The mostly blue-collar suburb on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon where I grew up was not the best place for a hopeful polyglot in the 1970s and early ’80s. Today, the area has many shops, churches and other establishments with signs in Russian, Korean, and Spanish. Back then, classmates who used languages other than English in their homes were small in number, and, with the exception of ASL, I don’t recall any languages being shared at school much. Looking back, I can see that I missed opportunities for learning about other languages and cultures; I failed to pay attention because English dominated the linguistic landscape. I tried learning about languages from books but rarely got past the sections on pronunciation which inevitably had something about the vowel in “caught” being different than the vowel in “cot”, which made absolutely no sense to me.

When my older brother Ron took French in high school, he taught me and my twin sister a few words and phrases such as “Fermez la porte!” when we were still in grade school. I still remember being fascinated that the French word porte was like the word ‘portal’ that I knew from watching Star Trek. Just about my only exposure to African languages at that point would have been Lieutenant Uhura speaking a few words of Kiswahili in a Star Trek episode. (I was definitely a nerd before that was a cool thing to be). In middle school, I liked to read the dictionary and find more about the roots that connected different words together. I sought out books such as Mario Pei’s “The Story of Language” and Isaac Asimov’s “Words from History” to learn more. When this same brother brought home a course catalog from the University of Oregon, I studied it, imagining all the things I might get to learn about one day. I came across this thing called “Linguistics” and learned that was a major where you could learn about all of the languages of the world. How fun! You wouldn’t have to be limited to a single language! When it came time for me to think about college, I narrowed down my choices by only looking at ones that had a Linguistics major. When I took Introduction to Linguistics the first semester of my Freshman year (with David Odden, at Yale University), I was pretty much hooked.

Of course, being a linguist is not the same as learning to speak many languages. I love learning about languages even more than I love learning them. I really wanted to be a historical linguist, given my interest in etymology, but didn’t know how I could do that given my lack of language-learning achievements at that point. I took Historical Linguistics & Intro to Indo-European with Stephanie Jamison, which I loved, but never having studied Latin, Greek, etc. I didn’t see how I could specialize as an Indo-European historical linguist. I had a lot of great classes as an undergrad that allowed me to learn about languages as diverse as Pangasinan, Icelandic and Classical Chinese. I learned about syntax, language acquisition, field methods, etc. but besides historical linguistics, the other subject that really grabbed me was phonetics. The time I spent with a speech therapist as a child learning how to correct a lisp taught me early on about my alveolar ridge, and how to listen to myself and adjust my pronunciation. I loved learning about ejectives, implosives and clicks in Louis Goldstein’s phonetics class and about patterning of sounds in Pam Beddor’s phonology class. Even though I have an abiding interest in (pre)history, I wanted to study living languages, since there’s something about teaching your mouth to move in a different way that is so much fun. (Like watching a ballet dancer on “So You Think You Can Dance” learn to dance hip-hop, or seeing a b-boy tackle a jazz number).

My specialization in African linguistics was due in large part to the fact that Kiswahili was taught at Yale using a method called soft-immersion. Having failed to become fluent enough after four years of study (with all A’s!) to pass an advanced French class, I knew I’d never become fluent in another language without learning through immersion. My Junior year, I took Kiswahili at 9am, then went straight to German at 10am. The languages were so different and taught in such different ways that I never got them confused and I was happy to make up for lost time in learning languages. I don’t have any extraordinary talent for language-learning but just put in the time to acquire the skills needed to do fieldwork and to read the literature in at least one part of the world.

I was excited by the choice of Kiswahili. I felt it was wrong that my schooling up to that point had taught me so little about Africa and I had (and still have!) a strong conviction that every adult should know basic facts about different parts of the world — such as, what languages are spoken there. About a third of the world’s languages are in Africa, so even as a supposed expert, I find myself in a (blissful) constant state of learning.

My two years of Kiswahili (plus a summer-abroad in Kenya) was enough for the label “Africanist” to be bestowed upon me when I started grad school at UCLA, despite having done relatively little to earn it at that point. I happened upon the study of clicks for my MA thesis when Peter Ladefoged suggested I work on some recordings of isiXhosa that Rosalie Finlayson of UNISA had sent him. He and Ian Maddieson had a series of NSF grants that resulted in their book “The Sounds of the World’s Languages”, and they took me with them to Kenya and Tanzania to record words of the click languages Dahalo, Hadza and Sandawe. I returned to Tanzania to continue working on Hadza (resulting in the sketches in Routledge volume “The Khoesan Languages”, ed. Rainer Vossen). Since my dissertation work (supervised by Tom Hinnebusch and Ian Maddieson) showed that Hadza is best viewed as a language isolate, I shifted my research focus to Khoesan languages in the Kalahari Basin, where I could collect data for historical reconstruction and phonetic description. Since being at Northern Arizona University, I have conducted fieldwork on languages such as Nǀuu, ǂHoan, and varieties of !Xun with colleagues Amanda Miller, Chris Collins, Levi Namaseb, Andy Chebanne, and others. Some of these findings are published in the book “Click Consonants”, published by Brill.

These days, I am transitioning away from fieldwork and trying to focus on publishing more. I’ve enjoyed expanding my knowledge of African languages to be able to write surveys on topics as diverse as: “Language revitalization in Africa”, ” The sounds of the Bantu languages”, “Tonogenesis”, and “Tracing language contact in Africa’s past”.

Linguistics as a discipline still has so much to learn from Africans and African languages. It is a deeply rewarding area of study and I encourage everyone to seek to know more about this large and important part of the world.

Thanks for reading and if you want to donate to the LINGUIST List, you can do so here: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/

All the best,
– The LL Team

Featured Linguist: Naomi Nagy

For this week’s Featured Linguist post, we bring you some great work being done by Professor Naomi Nagy at the University of Toronto.
Be sure to check the link at the end since it contains the lion’s share of the information for this week’s post!

My need to understand how languages work in multilingual contexts goes back to my childhood. I remember learning that my hometown of Montreal was famous as a bilingual city. As a preschooler, I thought the two relevant languages were Hungarian and English – the languages I heard among family and friends. When I learned a few years later that it was actually French and English that “counted,” and that there was a long history of scholarship about how these language influence each other, my passion for linguistics was born. Today, I work with a vibrant group of students to document and examine Toronto’s heritage languages, as reported here [LINK: https://www.artsci.utoronto.ca/news/hong-kong-toronto-undergrad-researchers-study-variation-and-change-cantonese].”

Thanks for reading and if you want to donate to the LINGUIST List, you can do so here: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/

All the best,
– The LL Team

Featured Linguist: Amani Lusekelo

For this week’s Featured Linguist we are pleased to present Professor Amani Lusekelo!

Associate Professor of Linguistics, University of Dar es Salaam

Amani Lusekelo

I cannot recall anytime that I had inspirations of becoming a linguist. That I shall never claim. But I cannot ignore the fact that I became a linguist by effort, mainly in search of full-time scholarship.

I was born in an administrative district called Rungwe in Southern Highlands of Tanzania in East Africa. Both parents of mine, Bernard Lusekelo and Janeth Ndambo, were born in the families of the Moravian church clergy-men Undule and Mwandambo, respectively. I am the seventh-born child in the family of ten children.

My father worked first as a primary school teacher and later as an office administrator in many parts of Tanzania but came to retire in the office of Rungwe District Council. My mother, remained home to care for us, her precious children. By 1983, when I joined Lupale Primary School, my father had already retired and moved to Nkunga village, some 25 kilometres from the district headquarters at Tukuyu. The village of Nkunga is the first landmark for me to acquire Nyakyusa Bantu (Guthrie’s group M31), the language of the majority in the village, and my future tongue of research specialisation. Swahili Bantu became my second language, as it was and has remained the language of primary schooling in Tanzania.

I learned much of spoken Swahili at Kipoke and Kantalamba schools where I attended secondary education in Tanzania. In the late 1990s, I trained for teacher education in Tanzania and I was stationed at Saba Secondary School in Tanzania, teaching Geography and English Language. Perhaps both, my college training and blood lineage allowed me to be passionate about teaching. Both my grandfathers were teachers in the church. My father was a teacher in a school. I, too, remained a teacher for more than two decades now! And I shall continue teaching and researching about African languages.

During my undergraduate programme at the University of Dar es Salaam (between 2001 and 2005), I double majored Geography and English Linguistics. I minored in education (pedagogy) studies. My best scores and interests were skewed towards Geography, perhaps having taught more Geography sessions in secondary schools in Tanzania. And I was training further as a secondary school teacher of Geography. At the end of my four-year bachelor degree programme in the mid-2005, I was awarded a full-time scholarship to undertake a master’s degree in linguistics, majoring in Bantu languages (Bantuistics). Now my life turned from that of a teacher of Geography to a student of advanced linguistics.

With regard to Bantuistics, my favourite specialisation, I received inspirations from my lecturers, specifically, Abel Mreta, Henry Muzale, Josephat Rugemalira, and David Massamba. In fact, Bantuistics became funny and enjoyable at the master’s level! The enjoyment continued when writing my thesis on the tense and aspect system of my mother-tongue Nyakyusa as both my late teacher, Abel Mreta, became the best supervisor, and my late mother, Janeth Ndambo, became the best informant! The funnier part was that I am a mother-tongue speaker of Nyakyusa, thus, I personally produced several useful datasets, which I then personally analysed! As I pointed out in my current publication (“Why did you choose Runyambo instead of Ruhaya for your research project? By the way, why not choose Kiswahili, the national language? ‘Forces’ acting upon the choice of language of research in Tanzania” Journal of Linguistics and Language in Education (2019)), I believe that research in mother-tongue language should be encouraged.

In between my studies for master’s degree programme, in 2006, I assumed a position in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature (Incorporating Communication Skills unit) at the Dar es Salaam University College of Education, the Constituent College of the University of Dar es Salaam. Then, I became a (formal) linguistics teacher (perhaps a linguist on training post as well). Today, I still teach linguistics at Dar es Salaam University College of Education!

The University of Cape Town in South Africa awarded me a two-year doctoral fellowship under the auspices of USHEPiA. By 2010, I was writing my doctoral thesis under the supervision of Herman Batibo, the distinguished scholar in African languages (https://linguistlist.org/studentportal/linguists/batibo.cfm). By December 2012, I graduated from the University of Botswana and returned to my working station, Dar es Salaam University College of Education in Tanzania. At that time, I became one amongst a handful of academics holding doctoral degrees at the university college.


As a teaching linguist at the university college, I generally teach three undergraduate courses: Introduction to Linguistics, Linguistic Morphology, and Syntactic Theory. I also teach four graduate courses: Contact Linguistics, Sociolinguistics of International Languages, Research Methods in Language Studies, and Advanced Morphology. To support my teaching of undergraduate students, I have written and published locally two course-books which include illustrative cases from Swahili and English, namely, “A coursebook of syntactic theories” and “Linguistic morphology”. A course-book on Introduction to General Linguistics remains a challenge that I have not realised. Perhaps a collaboration with my graduate students should be the target now because my focus has been on contact and anthropological linguistics.

Inspired by a paper produced by Josephat Rugemalira in 2007 (i.e. “The structure of Bantu noun phrase” SOAS Working Papers in Linguistics), I concentrated much attention on the structure of noun phrases of eastern and southern Bantu languages, but particularly my mother-tongue Nyakyusa. In this line, my earlier publications were really skewed towards Bantuistics, e.g. “The structure of the Nyakyusa noun phrase” Nordic Journal of African Studies (2009), “Criteria for identification of determiners in Bantu noun phrases” Journal of the Linguistics Association of Southern African Development Community Universities (2013), and “Distribution of ɸ-features in Bantu DPs and vPs: The case of concord and agree in Kiswahili and Kinyakyusa” Journal of Linguistics and Language in Education (2015).

My journey to the University of Botswana was very fruitful not only on my doctoral studies but also interests on Khoisan linguistics. Besides Herman Batibo, both Andy Chebanne (an African linguist from Botswana) and Chris Collins (an American syntactician and Khoisanist) invited me to field trips in the Khoisan villages in Botswana. Apart from enjoying the countryside in that country, I learned a lot on how to gather data from smaller communities. It was very fascinating to learn the intricate issues related to clicks, tone patterns, syllable structure, and sound systems of the Khoisan languages of Botswana. But being a new comer to Khoisan linguistics, I feared sound patterns of Khoisan languages. But I, too, got inspired to write a small-grant application and got funding from Endangered Language Fund. I had to undertake an investigation of personal names amongst the Hadzabe society of Tanzania.

The experience with the Hadzabe people in Mang’ola area (Karatu district) and Yaeda Chini village (Mbulu district) in northern Tanzania turned out to be very influential in my interests in sociolinguistics, onomastics, and linguistic anthropology. I submitted another application to African Humanities Program in order to continue the study of the culture of the Hadzabe. By 2015, after a fellowship stay at University of Ibadan in Nigeria, I published a book on the Hadzabe culture titled “The Hadzabe Society of Tanzania”.

With Hadzabe datasets, I could articulate a lot of issues related with contact linguistics in other publications of mine (see “Language contact in Lake Eyasi area in north-western Tanzania” Journal of Historical Society of Nigeria (2013) and “The consequences of the contacts between Bantu and non-Bantu languages around Lake Eyasi in northern Tanzania International Journal of Society, Culture & Language (2015).

The exposure to the Hadzabe culture had shaped a lot my teaching of research methods to graduate students. This happens because Nyakyusa, my first research experience, had been associated with moving into villages where I was fully known. Gathering rapport with villagers is always smooth. But with the Hadzabe, I had to establish and maintain contacts, and use these contact personnel to recruit more informants. And this is not always an easy task!

My concentration on the Hadzabe slowed down in between 2005 and 2018. With funding obtained from the collaboration of the University of Dar es Salaam and Michigan State University, I shifted my attention to conducting research amongst school children in Maasai villages in Monduli district I northern Tanzania. Issues of language contact between Swahili Bantu and Nilotic Maasai became the centre of attention for my research (see “Education-induced borrowing in Tanzania: Penetration of Swahili nouns into Maa (Maasai) and Hadzane (Hadzabe). Language Matters 2017). Although I did not produce much on the Maasai, I still reserve some energy so that in future I shall return back to the Maasai people and conduct research on issues related to the spread of the Maasai in Tanzania and the linguistic and social outcome of their contacts with speakers of other languages.

In addition, in 2012, when I returned home from the University of Botswana, I was assigned to the position of Associate Chief Editor of the only journal available at Dar es Salaam University College of Education. Since all Chief Editors held administrative positions in the University of Dar es Salaam, I remained the key personnel to handle all matters arising from the submissions, reviews, acceptances, major corrections, and rejections! And from this exercise, I grew up exponentially, as regards journal article authorship.

Furthermore, in 2013, I participated fully in revamping the Journal of Linguistics and Languages in Education (Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics at the University of Dar es Salaam) as a co-editor, assisting the Chief Editor, by then my former teacher and supervisor, Abel Mreta. Besides the editorial tasks and review requests, I contribute articles to this journal, e.g. “DP-internal and V-external agreement patterns in eastern Bantu: Re-statement of the facts in eastern Bantu” Journal of Linguistics and Language in Education (2013).

Swahili, as the official language and medium of instruction in schools in the country, has tremendous impact on languages of East Africa. Since I teach contact linguistics, borrowing is one of my areas of interest. For the past ten years, I have researched on the impact of Swahili on Bantu languages (see “The spread of Kiswahili lexis into the interior Bantu: The case of names of New World cereals and tubers in Tanzanian Bantu” Kioo cha Lugha 2016) and non-Bantu languages of Tanzania (see “The incorporation of the Kiswahili names of cereals and tubers in the non-Bantu languages in Tanzania” Utafiti Journal of African Perspectives 2019). Some of the data is obtained from the assistant of undergraduate students, while a bulky of datasets had been elicited from graduate students in the University of Dar es Salaam. To me, my university college is both, the point of work where I teach linguistics, and the language laboratory where I gather a lot of data for my scholarship. In the way, I teach some of my students, with whom some I co-author (see “The linguistic landscape in urban Tanzania: An account of the language of billboards and shop-signs in district headquarters” Journal of Language, Technology and Entrepreneurship in Africa 2018).

Since 2018, Roland Kiessling and I (together with our graduate students) are engaged in the research project about the Nilotic Datooga, spoken in north-western Tanzania. In the first phase of the project (year 2018 through 2021), we focus on the speakers of Datooga dialect called Gisamjanga in Mbulu district and Taturu in Igunga district within the country. Since I am a new comer to the Nilo-Saharan family, I work with the peripheral topics associated with languages in contact in Tanzania. I personally visited other Datooga group called Rotigenga who settled in Bunda district in northern Tanzania.

So far the project has strengthened my knowledge of fieldwork practices because I have learned a lot from the exposure that Rolland Kiessling offers. Consequently, under the auspices of the Datooga project in the University of Dar es Salaam, I have worked on the impact of the Sukuma Bantu on Nilotic Datooga in Igunga district. I came up with the paper “Adaptation of Sukuma loanwords in the western dialects of Datooga (Taturu) and its dialectological implications” (Ethnologia Actualis 2019).

I have gained a number of new techniques towards establishing tools for data collection. I shall share an exemplary case here. Roland Kiessling and I wanted to investigate the internal structure of the noun phrase of Nilotic Datooga. I was assigned a task to come up with a research tool. I extracted a questionnaire developed by Language of Tanzania Project in the University of Dar es Salaam. Unfortunately it turned out that the questionnaire was designed to capture data for the noun phrases of Bantu languages. It did not fit the patterns of noun phrases in Nilotic languages. During the course of elicitation session, Roland Kiessling, had to construct question-items to suit the Datooga patterns. Had I been alone in the field, I would have abandoned this task!

Notice that I have not moved out of Khoisan linguistics. Currently, I am also engaged in a project sponsored by the University of Dar es Salaam that focuses on plants and crops amongst the Hadzabe people. It is my expectation that at the end of 24 months, I will be able to gather names and utilities of more than 250 plants and crops in this community. In collaboration with natural scientists (chemist Ebert Mbukwa and botanist Halima Amir) and a specialist of African literature (Micky Mgeja), we will be in the position to write some three articles. Currently, Micky Mgeja and I have this accepted article: “Linguistic and social outcomes of interactions of Hadzabe and Sukuma in north-western Tanzania” Utafiti Journal of African Perspectives (2020). I, too, focus on writing this monograph (it reached 180 pages): “Plant nomenclature and ethnobotany of the Hadzabe society of Tanzania”.

With both Datooga and Hadzabe datasets at hand, I have managed to revisit a number of claims which I previously made particularly as regards lexical borrowing as a result of contact of speakers of different languages. I will urge African universities to continue funding researches as they keep building the knowledge of the academics.

In the course of building my career through supervision of master and doctoral students, who are more than 30 now, I must confess that I learn a lot from them! For instance, one of my doctoral student wrote about the noun phrase structure of Iraqw, the Cushitic language of Tanzania. The patterns within the noun phrase are quite distinct from the patterns I was aware of from Bantu noun phrases. Another doctoral student is applying the framework propagated by Harald Baayen on transparency, frequency and productivity of deverbalising suffixes in Bantu languages. Previously, I had not paid much attention to this framework. Her choice of this framework sparkled my interest in it. Also, one master’s candidate wrote about semantic extension of the body parts, a subject matter which I have not mastered fully, even for the paper we co-authored: “An analysis of metaphoric use of names of body parts in the Bantu language Kifipa” International Journal of Society, Culture & Language (2014). But some students of mine have researched about the subject matter which I am very aware of, for instance, categorial properties of adjectives, adverbs and nouns (see “Properties of the adjective category in Runyambo” South African Journal of African Languages 2020).

Thanks for reading and if you want to donate to the LINGUIST List, you can do so here: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/

All the best,
–the LL Team

Featured Linguist: Adele Goldberg

For this week’s featured linguist, we are proud to present Professor Adele Goldberg!

Professor Adele Goldberg

As a kid, my mom always praised me for being logical. Not appreciating how generously mothers view their children, I took this praise very literally and as an undergraduate at U of Penn, I signed up for all of the courses related to logic I could find. I ended up majoring in math and philosophy:  Math, because my parents wanted to ensure I would be employable, and philosophy because I was interested in the philosophy of mind (and because I had a lot of courses in logic).

When I graduated, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and the job market was lousy. If I could only afford it, I just wanted to continue taking classes. This passion, to just be a student, is what led me to graduate school. I was lucky to stumble into UC Berkeley’s Logic and Methodology of Science PhD program which very generously offered me a fellowship despite my rudderlessness. The philosophers in the program were kind and excellent teachers, but the math professors I met in those days were somewhat less skilled at teaching or relating to people. One told us that we should think of him as a fountain of knowledge and then cupped his hands to inform us that we should try to drink the downpour. Another scribbled his lectures on the chalkboard without turning around. I had a sense of not fitting in. Many of the students I began the program with, including all of the women, soon dispersed to other programs on campus.

Perusing the course catalogue in 1987, I found a class by George Lakoff, who had just published Women, Fire, and Dangerous Ideas, which we read and discussed in class. As he pirouetted through topics that crossed linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, math, and philosophy, I was riveted. His enthusiasm for the ideas was palpable. And he seemed pleased to find a potential “convert” from the Logic program.

Transferring to the linguistics program felt like coming home. In my fellow graduate students,  I found kindred spirits. Since we were all expected to take undergraduate classes, the fact that I had virtually no background in linguistics didn’t present much of a problem. I boldly asked the simplest questions “what is the subject in that passive?” which were generously interpreted as deep (“what is a subject?”). Chuck Fillmore and Paul Kay co-taught a course in which they formulated an evolving version of construction grammar. They filled their classes with laughter, a sense of shared curiosity, and a deep appreciation for the richness of language. George Lakoff taught a graduate level “boot camp” where we all learned to come up with examples and counter-examples to formulate and then challenge every idea. He always made time for students, happy to talk shop for hours at the slightest provocation. I was giddy that we were encouraged to take classes in computer science, psychology, cognitive science, and education, with faculty from the same varied departments sharing the narrow halls of a drafty temporary barracks with a dozen of us graduate students.

By sheer luck, I landed a faculty position right after graduating, at UCSD: in a brilliant and eclectic linguistics department with strong ties to the cognitive science department. Luminaries included Liz Bates, Jeff Elman, Marta Kutas, Ron Langacker, and David Perlmutter. It was at UCSD that I learned to appreciate the wealth of evidence for the usage-based approach to language. I also began to take part in the sort of experimental work that I had always felt was important.

I would have happily stayed at UCSD for my entire career, but my husband and I were commuting as he finished his postdoc in the Bay Area. When I interviewed for a new job at UIUC, I attempted to hide my pregnancy under a blousy dress, only later learning that this was entirely unnecessary (and unsuccessful). At UIUC, I found another welcoming community, where I was exposed to new perspectives and new skills. Like UCSD, UIUC had an active cognitive science community at the Beckman Institute, with Kay Bock, Gary Dell, Cindy Fisher, Susan Garnsey, Greg Murphy and Brian Ross. I came to appreciate how to apply the constructionist perspective to learning and processing work, enjoying the thrill of collaborative research.

I’ve come to feel that moving is the best way to grow as a researcher, as day to day interactions with new colleagues have a way of suffusing one’s thinking with new perspectives and ideas. In 2004, we came to Princeton, an hour from where I grew up in Pennsylvania. The cutting-edge work here in experimental methods, neuroscience, and machine learning has convinced me that linguistics needs to embrace the full range of methods at our disposal.

I also now see that there are many unifying themes across newer work in linguistics. The usage-based constructionist perspective offers theoretical grounding for the growing field of sociolinguistics by emphasizing that language is a complex dynamic system with an important social dimension. The approach is also a natural counterpart to the healthy field of laboratory phonology, applied to grammar rather than sound:  both emphasize that generalizations emerge from learned distributions constrained by our general perceptual and cognitive abilities. The impressive strides being made within machine learning provides evidence that language can be learned, while simultaneously making clear that communicative goals are required to shape what it is that we learn.

Thanks to brilliant and committed students and postdocs, I’ve been able to branch out recently into projects on polysemy, second language learning, conceptual metaphor processing, computational linguistics, and language learning in individuals on the Autism spectrum. An appreciation of language’s complexities and nuances provides fertile ground for a panoply of research topics, constrained only by time and resources. As far as these constraints go, I appreciate that I have been immensely lucky.

But linguistics has a lot to offer both academia and our broader communities.  Embracing interdisciplinary efforts and keeping up with rapid changes within the field and beyond, hold the key to its future success.

Thanks for reading and if you want to donate to the LINGUIST List, you can do so here: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/

All the best,
–the LL Team

Featured Linguist: Joakim Nivre

For this week’s featured linguist, we bring you a great piece from Professor Joakim Nivre!

Professor Joakim Nivre

I am delighted to support the fund drive for the LINGUIST List in the year of its 30th anniversary. Like so many of my colleagues I have relied on the services of the LINGUIST List throughout the years, and this gives me a wonderful opportunity to share some glimpses from my career as a computational linguist as well as some reflections on the development of the field during these three decades.

When the LINGUIST List was started in 1990, I was a PhD student in general linguistics at the University of Gothenburg, trying to complete a thesis on situation semantics (a framework of formal semantics that has since faded into oblivion) and mostly ignorant of the computational side of linguistics that later became the focus of my career. The 1990s was the decade when computational linguistics was transformed by the so-called statistical revolution, which meant a methodological shift from carefully hand-crafted rule-based systems that delivered a deep linguistic analysis but were often lacking in coverage and robustness to statistical models trained on corpus data going for breadth instead of depth.

The statistical turn in computational linguistics is also what got me into the field, more or less by accident. After graduating in 1992, I was hired as a lecturer in the linguistics department in Gothenburg, where around 1995 there was a pressing need for a course on statistical methods in computational linguistics but there was no one who was qualified to teach it. Young and foolish, and eager to learn something new, I decided to accept the challenge and started developing a course, using as my main sources Eugene Charniak’s beautiful little book Statistical Language Learning and a compendium on statistics for linguists by Brigitte Krenn and Christer Samuelsson with the words “Don’t Panic!” in big boldface letters on the cover. As it turned out, the University of Gothenburg was not the only institution that needed someone to teach statistical methods in computational linguistics at the time, and I ended up almost making a career as an itinerant lecturer in statistical NLP in Scandinavia and Northern Europe.

Eventually, I also managed to apply my newly acquired expertise to research, notably in a series of papers on statistical part-of-speech tagging. Fascinated by the power of inductive inference that allowed us to build practical systems for linguistic analysis from what was essentially just frequency counts from corpora, I found that statistical NLP was more fun than formal semantics and slowly but surely started converting from theoretical to computational linguistics.

The following decade meant great changes for me both personally and professionally. After switching gears and getting serious about computational linguistics, I realized I needed to strengthen my computational competence and decided to do a second PhD in computer science. In the process, I also moved from the University of Gothenburg to Växjö University, a young small university in the south of Sweden, with more limited resources for research but a lot of enthusiasm and pioneer spirit to make up for it. Looking for a topic for my second PhD thesis, I stumbled on dependency parsing, which at the time was a niche area with very little impact in mainstream computational linguistics. As an illustration of this, when giving my first conference presentation on dependency parsing in 2003, I had to devote almost half the talk to explaining what dependency parsing was in the first place and motivating why such a thing could be worth studying at all.

By another case of fortunate timing, however, I happened to be one of the first researchers to approach dependency parsing using the new kind of statistical methods, and together with colleagues like Yuji Matsumoto, Ryan McDonald, Sabine Buchholz and Kenji Sagae, building on foundational work by Jason Eisner and Mike Collins, among others, I was fortunate to become one of the leaders in a new and fruitful line of research that has turned dependency parsing into the dominant approach to syntactic analysis in NLP, especially for languages other than English. A milestone year in this development was 2006, when Sabine Buchholz led the organization of the first CoNLL shared task on multilingual dependency parsing and Sandra Kübler and I gave the first dependency parsing tutorial at the joint ACL-COLING conference in Sydney.

The rapidly increasing popularity of dependency parsing was in my view due to three main factors. First, dependency representations provide a more direct representation of predicate-argument structure than other syntactic representations, which makes them practically useful when building natural language understanding applications. Second, thanks to their constrained nature, these representations can be processed very efficiently, which facilitates large-scale deployment. And finally, thanks to efforts like the CoNLL shared tasks, multilingual data sets were made available, which together with off-the-shelf systems like MSTParser (by Ryan McDonald) and MaltParser (by my own group) facilitated parser development for many languages. Towards the end of the decade we also saw dependency parsing being integrated on a large scale in real applications like information extraction and machine translation.

The third decade of my co-existence with the LINGUIST List started with the biggest computational linguistics event in Sweden so far, the ACL conference in Uppsala in 2010. Together with my colleagues at Uppsala University, where I had moved to take up a professorship in computational linguistics, I was very happy to receive computational linguists from all corners of the world during a very hot week in July. The conference was considered huge at the time, with almost 1000 participants, but would be considered small by today’s standards (with over 3000 participants in Florence last year), so I am really glad that we took the opportunity while it was still possible to fit ACL into a small university town like Uppsala.

My own research during the last decade has to a large extent been concerned with trying to understand how we can build models that are better equipped to deal with the structural variation found in the world’s languages. In the case of parsing, for example, it is easy to see that models developed for English, a language characterized by relatively rigid word order constraints and limited morphological inflection, often do not work as well when applied to languages that exhibit different typological properties. However, it is much harder to see what needs to be done to rectify the situation. A major obstacle to progress in this area has been the lack of cross-linguistically consistent morphosyntactic annotation of corpora, making it very hard to clearly distinguish differences in language structure from more or less accidental differences in annotation standards. This is why I and many of my colleagues have devoted considerable time and effort to the initiative known as Universal Dependencies (UD), whose goal is simply to create cross-linguistically consistent morphosyntactic annotation for as many languages as possible.

Given that UD is an open community effort without dedicated funding, it has been remarkably successful and has grown in only six years from ten treebanks and a dozen researchers to 163 treebanks for 92 languages with contributions from 370 researchers around the world. I am truly amazed and grateful for the wonderful response from the community, and UD resources are now used not only for NLP research but increasingly also in other areas of linguistics, notably for empirical studies of word order typology. All members of the UD community deserve recognition for their efforts, but I especially want to thank Marie de Marneffe, Chris Manning and Ryan McDonald, for being instrumental in getting the project off the ground, and Filip Ginter, Sampo Pyysalo and (above all) Dan Zeman, for doing all the heavy lifting as our documentation and release team.

But is there really a need for something like UD in computational linguistics today? You may think that, if I was fortunate to experience a few cases of good timing in my previous career, the decision to start the UD initiative in 2014 may with hindsight look like a case of extremely bad timing. The field of computational linguistics, and especially the more practical NLP side of it, has in recent years undergone a second major transformation known as the deep learning revolution. This has meant a switch from discrete symbolic representations to dense continuous representations, representations that are learnt by deep neural networks that are trained holistically for end-to-end tasks, where the role of traditional linguistic representations has been reduced to a minimum. In fact, it is very much an open question whether traditional linguistic processing tasks like part-of-speech tagging and dependency parsing have any role to play in the NLP systems of the future.

Looking back at the three decades of the LINGUIST List, there is no question that computational linguistics has gradually diverged from other branches of linguistics both theoretically and methodologically. The statistical revolution of the 1990s meant a shift from knowledge-driven to data-driven methods, but theoretical models from linguistics such as formal grammars were still often used as the backbone of the systems. The shift from generative to discriminative statistical models during the next decade further emphasized the role of features learned from data and so-called grammarless parsers became the norm, especially for dependency parsing, reducing the role of traditional linguistics to corpus annotation and (sometimes) clever feature engineering. During the last decade, the advent of deep learning has to a large extent eliminated the need for feature engineering, in favor of representation learning, and the emphasis on end-to-end learning has further reduced the role of linguistic annotation.

Should we therefore conclude that there is no linguistics left in computational linguistics? I think not. Paradoxically, as the importance of explicit linguistic notions in NLP has decreased, the desire to know whether NLP systems nevertheless learn linguistic notions seems to have increased. There is a whole new subfield of computational linguistics often referred to as interpretability studies, which is about understanding the inner workings of the complex deep neural networks now used for language processing. And a substantial part of this field is concerned with figuring out whether, say, a deep neural language model like ELMo or BERT (to mention just two of the most popular models on the market) implicitly learn linguistic notions like part-of-speech categories, word senses or even syntactic dependency structure. And resources like UD have turned out to be of key importance when trying to probe the black-box models in search for linguistic structure. This opens up exciting new possibilities for research, which can ultimately be expected to influence also other branches of linguistics. Exactly where this research will take us is impossible to say today, but I for one am eagerly looking forward to following the development over the coming decades in the company of the LINGUIST List. If you are too, please consider contributing to the fund drive.

Thanks for reading and if you want to donate to the LINGUIST List, you can do so here: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/
All the best,
–the LL Team

Featured Linguist: Lauren Gawne

Dear Linguist List Readers,

This week, we are pleased to present Professor Lauren Gawne as part of our Featured Linguists series!

Professor Lauren Gawne

Early next year my blog Superlinguo will turn 10, which means I’ve been blogging about linguistics for almost a third of LINGUIST List’s life. I’ve been a subscriber to LINGUIST List a little longer than that, having signed up at the start of graduate school in 2009, something I now encourage my own grad students to do. One of the delightful things about blogging for almost as long as I’ve been a full-time linguist is that the blog now acts as an external memory device; I wrote a detailed post about how I got into linguistics back in 2012. I came to linguistics by luck, but I have stayed because language is endlessly interesting, and because linguists are an enthusiastic bunch.

I’ve been passionate about sharing linguistics with wider audiences since my graduate days because I want more people to have the opportunity to approach language like linguists, without having to accidentally end up in an intro course because their friend suggested it. When I started Lingthusiasm, a podcast that is enthusiastic about linguistics, with Gretchen McCulloch in 2016, we wanted to capture the joyful nerdiness you find in conference corridor chats whenever a group of linguists assemble, in a format that’s fun and engaging no matter how much you already know about linguistics. Gretchen and I also want to see more linguistics communication in the world, which is why we launched the LingComm grants in 2020, and share curated linguistics communication projects that are useful for teaching with through the Mutual Intelligibility newsletter.

My research interests all stem from an expansive approach to linguistics – I do language documentation and description work with Tibetic language communities in Nepal, but I’m also interested in co-speech gesture, and I’ve written about language on the internet, including a paper on the linguistics of LOLcats with Jill Vaughan and how emoji act as digital gestures with Gretchen McCulloch. I’m not just interested in how language works, but also how linguists work – which is why I’ve helped run Linguistics in the Pub in Melbourne on-and-off over the last decade, and why I’ve enjoyed working with the Linguistics Data Interest Group of the Research Data Alliance to publish the Austin Principles of Data Citation in Linguistics and the Tromsø Recommendations for Citation of Research Data in Linguistics.

If there is one thing I hope for the future of linguistics as a field, it would be that we do a better job of keeping those who studied linguistics feeling connected to the discipline, and welcoming people who might never have thought linguistics was for them. For the last five years I’ve been running monthly interviews with people who have studied linguistics and gone on to careers in a wide range of fields. Regardless of whether their work relates to linguistics topic-wise, each person mentions the analytical and communication skills they gained through studying linguistics. We train far more linguists than there will ever be academic linguistics jobs for–as someone who is still precariously employed almost eight years after graduating, I feel this all too keenly. We therefore have an obligation to be more explicit in teaching our students how the skills they are learning are relevant to a wide range of life paths, and to celebrate the idea that being a linguist is more than just an industry title.

Lauren Gawne
Lecturer, Department of Languages and Linguistics
La Trobe University
Melbourne, Australia

email: [email protected]
twitter: @superlinguo

Thanks for reading and if you want to donate to the LINGUIST List, you can do so here: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/
All the best,
–the LL Team

Featured Linguist: Shobhana Chelliah

Dear LINGUIST List readers and subscribers,

Please enjoy this awesome message from this week’s featured linguist, Dr. Shobhana Chelliah!


I am delighted to support the Linguistlist (LL) in their 2019 fund drive. Like many of you, I rely on LL. I’ve posted conference information, gotten input on typological questions, listed jobs, gathered data to argue for new faculty, and to help our students identify nonacademic jobs in linguistics. It’s hard to imagine working without this resource. Please support LL with your donations. I have and I will continue to.

Dr. Shobhana Chelliah

So now a little bit about myself. I was born in Palayamkottai, a town near the city of Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, India. When I was seven, my father taught me, my mom, and sister how to eat with knife and fork, packed our belongings and moved us to Washington D.C. He worked at the International Monetary Fund for seven years. In 1975, he decided once again to pack kit and caboodle and move us back to India. Since my Hindi and Sanskrit skills were close to zero, high school for me was at the international boarding school, Woodstock International School. The D.C. experience explains my American accent and the Woodstock experience why I have friends from all over the world.

Now on to my introduction to linguistics: After getting a BA in English literature from St Stephen’s college in Delhi, I signed up for an MA in linguistics, in Delhi University where our Field Methods language was Manipuri (Meiteiron). Thank you M.A. advisor K.V. Subbarao and thank you fellow student and language consultant Promodini Nameirakpam Devi! And thank you UT Austin Ph.D. advisor Anthony Woodbury and collaborator/spouse Willem de Reuse! All four of these great people and many more supported the writing of my first book, A Grammar of Meitei (Mouton 1997). This laid the foundation for my current work on Lamkang Naga, a South Central Tibeto-Burman (Kuki-Chin) language of Manipur. NSF Documenting Endangered Languages grants and the UNT digital library have supported the creation of: https://digital.library.unt.edu/explore/collections/SAALT/. A whole host of questions about metadata, data formats, data organization, and archive usability have crystalized through this experience and my information science, anthropology colleagues, and I are happily tackling those now.

Between 2013-2015, I had the good fortune to serve as the Program Officer for the Documenting Endangered Languages Program at the US National Science Foundation. Thank you Joan Maling, Terry Langendoen, and my Program Officer cohort – What brilliance! What brains! In 2015, with NSF inspiration in my back pocket, I moved back to the University of North Texas, the institution that has mentored, sheltered, and nurtured me since 1996. Here I’ve been involved in creating two types of resources for South Asian Languages: (1) an Interlinear Gloss Translation repository we are calling the Computational Resource for South Asian Languages (CoRSAL) and (2) controlled vocabularies for tagging linguistic data from Tibeto-Burman languages. My partners in these ventures are fellow College of Information knowledge seekers, Computational Linguist Alexis Palmer and Information Scientist Oksana Zavalina.

One really cool happening: UNT is proudly graduating a member of the Lamkang community with an MA in Linguistics and helping her step into her new world as a PhD student in Philosophy with a focus in environmental philosophy. Congratulations, Sumshot Khular! We continue to support students from indigenous populations in India and Pakistan. We have visiting scholars here from Manipur and Pakistan and have admitted a students from Assam, Kashmir, and Pakistan. I am so excited that we can support these students who are committed to their communities and Language Documentation.

So now I am going on the LL website to contribute. Follow me there!

Featured Linguist: Sonja Lanehart

Sonja L. Lanehart, Ph.D.
Brackenridge Endowed Chair in Literature and the Humanities

When I was a teenager, I asked members of my family at a gathering, “Why do Black people use be so much?” Because many people in my family and people important to me struggled with literacy, my mission was to go to college and graduate school and earn a Ph.D. where most of my family did not make it past high school. Without anyone to tell me African American Language (AAL) was a valid language variety, I originally set out to study Speech Pathology as an undergrad at the University of Texas to “fix” African Americans.

During my time as a student in Austin, I was exposed to James Sledd’s “Bi-dialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy” (1972) and “Doublespeak: Dialectology in the Service of Big Brother” (1984). Sledd, as a southern White male, spoke about language and identity rights for African Americans (and southerners) in a way they could not (Freed 1995) because, as is still the case, African Americans were seen as too close to the situation. I have always found it troubling/problematic/ironic that, with the inclusion of African Americans and other people of color into the academy, or “the Ivory Tower,” we have often been discouraged from studying our own people because we are accused of being too close to the situation and therefore unable to be objective, whereas Whites have freely studied everyone for centuries and seemingly without reproach or prejudice or subjectivities in the eyes of the research community or the ever-nebulous “they.” As James Sledd noted forty years ago, even “compassionate, liberal educators, knowing the ways of society (i.e., the narrative society has constructed about blackness/Blackness), will change the color of a student’s vowels because they cannot change the color of their students’ skins” (1972, 325). Similarly, James Baldwin, in response to the 1979 case Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School v. Ann Arbor School District—the very Ann Arbor I happened to spend my graduate and Ph.D. years at the University of Michigan—wrote:

“The brutal truth is that the bulk of White people in America never had any interest in educating Black people, except as this could serve White purposes. It is not the Black child’s language that is despised. It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be Black, and in which he knows he can never become White. Black people have lost too many Black children that way.” (1979, 19E; emphasis added).

Having meditated on both Sledd’s and Baldwin’s words during my college exposure to linguistics, I remained a lifelong learner of language variation because I come from a community whose language is not valued. Instead of trying to “fix” the language of my people (where there are no problems to begin with), I, a Black woman, was not discouraged from studying my own people because I vowed to use my education to remedy the linguistic prejudices people hold against AAL and its speakers. I know these negative beliefs about AAL persist. I see them in my classes when African American students, usually while using AAL, reject there is such a thing as AAL or that they themselves speak it. I hear this attitude reflected when I interview Black adults, college students, and teenagers about their perceptions of language. I cringe at both Black and non-Black employers who say they will not hire someone who pronounces ask as “aks” (a common pronunciation in AAL) or uses “double negatives” (multiple negation) because it represents faulty thinking (as if language were math) or who pronounces four as “foe” (again, common in AAL) or who just plain does not use “good” English (i.e., “bad” English is a synonym for AAL). I hurt listening to people denigrate Rachel Jeantel for her speech during her testimony as a witness to the murder pf her best friend.

Sista, Speak!
Black Women Kinfolk Talk about Language and Literacy
By Sonja L. Lanehart

I have based my work in Critical Sociolinguistics since the murder of Trayvon Martin, the devastating trial of his murderer, the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the massacre of “The Charleston Nine,” and the murder of my distant maternal relative, Sandra Bland, and too many other Black women and men, girls and boys, across the United States. I focused my vocation on asking questions needing answers and investigating gaps in the literature regarding language use and identity in African American communities because I am part of those communities. It is business and it is personal.

As sociolinguists, we have a responsibility to the communities we study in addition to ourselves. As a Black sociolinguist studying Black communities, it is incumbent upon me – and all scholars – to use scholarship both within and outside the academy for the benefit of humanity and society. This is why I do what I do.





Thanks for reading this Featured Story by Sonja Lanehart. While you’re here, please consider donating to the LINGUIST List; only a small portion of our funds come from our host university, and we depend on our donors to keep our services available to linguists all over the world.

Featured Linguist: Patrick Honeybone

The following story was kindly written for us by internationally recognized linguist and editor of the Oxford Handbook of Historical Phonology, Patrick Honeybone!

I think I’ve been very lucky in my career in linguistics. I was lucky that I grew up in a family where it was normal and fun to speak other languages (even though we were landlocked in the East Midlands of England). I was lucky that the schools I attended were big enough and had enough resources to let me take several languages (I’m astonished when I think back that they ran an A-level class in German just for me – I don’t think that would happen in the UK right now). I was lucky that by the time I got to think about where to study, I’d just about figured out that some universities taught linguistic things as part of their languages degrees, and that I should apply to one that did. And I was lucky that, weeks after starting a BA degree in French and German at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, I realised that I really didn’t want to study literature at all, but that Newcastle actually had the perfect degree for me – German and English Language – and they let me swap programmes without any problem.

In the UK, ‘English Language’ means something like ‘the synchronic and diachronic linguistics of English’, and this degree allowed me to study all kinds of things that still fascinate me now: the history and structure of varieties of English and German (and other languages), phonology, other areas of structure like syntax and morphology, sociolinguistics, dialectology, and even the history and philosophy of linguistics. I was lucky that my BA meant I got to spend a year studying in Germany (in Würzburg), where I got properly introduced to the wonders of Germanic-style historical grammars. I was lucky that Newcastle had some exciting lecturers, who showed me all sorts of interesting linguistic ideas, and I was lucky that they introduced an MA programme in Linguistics just as I was trying to figure out what I could do after my BA. I was lucky that I could get funding from the state for an MA, and then for a PhD, and that Newcastle offered the space to think, to combine theoretical and historical phonology, and to figure out that you can make a living out of it all.

I was also lucky that I had some great friends who did degrees at Newcastle at the same time as me, who went with me to my first linguistic conferences, and who made it seem normal to be interested in linguistics. I was lucky to get a job in academia before I finished my PhD. Lucky and stupid: it took another three years to get my PhD after that, but I was lucky to have a kind and helpful set of colleagues at Edge Hill College (now Edge Hill University), who – though we all had a lot to teach – created the space for me to finish my thesis. I was then absurdly lucky to get a job at Edinburgh, where I have found many fantastic colleagues, I have the luxury of teaching just what I want to teach, and where we have managed to set up a group of people interested in historical phonology that is as diverse and interesting as you could hope to find anywhere in the world. My mind is constantly fizzing from the ideas that I get to talk about with colleagues here, and I am also lucky that I’ve supervised some very smart postgraduate students – I’ve learnt a lot from them, too.

Professor Honeybone auctioning books for conference funds at the Manchester Phonology Meeting

Some visionary colleagues set up the Manchester Phonology Meeting just before I was beginning to awake to the marvels of phonology, and that has become a wonderful part of my life. I attended the conference in awe early on during my PhD and I was enthused to see what exciting discussions can take place at a linguistic conference (and how much fun can be had at them). I was excited that these colleagues allowed me to take over the running of the mfm in 2002 (when I was at Edge Hill, which while not in Manchester, was at least in the North-West of England). I have had the privilege to run the mfm (together with a large roster of colleagues from around the world) ever since, and I am constantly grateful that so many interesting people want to come and talk with us about phonology. I seem to run a lot of conferences, which might be a foolish thing to do, but I think that meeting to discuss ideas is crucial, and I like to think that getting the right atmosphere in an event (being open and welcoming, but also offering the chance for the serious discussion of ideas) is quite important. The series of Symposiums on Historical Phonology that we have set up at Edinburgh has also become a great aspect of my life, and I feel lucky that colleagues are interested enough to come to Edinburgh to talk about the many aspects of historical phonology that we all bring together (including: phonological theory, phonetics, sociolinguistics, dialectology, philology, reconstruction and acquisition).

I’ve been lucky that I have been trusted to edit a range of interesting things (like the Handbook of Historical Phonology, English Language and Linguistics, and Papers in Historical Phonology), and I’m lucky that I think (I hope!) that some colleagues have forgiven me if I have not delivered everything that I have promised when I took on too much. Most importantly, I’ve been lucky to have a fantastic family, who support me in all kinds of ways and who work things out so that I can go away for the kinds of trips that academics need to take (and who never cease to remind me that there is a lot to life outside of linguistics).

Professor Honeybone’s poster at the Edinburgh Symposium on Historical Phonology

So: yes – I think I’ve been very lucky. But I also think that you make your own luck. There have to be opportunities available to take, but you also have to figure out what the opportunities are and then how to grab them. And you also have to work out what might work as a new opportunity and then figure out how to implement it – that can be a lot of fun. Finally, I think that we are all very lucky that there is the LINGUIST List. I really don’t think that I could have done everything that I’ve done without it (it’s crucial to publicise conferences, for example, and I make a lot of use of the EasyAbs abstract management system). We are lucky that it’s a fundamentally free and entirely open access way of communicating with all colleagues who are interested in linguistics, anywhere in the world. We should all give what we can in this Fund Drive to keep the LINGUIST List going!