Featured Linguists

Featured Linguist: David Stifter

Featured Linguist: David Stifter

Why am I a linguist ‒ A tale of three spells

1. Under the spell of Celtic

I remember when I first encountered the word ‘Celtic‘. I was around eight years old and had to stay home from school because I was suffering from a fluish infection. To stave off my boredom, my father brought home the latest volume of Asterix, ‘Asterix in Belgium’, my first encounter with that character. On one of the first pages, Asterix introduces himself to the Belgians by saying (of course in German translation) ‘We are from the Celtic part of Gaul’. I wondered what ‘keltisch’ (Celtic) meant and came up with one of my first etymologies. I thought this word must be somehow derived from ‘kalt’ (cold). One learns through one’s mistakes.

A few years later, in grammar school, I remember the excitement that I felt when I leaved through the final pages of our school edition of Caesar’s Gaulish War. The index gave explanations and etymologies for all personal names mentioned in the text, including the Gaulish ones. By that time, not least because of Asterix, I had a general idea what Celtic and Gaulish meant, but the language itself, like the other Celtic languages of which at the time I knew nothing more than the names, had already put a spell on me that had nothing to do with any practical considerations. This is how conditioning works. A generation later, I find myself in Ireland, holding the position of professor of one of those Celtic languages and contributing to the edition of newly discovered Gaulish inscriptions, on the forefront of those who try to shed some light on this still so poorly understood language.

How I got into Old Irish is an anecdote worth telling, an anecdote that illustrates the twists and turns of life. Although I had had these romantic ideas about Celtic for many years, I used to be least attracted by Irish (largely for aesthetic reasons: too many h’s in the words). One October evening 1994, while walking home from an evening lecture, I told the lecturer that I was dreaming of going to Wales to study Welsh. Next morning, the Head of Department, Prof. Jochem Schindler – who the lecturer must have contacted immediately after our chat – called me into his office and greeted me with the words: ‘You are going to Maynooth to do Old Irish‘. I refrained from objecting that so far I had not felt the least appeal by Old Irish. Only a few weeks later Prof. Schindler, having just turned 50, suffered a stroke and died a few days later, and I was left with his linguistic legacy. So I went to Maynooth, facilitated by a Scholarship of the Republic of Ireland, and sucked in Old Irish there. After that year abroad, I returned to Vienna where I got sucked into a career as a historical linguist, more by a combination of luck and inadvertence than by any grand design. After fifteen years I received a call back to Maynooth. In this way, very much like St Patrick who heeded the call of Vox Hiberionacum ‘the voice of the Irish‘, I am here again now, spreading Old Irish to the world. And after all, compared to Modern Irish, there aren’t that many h’s in Old Irish words.

2. Under the spell of solving riddles

Without curiosity, there is no science. Without the desire for discovery, there is no progress. Without the urge to solve riddles, we will only ever remain at the stage of stupefied mystery, but we will not be able to move on to appreciative admiration. This is what motivates me to look behind words, where they come from, what their history is, and to look into them, to see what their inner working is. It may be the case that knowing the name of something tells us nothing about that thing, but knowing a name and its etymological analysis surely reveals us something about the people who created the name, what they thought, how they saw their world. Many riddles in that!

My discipline of historical linguistics is blessed in that we can operate on the hypothesis that every riddle has a solution, but it is cursed all the same since the key to that solution is often irretrievably lost in time. We can try to piece together the fragmentary evidence that has come down to us, but we may not have access to enough information to create the full picture. However, we can still make the effort, and perhaps, on the way, we are fortunate to discover an alternative way of looking at a problem. This is why I love deciphering inscriptions in scripts that are no longer used, or why I spend my time on extracting fragmentary messages from almost illegible manuscripts. For me, the linguistic study of a language is inseparable from a rooting in the philology of that tradition. When I approach an unknown text, it has to be taken from all sides: the palaeography, the spelling, the requirements of the genre, the phonology, the lexicon, the syntax, the historical context. Missing a tiny stroke of ink over one letter can have effects on the understanding of the verb, the clause, the text, with further reverberations on syntactic theory, the study of history etc. Without understanding its anchorage in real life, we will only make superficial statements about the language.

A newly found word, its meaning, its prehistory, and its relationship with other words fill me with great excitement. These small riddles can be found everywhere in our lives, they can enrich us every day. The fact that I grew up in a part of Austria where four different languages (not counting dialects) are spoken, made me aware of the richness and value of linguistic diversity. I learnt soon that most of my German-speaking peers carried their ignorance and rejection of the minority languages like a depraved badge of honour, not as a mark of disgrace, but for me it was a stimulus to learn more and to keep my mind open.

I was fortunate to belong to the ‒ perhaps ‒ last generation of university students in my country that was not squeezed into the straightjacket of economised education, that is to say, school-like curricula and tight time-frames. I had the privilege of being able to learn just for learning’s sake, almost whatever I wanted and for as long as I wanted. Since I did not need any credits for my degree at home, I never actually sat a single exam in Old Irish when I studied in Maynooth. The closest I got to being examined about Early Irish were two exams in Middle Irish, which I did a few years later in Vienna. I spent nine years on my Master’s degree, and another five on the PhD. Add this to my twelve years in school, and I spent 26 years in education and training. How does this compare to the 20 years of learning that Julius Caesar reported for the druids? It is fitting that as a professor in Ireland I now bear the title of Ollamh, the highest grade awarded to poets in medieval Irish society. And knowing its history, I bear it proudly.

3. Under the spell of time

The third spell that I am under is that of time: What is time, what is its cause, and is it at all? How does it shape human experience, what does it mean for a person to lose time? These issues are intricately woven into the structure of languages and language experience – language being one of the most effective means to counteract time.

Where these three spells overlap, that is that delightful place where I find myself when I succeed in recreating a small piece of lost time, when I am able to make speak to us again human beings who lived centuries or millennia ago, and when I make them share some of their thoughts with us, make them share how they rationalised their lives in environments that are very different from our daily modern experience, and yet they are of the same human nature. There is no standing still. It is one of the tasks of a scientist to bring together the past with the present in order to transform it into the future. What my job, or rather my vocation, is about is, in the final analysis, to bring together the old – the ancient texts, the languages no longer spoken – with the new ‒ the modern technology of computational and quantitative methods, databases, the internet, in order convey the analogue media of the objectivised past into the digital media of the virtual present.


David Stifter is Professor of Old Irish at the Maynooth University Department of Early Irish, Ireland. His research project Chronologicon Hibernicum has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 647351). The project aims at developing methods for the dating of Early Irish language developments.



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Featured Linguist: Nicoletta Calzolari

We are proud to share with our readers the next featured linguist of our 2017 Fund Drive: Nicoletta Calzolari. We hope that you enjoy reading Dr. Calzolari’s thoughts on her long and varied career as a computational linguist.


It is difficult to write about myself, but it can be an occasion to relive some moments of my life. I am grateful to Damir also for this. Here some notes, with personal memories interspersed with moments of professional life.

The beginning: the role of chance

Immediately after I graduated in philosophy, with a thesis on Logical antinomies, I remember saying to myself: words, words, words, I have enough of words! I did not know, but my destiny was linked to words.

So many things in life happen by chance. I moved to Pisa from Ferrara for family reasons and I saw a notice for a grant at Pisa University in a completely new field: Computational Linguistics. I tried applying, knowing that it would have been impossible. But I won it. This was the beginning.

In Ferrara, studying philosophy

I started studying that new area … and I loved it. It was not just words! I also started, as an autodidact, to write programs by myself, in the language of the time: PL1. The Pisa Summer Schools that Zampolli organised (in the ‘70s and ‘80s) were very influential for me (as for many others): I met the most brilliant researchers and I found them fascinating. I did not know that I would have become friend with many of them. I just followed the first as a student, then I was involved in the organisation, and finally I gave some lectures.

CL was a young field, with many possible research paths. It was probably easier at that time: you could have a new idea and experiment it even working alone, without the need of a big group. It is different today.

Since then we made great advances, but the more we understand about language the more we see how many problems are still in front of us. And this is what makes this field so interesting and challenging: language is a very complex phenomenon.

The first steps: the most creative and innovative, from a research perspective

More and more science is driven by data and our field is not different. Natural Language Processing is a data intensive field. Major achievements come from the use of large Language Resources (LRs). But it was not always like that. At the beginning, in the ‘80s, we had to fight to recognise the value of working with data.

Probably I was one of the pioneers in the revolution of the ‘80s when LRs (i.e. linguistic data) started to be understood as critical to make steps forward, while before data were even despised. I started research at the time quite new: acquiring information from Machine Readable Dictionaries, instead of relying on linguist’s intuition. This became soon a trend, followed by many others in all the continents. Relying on data was a change in the research paradigm, in the sense of Kuhn.

With Nancy in Hong Kong

The great thing was that we succeeded in getting our first European project around this topic. Also this happened somehow by chance: I was discussing my work with Bran Boguraev sitting in the sun in Stanford and we had the idea of proposing a European project. We did it, and we got it: it was ACQUILEX, an ESPRIT Basic Research project that lasted 6 years and laid the foundation not only for stronger research but also for working relations with many interesting colleagues in Europe. Immediately after we had another research project, SPARKLE, probably the first European project aiming at extracting linguistic information from texts.

I understood, working on the first funded project, that I had to create the conditions for new research trends, that could possibly be funded afterwards. It was this way, through a virtuous circle, that we won so many EC projects, one after the other. I was involved – either coordinating the Pisa unit, or manging the whole European project – in more than 50 EC projects, in collaboration with hundreds of institutions all over the world.

There is more than research in science … or coming to adulthood

It was Antonio Zampolli who, in 1991, introduced the term “language resources” for our data: the term “resources” was meant to highlight their infrastructural nature (like electricity, railroads etc. for a country development). Some consequences derive from their infrastructural nature, among which the need to consider, in addition to research and technological aspects, also methodological and policy dimensions.

Working with data – expensive to create and annotate – made me realise that we needed to create the conditions to build on each other results. In 1991, I coined the term “reusability” to express the need not to start reinventing the wheel every time, but to re-use available data and join forces. It was the first step towards thinking at standards and interoperability. This term is reused today in the MetaNet Strategic Research Agenda: “2018: Ease re-use of linguistic resources in all parts of the data value chain across languages and sectors”.

The ideas and initiatives that led to the first European project on standards – EAGLES – were discussed at a breakfast table in Grosseto, during the Workshop “On Automating the Lexicon” (organised in 1986 by Walker, Zampolli and me). That Workshop was very influential: a Manifesto was drawn at the end, where the essential role of language data was emphasised and a number of actions were recommended: it laid the foundations for a large number of initiatives that took place later in Europe.

ELRA board meeting in Paris

In the ‘90s with Zampolli we also started to define a global vision of the field and its main components, identified in: creation of LRs, standards, distribution, and automatic acquisition of LRs. These were considered the main components of an infrastructure of LRs for Language Technology (LT). ELRA (European Language Resources Association) was founded in 1995 to take care of one of these components, distribution of LRs.

After those pioneering years, the importance of LRs for LT was recognised more and more, and the flow of data began. Today we have a LR community culture, also thanks to the many initiatives around LRs that we started, like ELRA, LREC, LRE Journal, CLARIN, FLaReNet, MetaShare. In the FLaReNet project we identified the major dimensions around which to structure our community recommendations for the future of the field: documentation, interoperability, availability, coverage/quality, sustainability, recognition, development, international cooperation. These dimensions – constituting the infrastructure around LRs – are at the basis of the current paradigm of LRs.

Acting on Policy issues for a (finally) mature field

Working with data one recognises the critical role of what is around data, i.e. of notions such as standardisation, sharing, openness, evaluation, interoperability, metadata, collaborative annotation, crowdsourcing, integration, replicability, integrity, citation. And the role of how to organise research work: we should create frameworks that enable effective cooperation of many groups on common tasks, adopting the paradigm of cooperative collection of knowledge so successful in more mature disciplines, such as biology, astronomy or physics. The relevance of these issues must not be underestimated.

Technical and scientific issues are obviously important, but organisational, coordination, political issues play a major role. Technologies exist and develop fast, but at the same time the infrastructure that sustains them must be created. The challenges ahead depend on a coherent strategy involving not only the best methods and research but also policy dimensions. The concept behind the relevance of policy issues and best practices around LRs can be synthesised considering “data as public good”.

I think that a coherent LR ecosystem also requires an effort towards a culture of “service to the community”, where everyone has to contribute. Adopting policies that go in the direction of Open Science must become common practice. This “cultural change” is not a minor issue. It was in this spirit that I introduced at LREC initiatives such as the LRE Map and Share your LRs as steps towards shaping an open scientific information space.

General chair at COLING 2016 in Osaka

Recently I started to advocate the need for reproducibility and replicability of research results – at the basis of scientific practice –  in our field. We discussed this issue at an ELRA workshop, where I pushed Antonio Branco to organise a workshop on these topics at LREC2016. The importance of the topic led me to think that we had to give a sign of its importance also in the LRE Journal: Nancy Ide agreed, and we recently decided to have in the journal a special type of papers devoted to these aspects.

I am proud to have the possibility – through ELRA, LREC and LREJ – to contribute to shaping an open scientific information space for the future of our field. I have always felt it is our duty to use the means that we have in our hands to try to shape the future. In this case to play a role in how to change scientific practice and have an impact on our overall scientific enterprise.

The importance of the people around you: few anecdotes

In my long path through LRs, I became friend with so many colleagues all over the world (almost all the leading figures of a generation) and felt their closeness in many occasions. Over the years I realised how this was influential to me: they somehow shaped me and sometimes it is difficult to disentangle the professional and personal life.

Just few sparse memories:

After my presentation at COLING 1982 in Prague, Don Walker invited me at a small workshop in Stanford. I was young and was sitting together with the most important people in the field, from Martin Kay to Sture Allen. Back in Pisa I thought I would never have again such a wonderful year! I was wrong. Since then I had so many wonderful opportunities, recognitions, much more than I deserved. Lesson: so many unexpected things may happen in life.

Preparing for LREC 2016 in Portoroz

From Zampolli I learned many things. I mention a simple one: you must both look at the details and be able to see the whole picture, projecting it into the future. I like both: precision and creativity. He had many visions for the future of the field, I hope I had some good ones too.

Ralph Grisham once saying at a workshop in Pisa: “You go to dinner with Nicoletta and standards come up”.

I like Facebook also because through it I exchanged memories with Chuck Fillmore in his last years, when he wanted to remember the past with his friends.

I was not a feminist when it was trendy. I did not react when an old important Italian university professor told me, very young, after a talk, “you are of a virile conciseness” thinking it was a great compliment. But after so many meetings with so many more men than women, I am more feminist now than when I was younger. I remember a meeting in Rome with the President of CNR, 36 people around a table, and me the only woman. I do not know why but I felt ashamed for them.

I was for a long time among the youngest in so many meetings, and then, all of a sudden, it changed. I realised it when Adam Kilgariff said: “Let’s listen to what Nicoletta thinks, she is always wise”. I saw it, wise and age: I was on the other side, among those with experience.

Recently a Japanese colleague told me: “You are really tough in negotiations”, but he said this with a smile so I hope it was a sort of compliment.

John Sinclair, many years ago: “You are very determined and really good in making many people work”. My parents always told me: if you want something you are so determined that you usually get it.

And I must mention my friendship with Nancy Ide, started when we were very young and consolidated over the years. We had many projects and have been to many places together, and now we exchange mails almost every day because of the LRE journal we are co-editors of.

Some recognitions

Once at a meeting at the European Commission, one of the EC officers introduced myself to the others as Mrs. Language Resources. Not bad. This explains the title I have given to these notes.

Preparing for LREC 2018 in Miyazaki

The motivation for being in the founding group of ACL Fellows says: “for significant contributions to computational lexicography, and for the creation and dissemination of language resources”. I took it also as a sign that LRs were recognised in the CL community. Something not given for granted few years before. And a sign that what we did had an impact outside the LR community.

When I received a mail from Bente Maegaard saying that I was proposed for an Honorary Doctorate in Copenhagen I was so astonished that I asked Sara if she thought it was a joke. It was not, and I was very proud to receive the Honorary PhD directly from the Queen of Denmark.

I was moved recently when the ELRA Board decided to make me Honorary President of ELRA. I was there when it started in 1995 and I served it for so many years in so many roles that I feel it is part of my life. The same I obviously feel with LREC.

Conclusion … with enthusiasm

I conclude with the final words I wrote for my invited talk at the 1st LREC in Granada in 1998: “At the end everything is tied together, which makes our overall task so interesting – and difficult. What we must have is the ability to combine the overall view with its decomposition into manageable pieces. No one perspective – the global and the sectorial – is really fruitful if taken in isolation. A strategic and visionary policy has to be debated, designed and adopted for the next few years, if we hope to be successful. To this end, the contribution of the main actors in the field is of extreme importance. Some of the events in this conference are hopefully moving in this direction.”

Despite my age, I still have the enthusiasm I had when I started, even more when I see that I am able to influence new strategic directions of research. I hope I was able to pass my enthusiasm to younger colleagues.


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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


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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.


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Featured Linguist: Gillian Ramchand

Featured Linguist: Gillian Ramchand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.


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Featured Linguist: San San HNIN TUN



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.


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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.


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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.


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Featured Linguist: João Costa

Featured Linguist: João Costa

Featured Linguist: João Costa

Becoming a linguist was partly a matter of chance (or luck!) partly genuine interest. As a junior high school student, I was convinced I wanted to become a teacher. I guess I wanted to be a teacher of French, sometimes an elementary school teacher. High school changed things, and as I turned 16 my interests started fluctuating (almost weekly). I started considering many possible paths: journalism (because I had a radio show with friends at the time), philosophy (because epistemology was my favorite topic), classical languages (I was in love with Latin and Greek), theatre (because I was playing theatre with an amateur group, and asked by a professional group to join them)… too many options, and I had to make a choice. At some point, I had to choose between becoming an elementary school teacher, studying language and literature, or a new undergraduate program at the University of Lisbon: a program in Linguistics. I’m a literature freak, a compulsive reader, but I never liked reading literary critics. I couldn’t picture myself in that world. So, I was left with two choices. I found the structure of the new degree quite interesting, although I had no clue about what formal linguistics was about. I saw that there were courses in cognitive psychology, mathematical methods in linguistics, sociolinguistics, and I found it a perfect cocktail! But still I couldn’t make up my mind… So, I flipped a coin, and the choice of the coin was Linguistics! I’m sorry I didn’t keep that coin as a little treasure.

Studying at the University of Lisbon was great, and I soon realized that Generative Grammar was the theory that provided clearer answers, falsifiable hypotheses and with the best prospects for useful usage in several applied domains. In the first years, I pictured myself as a phonetician for the rest of my life. But a class on unaccusatives by Inês Duarte made me fall in love with syntax. Groningen, as an Erasmus student, and the classes with Jan Koster helped me make the final decision: I wanted to be a syntactician. Adverbs and word order were the puzzles I wanted to work on.

Life as a graduate student is always perfect, and my life in Leiden, with an intermediate eight months visit at MIT, constituted the perfect setting me for me to seriously learn how to study, how to discuss what I study, how to argue. Some people say I am workaholic (as anyone with an addiction I don’t acknowledge that…), but if there is any truth in that, the bad habits started in The Netherlands.

Back in Portugal, my interest moved to Language Acquisition and Language Impairment, realizing that language acquisition could only be done with proper theoretical knowledge, and that theoretical syntax may benefit a lot from findings on language acquisition. Right now, my life as a linguist is temporarily suspended, because I am in the Portuguese Government, as Secretary of State for Education). My work on language acquisition has led me to work on education matters, and to play a role in society. That’s actually what I think science is for – to create a better world.

Many, many people have influenced me, but I cannot help mentioning one of the most influential linguists, since we first talked: Tanya Reinhart!

If I cannot imagine my life without many linguists, I am also sure that linguistics could not be the same without the LINGUIST List!


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