Featured Linguists

Featured Linguist: Milan Mihaljević

Featured Linguist: Milan Mihaljević

Featured Linguist: Milan Mihaljević

My decision to become a linguist owes much to happenstance. At eighteen I was, like many teenagers, in the metaphysical phase, searching for the meaning of life. Although I was offered a very good scholarship for business studies, I decided to study philosophy. At the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science of the University of Zagreb we had to combine two programs. The major subject (A) lasted four, and the minor (B) lasted three years. Naturally, I chose Philosophy as my A subject. My first choice for the B program was English, but the problem was that I had learned English only for a short period of time and my command of the language was not good enough to pass the entrance test. Therefore, I had to choose something else. I can’t explain why I chose General Linguistics, since until then I didn’t know that such a program existed. However, after few months I discovered that Philosophy was not as interesting as I had expected and that Linguistics was far more exciting. I decided, and with the support of Radoslav Katičić, who was the chair of linguistic department at the time and later the supervisor of my PhD thesis, succeeded to change Linguistics into my major subject. As a third-year student I discovered Generative Grammar. The topic of my MA thesis was the relations between syntax and semantics in Chomsky’s theory.

After graduation 1978, I got a job in the Old Church Slavonic Institute in Zagreb in which I have stayed until now. It is interesting that, even two weeks before I started working there, I didn’t know that such an institute existed. This is a philological institute devoted to the research of medieval Croatian texts written in the Glagolitic script. As I started working there, I had to find a “common denominator” between my general linguistic education and the needs of my new job. I started to apply generative theory to the old texts written in Croatian Church Slavonic, a language which was used only as a literary language (mostly in liturgy) and never had native speakers. The topic of my PhD thesis was generative phonology of Croatian Church Slavonic. In order to work successfully in such an institution, I had to acquire different philological skills. For example, when a new Glagolitic text is found, I have to determine when and where it was written, and whether it was translated from the Greek or Latin protograph. In order to do that, it is not enough to describe its language. You also need some knowledge of codicology, palaeography, history, etc. In this way, I soon became an unusual combination of a modern, generative linguist and a traditional philologist. They have lived peacefully side by side in my head for many years, and I like both of them equally.

Very important for my professional carrier was a postdoc year (1985-1986) which, thanks to the Herder scholarship provided by the FSV foundation from Hamburg, I spent in the Institut für Slawistik at the University of Vienna. Working with professors František Václav Mareš and Radoslav Katičić, as well as with colleagues Johannes Michael Reinhart and Georg Holzer, I have learned a lot about Slavistics, especially about Old Church Slavonic and Slavic comparative grammar.

In addition to the engagement in the Old Church Slavonic Institute, I have also taught different subjects (Old Church Slavonic language, Slavic comparative grammar, Generative syntax and phonology) at most Croatian universities (Zagreb, Split, Pula, Rijeka, Osijek, Zadar) to undergraduate and graduate students of Croatian language and General Linguistics. Although I studied Linguistics by chance, I was fortunate in my irrational decision, and after more than forty years I wouldn’t change it for anything else.



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Featured Linguist: Joanna Błaszczak

Featured Linguist: Joanna Błaszczak

Featured Linguist: Joanna Błaszczak

How did I become a linguist?

Well, my parents wanted me to become a doctor one day, a woman in a white coat examining patients, using diverse medical instruments, conducting studies. I myself would have rather preferred to work with animals (I love animals, dogs are my favorite ). I imagined myself travelling around the world, living in a jungle with wild animals, observing and studying the behavior of chimpanzees and the like. What has become of it? Depending on how you view it, the answer to this question could be: NOTHING, as I became neither a doctor nor an animal researcher or world traveller, or BOTH in some sense. Do you wonder how this latter answer may be sensical at all? I am indeed a world traveller, maybe not (always) in a physical sense, but as a linguist you have the opportunity of travelling around the world through different languages. Originally, I wanted to study the behavior of animals, but studying the structure of languages, trying to understand the principles behind such structures, can be equally fascinating. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. Well, I do not cure sick people but still I have something to do with ‟patients” and medical equipment while conducting psycholinguistic experiments.

But let me go first a few (actually much more than ‟a few” ) years back and tell you how all this started.

I think my interest in linguistics originated as early as primary school. While all other pupils hated grammar lessons, I loved them. It was a great fun for me to analyze structures of sentences, determine the grammatical properties of words and their grammatical functions in the sentence. Later I started learning foreign languages (Russian and German), and – while I am absolutely not a talented foreign language learner – I have been fascinated by the clarity of grammar rules governing linguistic structures ever since. Being the finalist of a German language competition (olympiad), I had an opportunity to study abroad, concretely at the Humboldt University of Berlin. There, my interest in linguistics gradually grew even more. (To be honest, I also studied economics, I also did some law at the Free University of Berlin, but these subjects, while surely being interesting and useful, could not diminish my bigger interests in language and scientific work.) My first teachers at the Humboldt University (Prof. Manfred Bierwisch, Prof. Ewald Lang, Prof. Norbert Fries, Prof. Karin Donhauser) showed me how diverse the study of language can be: from lexical and compositional semantics, through syntactic structures to language change. During various linguistic summer schools I’ve got more of that. The young teachers there (Daniel Büring, Christopher Wilder, Christopher Piñón, Lea Nash, Marcel den Dikken, Maaike Schoorlemmer, Tracy A. Hall, David Adger, to mention a few) fascinated me with their cool ideas and their vast knowledge, but what fascinated me even more was generative grammar, a framework with clear predictions which can be corroborated or falsified. I think around that time I started to think or even to wish to become one day one of these scholars. And indeed my wish came true. Of course not immediately , but a Master’s thesis, a Ph.D. thesis and a Habilitation thesis later, here I am: a linguist. As Prof. Gisbert Fanselow, my boss at the University of Potsdam, once said about me, I have always started my research (be it for the MA thesis, the PhD or the Habilitation theses) with a small set of empirical data, questioned the assumptions made for them, by providing evidence or counterevidence from all possible angles (also including language acquisition, diachrony, typology etc.), then formulating a new view and integrating new findings into a consistent theoretical picture. This is what I love most: deriving far-reaching theoretical insights about the structure of grammar from the analysis of a well-defined, small empirical domain. By doing this, I feel like a detective and nobody would say that detective work is not interesting.

My primary linguistic interest was and still is syntax, minimalist theory, semantics, and syntax-semantics interface. By and by this interest has broadened to include typology, psycholinguistics, language teaching, and sociolinguistics as well. My work in various projects at the University of Potsdam and also at the Centre for General Linguistics (ZAS) in Berlin has certainly contributed to that. The projects I was involved in were diverse and ranged from, for example, developing the annotation scheme for the morphological and syntactic aspects of the corpora of the Collaborative Research Centre 632 in Potsdam through working on a book about different languages spoken in Germany’s schools as a help for teachers who have pupils in their classrooms with native languages other than German (a ZAS project under the leadership of Prof. Manfred Krifka) to studying the relationship between national identity and bilingualism (a joint project with Dr Marzena Żygis from ZAS).

Where I am now? Since 2008 I have been an Associate Professor at the University of Wrocław in Poland, a place with a good generative grammar tradition (initiated among others by Prof. Bożena Rozwadowska). There I am Head of the Center for Experimental Research on Natural Language, supervising and coordinating various psycholinguistics projects. With the support of the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) and the National Science Centre, Poland (NCN) it was possible to obtain additional grants for setting up a neurolinguistic laboratory with the EEG equipment and an eyetracking laboratory. In addition, I managed to establish a publishing house The Center for General and Comparative Linguistics, officially accepted by the National Library of Poland, which publishes a linguistic (book) series Generative Linguistics in Wrocław (GLiW) and, in cooperation with De Gruyter Open, an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal Questions and Answers in Linguistics (QAL). These publications offer a forum for linguistic discussions on various topics, and more importantly, they give especially young researchers the opportunity to present their work. And thanks to the Linguist List, more and more people know about us. Also thanks to the Linguist List, more and more interested students contact us as they want to apply for our new Master Programme in Linguistics (ETHEL – Empirical and Theoretical Linguistics), a programme, as the name suggests, which combines theoretical linguistics with empirical issues, giving the students the opportunity to study, next to theoretical syntax, semantics, etc. also statistics, corpus linguistics, psycho- and neurolinguistics, and to conduct their own experiments. Needless to say, our laboratories and the publishing house offer another possibility of practical training.

My colleagues, dr Dorota Klimek-Jankowska, dr Barbara Tomaszewicz, dr Anna Czypionka and Piotr Gulgowski (PhD student) and I currently work on decomposition of linguistic categories in the brain, nominalizations, eventualities (FNP project), number and quantification in natural language (NCN project). We cooperate with researchers from Germany (Konstanz University, Heidelberg University and the Humboldt University of Berlin), and invite scholars from various places of the world: from neighboring countries (Germany and the Czech Republic), through other European countries (the Netherlands, Spain, France, Italy, UK, etc.) to Northern America (Canada and USA). Here once again it becomes apparent that also as a linguist you are a world traveller: you are travelling to the world (by going to conferences or workshops) but the world is also coming to you (as participants in conferences organized by you, as guest researchers working with you on joint projects, etc.). And – needless to say – nothing of this would be possible without the help of the Linguist List. A big ‘Thank you’ to all the people engaged in the Linguist List, for your great and extremely helpful work!



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Featured Linguist: Adams Bodomo

Featured Linguist: Adams Bodomo

Featured Linguist: Adams Bodomo

How I became a linguist:

I studied linguistics and became a linguist for two reasons. First, I wanted to be a top diplomat for my country, Ghana, which would involve being posted around the world to represent my country. I figured that if I studied linguistics and foreign languages at the University of Ghana that would increase my chances, so I read Linguistics, French, and Swahili. Second, I wanted to help document and preserve my mother-tongue, Dagaare, a small language in northern Ghana. I succeeded in writing the first grammar sketch of the language, published at Stanford University titled The Structure of Dagaare. One of the most wonderful experiences young scholars will ever get in their academic life is seeing their first book and holding it in their hands. In my case it was even more dramatic because of the way it happened. After teaching the structure of Dagaare for two years as a part-time lecturer at Stanford University I went back to Norway – I was writing a doctoral thesis at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology – to submit and defend my thesis. Then the publishers at CSLI , Stanford sent me copies of my book in Norway. However I never received them because I returned to Stanford campus for a conference event. Then I walked into the Stanford Bookstore and happened to look at a section of the Bookstore with a bookstand titled: “Stanford Authors”. Lo and behold, I saw my book and stood there for more than 20 minutes flipping through it unendingly – as if I was reading the texts for the first time when indeed it was I who wrote them in the first place. There were no selfies at that time, else I would have taken a memorable selfie about how it feels like to receive your first book.

After my doctoral dissertation I got a job at the prestigious University of Hong Kong and rose up through the academic ranks from postdoc to Assistant Professor to Associate Professor. Much of my work on Linguistics has been the descriptive and theoretical analysis of African languages using descriptive and formal frameworks like Lexical Functional Grammar and the Principles and Parameters approach. While working on African languages mainly, I have also done substantial work on Chinese languages like Cantonese and Zhuang and supervised many PhD and masters theses of students who come from all over the world: Africa, Asia, and the West (Europe and North America).

I am currently Chair Professor of African Languages and Literatures at the University of Vienna, and I am continuing to do research on general linguistic analysis, particularly of African languages, but also now look into how we can develop African language literature. I have come to the realization as a scholar interested in African and minority language documentation and revitalization that it is not enough to just document linguistic texts and their analyses; one must also ensure that speakers read and write in these languages. Literary work is very important for revitalizing African and lesser studied languages.

I am often asked who are my models. I tend to say that I really have no models because my journey is too unique to model after someone. I do however have many mentors back home in Ghana – Prof Dolphyne, Duthie and Dakubu – who taught me core linguistics; in Norway – Prof Lars Hellan, who was my PhD supervisor in Norway, and in the US at Stanford University – Prof Joan Bresnan who taught me LFG, and Will Leben, the general editor of the series – Stanford Monographs in African Languages, which published my first book. I am a lucky man; I am where I am today because of many men and women–great linguists and academics–who mentored me, but I don’t have space to list all of them.

A number of critical skills are necessary in order to become a good linguist: One, a critical, enquiring mind, two, attention to detail for discovering the intricacies of human mental processes through the use of linguistic structure, and three, the creativity to grasp the nuances of other people’s languages and cultures.

I also think that young scholars of linguistics must not study linguistics in isolation. I have always sought to look at language studies from an interdisciplinary perspective within the humanities. The mission of the Humanities is to discover the inner nature of the human creature, including the intricacies of language, thought, and culture, and how this creature relates to its environment, leading, hopefully, to an appreciation and celebration of its inner beauty. We can even extend this to the Social Sciences which also study how humans relate to their environment. Humanities and the Social Sciences have intertwined missions but different methods of inquiry, so these groups of scholars, including linguists, can learn from each other about deep, introspective methods of inquiry in the Humanities to empirical, experimental and quantitative methods in the Social Sciences.

Linguistics is a very interdisciplinary humanities and social sciences discipline.



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Featured Linguist: Laura Janda

Featured Linguist: Laura Janda

Featured Linguist: Laura Janda

I became a linguist because I was rather obnoxious and rebellious.

I grew up in a little town in upstate New York where no languages were taught before high school. In ninth grade I enrolled in my first language class: French. But after about two weeks, the teacher was clearly fed up with having one student wave her hand in response to every single question. I was handed a pile of books and cassette tapes, pointed in the direction of the janitor’s closet, and told to go work on my own. By June when I emerged from that closet, I had completed all the assignments and tests from all four years of high school French. I was told: “Ok, you’re done with language for high school.” But I didn’t listen. The following fall I signed up for Spanish. And the same thing happened. At the end of tenth grade I was told: “Now that’s really enough, we don’t have any more languages to offer, go do something else.”

Two years later I was signing up for courses as a Princeton freshman, selecting biology, calculus, and the like, since my parents had told me that there was no way they were paying for a university education unless I became a doctor. There was a language requirement, and that made me unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to go back to French and Spanish, since my “closet studies” were but a distant memory by then and probably inadequate to get me beyond a beginner course. I could try something different. Chinese? No, that conflicted with the pre-med courses my parents demanded. An advisor solved my dilemma by enrolling me in Russian.

I did fine in the pre-med courses, but various factors led me to opt out of med school. At Princeton in the mid-seventies there were mighty few female students in the science and math courses, both the students and the professors made me feel unwelcome, and there weren’t even any women’s bathrooms in those buildings. Worst of all, the attitude toward learning in the pre-med courses wasn’t as important as grades. I remember a calculus mid-term that was 14 pages long. I took the test and left the room, noting that it was odd that almost everyone else was still sitting there. I had a nearly perfect score on the test – all I missed was a single minus sign – but I got a B- because it was graded on a curve and all those Princeton pre-meds had recognized that the test was too easy, so they all sat there and checked their tests over and over to make sure they got As. I said to myself: “I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life with these people.”

Russian was exotic and challenging and there were even some female instructors and (fellow?) students. But the biggest attraction for me was Professor Charles E. Townsend, a pupil of Roman Jakobson and a legendary figure in the classroom. The high expectations he set for his classes were only surpassed by the demands he made on himself and his unflagging devotion to his students. Charlie Townsend volunteered to teach me Czech in my senior year and also stood up to my father, defending my right to pursue linguistics. After that I went on to graduate school at UCLA and various adventures behind the Iron Curtain that no reasonable parents would have allowed their daughter to undertake in those days. In the course of my career I have had lots of fun with lots of languages and language students. But I can still be rather obnoxious and rebellious at times.



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Featured Linguist: Christian Di Canio

Featured Linguist: Christian DiCanio

Featured Linguist: Christian DiCanio

I was brought to linguistics partly by accident, though it has ended up being the perfect match to my strengths and interests. As a child growing up in Buffalo, NY, I was mainly interested in the natural sciences and did not have much of any experience with foreign languages. Yet, when I had the chance to study Spanish in primary school and high school, I discovered that I excelled at it and had a knack for quickly memorizing new words and the idiosyncrasies of grammar. Moreover, in high school, I do recall coming up with a new alphabetic system for English which had different symbols for syllabic consonants (you know, just for fun).

Nevertheless, at that age, it certainly seemed more practical for me to devote my attention to the sciences, which I also loved. So, as an undergraduate, I went away to Brandeis University where I planned to pursue a degree in Chemistry with a minor in Spanish. As a freshman needing guidance in which courses to take, I was assigned a random faculty advisor. That person just so happened to be a linguist named Joan Maling. She nudgingly mentioned to me “Many students who are interested in the sciences and in languages like linguistics.” So, I enrolled in my first linguistics class with Ray Jackendoff. Ray’s enthusiasm for the topic and interest in engaging with students’ ideas proved contagious. Rather simultaneously, Chemistry became rather dull to me. Yet, could one actually study language with scientific rigor and make a career out of it? I didn’t really know if this was true at the time, but I took the plunge and switched majors.

Due to financial circumstances, I transferred to the University at Buffalo where I continued my studies in Linguistics and Spanish. I excelled there and gradually became convinced that linguistics was a useful discipline that might make me employable some day. During my penultimate year, I decided that I wanted to study abroad for a semester in a Spanish-speaking country. Yet, studying abroad in Spain seemed boring to me. As luck would have it, there was a very affordable (and interesting) program for studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico. I inquired about this program, but was disheartened to find out that they did not offer many advanced courses in Spanish. My undergraduate advisor, Jeri Jaeger, suggested that perhaps I could study Zapotec there instead. I had never even considered this a possibility. As luck would have it, when I asked if this was possible, the program seemed keen on finding a speaker to teach me Zapotec. My time in Oaxaca was magical and I fell in love with how different Zapotec was from everything else I had learned beforehand. As my semester project abroad, I wrote a paper about Zapotec syllable structure and sent it along with my applications for graduate school.

I started graduate school at UC Berkeley in 2002. When I got to Berkeley, I knew I wanted to study phonetics, but felt a bit overwhelmed by all the possibilities that I could pursue. I dabbled a bit in syntax and morphology (which remains a “secret” interest of mine), but was finally convinced to focus on phonetics and phonology through a combination of Keith Johnson’s move to the department and Larry Hyman’s addictive energy for all things phonological. During my second year, I was contacted by Seth Holmes, an anthropologist working with a Triqui [ˈtɾiki] community in Oaxaca, Mexico. He was interested in finding a linguist who wanted to help the community develop a dictionary. I wanted to return to Oaxaca and this was a good chance to do so.

I dove into fieldwork with the Triquis and, in doing so, I learned a gigantic amount about linguistic analysis, phonology, and phonetics. Like many other Otomanguean languages, Triqui has a complex tonal system (9 contrastive tones on a single syllable) and a complex morphophonological system involving tonal mutation and spreading. I have been endlessly interested in figuring out the details of the language over the years and investigating different aspects of tone production and perception. Though, as a graduate student, I was certainly concerned that I couldn’t both focus on big picture issues in phonetics (what I imagined to be marketable) and do phonetic fieldwork (what I was most passionate about). Two of my dissertation committee members, Larry Hyman and Ian Maddieson, convinced me that I could do both. I also learned an incredible amount about phonetic theory and methods from my advisor, Keith Johnson, who supported my endeavors even when they didn’t seem to jibe so much with his own research interests. So, I wrote my thesis on the phonetics and phonology of Itunyoso Triqui.

After graduation, I accepted a postdoctoral position in Lyon, France at Le Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage, where I stayed for 2.5 years. I spent my time in France exploring the perception the suprasegmental contrasts in Triqui and gastronomie lyonnaise. I benefitted greatly from meetings with François Pellegrino, who helped me with issues related to experimental design and data processing. It was during this time that I also began to expand my interests in the phonetics of endangered languages. I was recruited to do fieldwork on Ixcatec, a moribund Otomanguean language in Oaxaca, Mexico and, then, to start work on Yoloxóchitl Mixtec (also Otomanguean). I embraced both of these new opportunities and, in doing so, really began to see myself as a Mesoamericanist in addition to being a phonetician.

After France, I took another postdoctoral position at Haskins Laboratories working with Doug Whalen on extracting phonetic data from endangered language documentation corpora. As luck would have it, one of the languages on the project was Yoloxóchitl Mixtec. As someone working on this language, I was well-qualified for the position. At Haskins, I began to focus on the efficacy of computational methods for extracting phonetic data and from endangered language corpora. In the process of exploring these new methods and examining vowel production data, I gained much greater confidence in my abilities as a phonetician. At Haskins, Doug Whalen instilled in me the outspoken belief that phonetic research on endangered languages is, a priori, of no lesser scientific value than phonetic research on non-endangered languages. His special knack for putting phonetic research from endangered languages on the same playing field as research on more commonly-spoken languages was a strong influence on how I began to think of the larger ramifications of my work. With Doug’s encouragement, I applied for my own grant to apply computational methods to the corpus analysis of tone in Triqui and Mixtec and to examine the prosody-tone interface in these languages. I was thrilled to receive a National Science Foundation grant to do this work and pursue my research on tone.

In 2015, I was also thrilled to join the Linguistics Department at the University at Buffalo where I continue my research on the phonetics of endangered languages and speech production. Though I’m now an assistant professor and professional linguist, much of what drew me into linguistics many years ago lingers still – an interest in applying a scientific approach to examining the atoms of speech and discovering how this most human of all systems works. At Buffalo, I hope to instill in budding linguists a sense of how much of the world is still wide open to be explored and give them the skills to grasp the endless possibilities in linguistics.



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Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

swahili diplomaMy interest in linguistics began at the age of 12 when my father, a high school band director, signed up for a two-year contract with a branch of AID called Teacher Education in East Africa. During a six-week summer orientation program at Columbia University, adults and children alike took Swahili classes. I still have a whimsical diploma from completing that course, signed by the youthful Sharifa Zawawi, who went on to write a number of books on the language including what was for many years the most widely used Swahili text in the US.


My dad was assigned to work at a teacher training college near the town of Nyeri, about 100 miles from Nairobi. We loved the time we spent there for many reasons. It led to lasting friendships with Kenyans and expatriates from far-flung countries. During the holidays we traveled all over East Africa, tenting in the vast park systems surrounded by teeming wildlife, and snorkeling the gorgeous coral reefs.

Carstens Safari


My brother and I experienced the novelty of British style schools with their uniforms and prefects. Swahili was an option alongside of French and Latin at Kenya High School. I had fallen in love with it so I was glad I could continue to study. African writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo and Chinua Achebe opened new worlds to me. Because this was soon after independence, there was a wonderfully optimistic vibe in the country. On the other hand, lingering inequities and prejudices of the colonial period were a vivid part of daily life; this gave me an awareness and interest in world affairs and social justice that animated my experiences and perceptions forever after.

Our Long Island home seemed very dull to me when we got back. I was a bit lost through junior high, high school, and especially early college. At last I took a year off and returned to Kenya to teach English and other subjects as a volunteer in rural schools. Though initially apprehensive about whether I would connect with the place again, I had an immensely gratifying and stimulating experience. My interest in Swahili rekindled. While settlers and expatriates spoke a pidgin sometimes called kitchen Swahili, I resolved to learn Kiswahili Sanifu, the grammatically exacting variety of native speakers. I traveled around with a group of Swahili vacationers my own age on the island of Lamu, sleeping on rooftops, attending the Maulid festival, studying the noun class system in my grammar book, enjoying and trying to learn to make the wonderful coastal curries of fresh seafood and coconut milk.

me on Lamu streetlamu roofs

When the year was over I realized that if I didn’t find a way to pursue my arcane interests I would never make it through a college degree. After some research I became one of three undergraduates in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of African Languages and Literature. What a relief to do college coursework in Swahili, Kikuyu, African literature, and in African oral narratives with the great Harold Schoeb! But right at the end, I also took a course in English transformational grammar that blew my mind completely. Could this really be how language worked, and I had been oblivious all this time? Could you write a transformational syntax for Swahili?

I left for Kenya after completing my BA and found a job teaching in an international school near Nakuru, overlooking the great Rift Valley. During this three-year stint I kept working at my Swahili. I also learned to scuba dive and worked as a volunteer counter of the waterbuck population in beautiful Lake Nakuru game park. Our school had an abundance of snakes and other reptiles which my partner and I took to collecting and housing. I loved the children I taught, who came from all over the world. It was exactly the experience I wanted at the time, but I knew that my next big step would be a graduate program in theoretical linguistics.

me with kids I taught

In 1983 I began my MA/PhD study at UCLA. After my first graduate level syntax courses with the incomparable Tim Stowell, I took a summer intensive Yoruba language course. The combination yielded a near-psychedelic summer learning experience. So much syntactic movement! Special pronouns for coreference! Why the funny particles near Infl in adjunct wh-questions? Didn’t this connect with work of Lasnik & Saito and Jim Huang on the ECP? I was hooked completely and wrote an MA thesis on Yoruba adjunct ECP effects. But after a few years I returned to my Bantuist roots, doing my 1991 dissertation on Swahili noun phrases and embarking on a series of attempts to give agreement theory the right combination of flexibility and constraints to accommodate Bantu, Romance, and English-type patterns. It was a goal which I didn’t feel I met until two publications in 2010 and 2011 freed me of it at last.

In recent years I have shifted into researching the syntax of Nguni languages. While at the University of Missouri I made a connection with Loyiso Mletshe of University of the Western Cape under the auspices of a wonderful sister school program between those two institutions, and this led me to connect with Jochen Zeller of University of Kwa Zulu Natal. My trips to Cape Town and Durban for field work have been highly rewarding, productive, and scenic, introducing me to a different part of the wonderful African continent.

Me on Table Mt Cape Town

East Africa is pulling me back now, through a collaborative NSF grant for Luyia documentation spearheaded by Michael Marlo, and through a Maasai word order project that grew out of a Field Methods course at MU. Here I am with my undergraduate research group in Lawrence Kansas to give talks at the 2014 Annual Conference on African Linguistics:


At Southern Illinois University Carbondale where I am currently chair of the Linguistics Department, I am working on a Senufo variety called Nafara with another group of Field Methods students.


SIU Lx Picnic PhotoI hope to continue this Nafara project in summer 2016 while teaching at the African Linguistics Summer School in Abidjan.


I feel very fortunate to have a professional life that I love so much.



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Featured Linguist: Michael Gamon

A job ad on LINGUIST List.

Featured Linguist: Michael Gamon

Featured Linguist: Michael Gamon

Language? Or Science?

I grew up in Bad Soden, a small town on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany. My parents always encouraged any interest of mine. Whether it was science (the chemistry lab in the basement, even the rockets and explosive experiments in the yard) or language and literature. My dad had a fairly extensive collection of world literature. He was in his 20s when WWII ended and could not get enough of the books and the modern art that became available after the barbarism of the Third Reich. The interest in reading rubbed off on me, allegedly I could read fluently by the time I entered first grade, having taught myself reading by asking adults (sometimes total strangers) to spell out letters and labels aloud, starting with the signs in the elevator of our apartment building. Once I had outgrown children’s books, I was allowed to pick any book I wanted from my dad’s shelves, as long as I would put it back after reading it – and I took full advantage of that. There was no notion of “age-appropriate” books in our house: if I could read it and enjoy it, it was considered appropriate. From those beginnings, language, literature and science never lost their appeal for me. In high school I focused on physics, math and English, and when the time came to decide on what to study, I narrowed down the choice to geophysics or German studies and it was my choice to make. My rationale at the time was: Go for the big and risky dream first (study literature to become a writer), and if that does not work out, science and engineering are still another interesting option.

Language and Science!

I did not know about Linguistics until I signed up for German studies at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. It was one of the academic minors “Nebenfächer” offered in German studies –an interesting application of formal methods to the subject of language. All it took was an introductory generative syntax course (taught by the unforgettable Wolfgang Sternefeld) to get hooked; I studied under Helen Leuninger and Günther Grewendorf. Language and the mind/brain, the mathematics of language, and the distant prospect of computers analyzing language – this was incredibly exciting! A few years into the program, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study generative linguistics in the US. To my surprise I made it through round after round of the selection process until I was placed in the University of Washington’s linguistics program. When I received the happy news, I tried to find the university on a map – poring unsuccessfully over a DC area map — the only “Washington” I recognized.

I arrived in Seattle in the autumn of 1990 and fell in love with the beauty of the city, the lakes, the sea, the mountains, and the campus. Resources at the school were a world apart from what I had known in Frankfurt. There, the university library still had card catalogues. In order to get your materials you had to fill out a request form, return after two days to stand in line and find out if the book was available and hope the librarian had processed the request form properly. At the UW, you would go to a library computer terminal, find the library code, and pick up what you needed from the open shelves within minutes. UW faculty were accessible for questions or discussions at all times, the student body was very international, the place was vibrant.

A Degree and a Job.

I finished my MA at the UW by adding one more academic quarter to the three-quarter scholarship. By then I knew I wanted to continue as a linguist, inspired by wonderful teachers (Karen Zagona, Heles Contreras, Fritz Newmeyer, Ellen Kaisse, Sharon Hargus) and fellow grad students. I returned to Germany, only to find that the dusty educational bureaucracy there made it near impossible to have my brand new MA recognized. Fortunately, I got two nearly simultaneous offers to join a PhD program — one from the UW, the other from Nijmegen. I decided to return to the UW, for the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty and for the UW’s academic program.

I was about to finish my PhD in 1996 when a job ad in the Linguist List caught my eye: Microsoft Research (MSR) was looking for a German grammarian (the archives still have the posting https://linguistlist.org/issues/7/7-33.html). At the time, the UW did not have a computational linguistics program; and while I had done a little bit of Prolog programming back in Germany, I could not possibly consider myself a computational linguist. But I figured that applying would help me practice resumé writing and cost me only a few hours and a stamp, so I sent off the application, with little hope of success. That application led to an internship in the Natural Language Processing group at MSR, and then to a job offer. In September 1996 I had both a PhD and a great job. And I could stay in the place I loved.

My early years at Microsoft Research were focused on writing a computational grammar for German in a grammar-authoring environment that was far ahead of its time. The grammar was written in a declarative language (called “G”, loosely based on LISP) and processed by a very efficient parsing engine. Authoring tools made it possible to test a grammar change over thousands of sentences within minutes and to highlight and aggregate each change in the analyses. At the time, other parsers would brood over moderately complex sentences for seconds, sometimes minutes, at a time.), For someone passionate about understanding the structure of language and tinkering with grammatical details this was the best playground one could imagine!

By the time the German computational grammar became part of Microsoft’s German grammar checker (every sentence that is grammar-checked in a German word document is parsed into a full syntactic tree!), the field moved in a new direction, away from grammar engineering and into the world of probabilities. It was time to discover the potential of machine learning. With some colleagues we found some interesting problems in natural language generation where we could combine knowledge engineering (no need to learn from data what we can code in a few hours) with machine-learned models for data-driven decisions. Soon, however, even the idea of a partially knowledge-engineered system fell out of favor, and the search was on for some new research areas. For me, the “fringe” areas (some of which have become mainstream now) held the most fascination: sentiment detection, the notion of “style”, using machine learning to detect and correct non-native writing, and language in social media. More recently, I made another little leap into a new branch of Microsoft Research where we work closer with product teams to bring language technology to market.

And Now?

So here I am, a few months shy of 20 years at MSR after having applied for that job on Linguist List in 1996. Along the way there have been some 60 papers, 30 patent applications, and many collaborations with wonderful colleagues, friends, and incredibly fun and talented research summer interns.

After high school, I had wanted to become a writer or a geophysicist. Instead, I became a linguist. I studied generative linguistics and landed a job as a computational linguist. I have never taken a computer science or programming class, but now work in a computer science research lab.

Along the way I have also became something of a contrarian, to the bemusement of enthusiastic up-and-coming researchers. So, by way of example, I feel I should conclude with at least a few potentially career-limiting remarks.

I believe that, over its long history, the term “Artificial Intelligence” has become intellectually useless –a term that has utility only as a grant-magnet or as a topic for the media circus and their insatiable appetite for the shiny and meaningless. There is “Apparent Intelligence,” which is a real and remarkable achievement: software that is so cleverly designed that a machine can appear intelligent within a well-defined and limited domain. But the notion that machines “understand” language in any meaningful sense of the word, for example, is preposterous at the current stage of our knowledge. Although the mantra “in five years, computers will be able to do xyz,” has been repeated for at least 60 years now, it has not come any closer to the truth. And while deep learning is truly a qualitative breakthrough, all of those “brain” metaphors we see bandied about, well they’re just metaphors, and pretty bad ones at that.

So, what’s next? Your guess is as good as mine!




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Featured Linguist: Artemis Alexiadou

Featured Linguist: Artemis Alexiadou

Featured Linguist: Artemis Alexiadou

I was born in Volos, a medium sized city in Greece, by the sea, more or less half way between Athens and Thessaloniki.

My parents thought it would be good for me to learn foreign languages very young, (sometimes I wonder whether they had heard about the critical period hypothesis), so next to normal school I had French and English classes. That was fun but did not trigger any interest in linguistics. I loved to read books, the longer the better.  Maybe I secretly wanted to become a writer.

What I did want to become, however, was an archaeologist, and go on expeditions.

During my final year of high school, we were told about the Indo-European language family and how e.g. French, English, German, and Greek all belong to the same family but to different sub-branches. I entered university to learn more about these issues, but soon changed my mind. It all happened during our first session of introduction to linguistics in Athens; our Professor, Dimitra Theophanopoulou-Kontou, mentioned Noam Chomsky, and the idea of Universal Grammar.  I felt that this all makes perfect sense. It has to be right. I then wanted to read everything that Chomsky had written; of course, I could hardly understand most of the things I was reading.

After graduating from Athens, I went to Reading, UK to do an MA in Linguistics. I wanted to go to England, because of the English league and Charles Dickens. I also wanted to learn more about syntax. It turned out that the English I had learned back home had nothing to do with the English spoken there. I realized then what it means to speak a standard as opposed to a dialect.

My year in England was very exciting. Towards its end I started thinking about pursuing a PhD, but I was not quite sure about that yet.

I moved to Berlin at the end of 1991, mainly for personal reasons, but hoping to seriously pursue a PhD there. I thought it could be on the syntax of adverbs, as my MA thesis was on case and adverbial nouns. Berlin was a whole new world for me. I spoke no word of German, I knew nobody, and nobody knew me. I spent my first months going to German school. It was hard, and ask Tibor Kiss and Gereon Müller, they will tell you that my nominal inflections are still all over the place, and we should better not mention my use or rather non/mis-use of the German verbal particle system.

In 1992, I applied for a PhD position at the center that is now called ZAS (Center for General Linguistics). I was ecstatic when Ewald Lang asked to meet me, and when I was invited for an interview. I believe it all had to do with the topic I wanted to write my dissertation on, namely adverbs, a topic several people at this institute have been thinking about. I got the position and started working there in the summer of 1992; soon after other PhDs joined and we had a fun group, for instance my office mate André Meinunger and my dear friend Ursula Kleinhenz.

The two years of my scholarship were very important for my development. I am thankful for numerous things: the intellectual environment at the institute, the cooperation with Manfred Bierwisch’s group Structural Grammar, the possibility to travel to conferences and summer/winter schools, where I met both peers as well as more senior linguists and was taught by many renowned linguists. This is how I met Elena Anagnostopoulou in Holland; we kept supporting each other during final stages of our dissertations and later started working together. Several workshops were organized in Berlin and many people came to visit, so there was always something happening and there were so many people to talk to.

During the 1994 GLOW in Vienna, I met Gisbert Fanselow, who had recently been appointed as Professor in Potsdam, and asked him if he would be interested in supervising my thesis. He was, so I became the first person to get a linguistics PhD from Potsdam. Some years later, in 1999, I had my Habilitationskolloquium in Potsdam; my Habilitation (or second book as they say here) was on nominalization and ergativity, and owes a lot to discussions with Alec Marantz and Melita Stavrou. I have been trying to understand nominal structure ever since. In 1999 I spent a semester teaching in Tübingen, and am thankful to Arnim von Stechow and Wolfgang Sternefeld for this opportunity. That year I also joined the GLOW Board, and profited enormously from interactions with Henk van Riemsdijk, Ian Roberts and later Anders Holmberg.

Between 2000 and 2002 I spent some time abroad, visiting MIT, Princeton and UPenn and then returned to Potsdam, all on a Heisenberg fellowship from the German Research Foundation (DFG). In 2002 I was offered a Professorship in English Linguistics in Stuttgart, so I moved from Berlin to the south of Germany, looking forward to working together with Greg Dogil, Hans Kamp and Christian Rohrer. Many collaborative initiatives took place between linguistics and computational linguistics in Stuttgart, a graduate school, and later a collaborative research center (SFB), whose director I had the privilege to be till September 2015. Interdisciplinary work is really exciting, and I am very happy that I was part of this enterprise.

Perhaps the greatest moment of my linguistic career was when I received a call from the DFG that I was awarded the Leibniz-Prize 2014. People call this the German Nobel Prize, and all the money goes to research, which is fantastic! First I was speechless, then I was screaming. It was, and still feels, simply amazing.

While I am clearly a syntactician, interested in the interfaces between syntax and morphology and syntax and the lexicon, more recently, I got interested in multilingualism for a very simple reason. I noticed that I started transferring all sorts of features from English to German to Greek and back, ending up often thinking that I really do not have a native language anymore. Understanding this mixing will help us understand how the human brain deals with the multi-tasking of handling multiple languages. I also got interested in the properties of grammars of heritage speakers, as these have been argued to deviate from native grammars, so I would like to find out more about thess issues. Some of this work is in collaboration with Terje Lonhdal and his group in Trondheim. In this and other recent research we are applying psycholinguistic methods and I am very happy I can use my award money to do research in these areas.

In October 2015 I moved back to Berlin (Humboldt University), and, thanks to Manfred Krifka, back to ZAS. Quite a journey!

I consider myself very fortunate for all the support I have received in my career. I am grateful that I have made great friends in linguistics, collaborating with them is inspiring and entertaining. Most of all, I am extremely proud to have had and still have great students. I am thankful to each and every one of them.



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Featured Linguist: David Adger

Featured Linguist: David Adger

Featured Linguist: David Adger

A few months ago, I was asked by a TV programme to make up a language for their monsters to speak, and with that, my linguistics life completed a cycle. When I was about 11 or so, I grew fascinated with language, mainly from reading Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, a book I still completely love. Le Guin envisaged a world where the words actually created the reality, and every single piece of existence had its own particular name. Fascinated by this idea, and already developing my inner language geek, I started making up languages to explore whether they could work like that. To do this, I had to learn how real languages actually worked. At school, they just taught French and German (and later some Latin), but my local library (sadly closed this year because of government cuts) was full of teach-yourself books on weird and wonderful languages, as well as some pretty impenetrable linguistics books. I think the librarians were a bit perplexed by a twelve year old taking home tomes on philology and grammar he couldn’t possibly understand. They were right, I didn’t understand them at all, but I was so hooked by that point, that I read them anyway, and I guess some stuff sunk in. I remember winning a competition for local schools at St Andrews University, when I was about 16, and buying, with my £20 prize, second hand copies of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (which I still have). Again, I wasn’t really able to understand these books in much depth, but the idea that you could use rigorous, mathematical, means to try to get under the skin of language was, and still is, just endlessly fascinating to me.

I went to Edinburgh University to do Linguistics with Artificial Intelligence, a course that, in classical UK university style, didn’t really exist (they were borrowing the final year of the course from a Master’s programme). There Mark Steedman took us, in ten short weeks, on a whirlwind tour of syntax: from Syntactic Structures, through the context-free debates, to the Dutch Infinitival Complement construction, Combinatory Categorial Grammar and Winograd’s Eliza program. It was, intellectually, one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, and I remember a couple of cases where the security guards had to come throw us out because we were all still pestering Mark with questions an hour after the lecture was meant to have finished.

From then I was really a budding categorial grammarian, and, given that it was Edinburgh, and unification-based frameworks were de rigeur, my undergrad theses (we had to do two) were a Unification Categorial Grammar analysis of purpose clauses and an analysis of fluid-ergativity in Eastern Pomo that suggested unification graphs should be allowed to be cyclic—both of these now lost in the fire that destroyed the old Artificial Intelligence department library in Edinburgh. A natural progression, as I moved to doing a Masters in Cognitive Science, was to HPSG (I was really a bit overly dismissive of the GB research program, thinking it relied too much on filters, and not really realizing that HPSG was really a giant set of filters!) At the same time, though, the power of unification based approaches began to make me feel very unsatisfied as to how good a job they were doing of explaining why languages seemed to be cut from very similar cloths.

My undergrad thesis!

My undergrad thesis!

Just about then, Chomsky’s Minimalist work began to appear, and I thought to myself: hey, this is like categorial grammar with movement, that’s very cool. I’d already begun a PhD in Edinburgh working with Elisabet Engdahl on whether it was possible to graft a Discourse Representation Theory type semantics to a minimalist syntax in order to try to understand the semantic effects (or lack of them) of various object movement operations in Scottish Gaelic as well as other languages. Elisabet suggested I spend some time at UMass Amherst, where I got a taste of what a North American graduate programme was like (way more intensive than the British one!), and there I really learned how to think like a syntactician in Hagit Borer’s syntax course. My thesis ended up arguing that Agr nodes (all the rage then) were associated with a Heimian style semantics (constraining the elements in their specifiers to be discourse familiar). Cross linguistic variation emerged from conditions on which bit of a movement chain was fed to the semantic mechanisms, so in some languages Agr’s semantic effect was masked by other aspects of the syntax. Then Chomsky decreed Agr dead the following year!

Agr or no Agr, I was very lucky and got a job at the University of York, where I slightly neglected syntax for a short period as I panicked about teaching and found myself dangerously capable at administration. York was strong in syntax, and I had great fun working on all sorts of problems with George Tsoulas and Bernadette Plunkett; but York also had a growing sociolinguistics group, and one of Sali Tagliamonte’s students, Jen Smith, and I ended up sharing a spooky old 15th Century townhouse, with George, in York. I began to get interested in thinking about how to understand the morphosyntax of the sociolinguistic variation Jen was documenting for the Buckie dialect of Scots.

photo 3

15th Century Sociosyntax Laboratory

It was frustrating, but ultimately massively rewarding, to try, with Jen, to bring together two quite distinct parts of linguistics, and, this collaboration was crucial in leading to my next job, at Queen Mary University of London. My partner had been working in London since I moved to York, so, in classic junior academic fashion (he was a post-doc at UCL in environmental science) we were living long-distance lives. Then a job came up at QMUL for a sociolinguist. With my newly found credentials from working with Jen, I went down to QMUL and told them all about the syntax of negative concord in Buckie (I even had some chi-squared test results, in amongst the uninterpretable features and movement chains!). Although QMUL really wanted a sociolinguist, they ended up appointing a dyed-in-the-wool minimalist syntactician. QMUL also appointed Colleen Cotter at the same time, and together with Jenny Cheshire, we began to build the department at Queen Mary.

A lot of the next dozen years involved trying to cram in some syntax in between Chairing the Department, developing new degree programmes, trying to raise funding for PhDs and postdocs, and becoming Head of School (which involved trying to understand what colleagues in Film, Comparative Literature or Mediaeval French wanted). I wrote a textbook I’d never intended to, and Daniel Harbour and I began to work on Kiowa, a language he’d been investigating for his PhD, which led to a slightly impenetrable book, and to me being convinced that our theories of phrase structure were both too complex and too lax (echoes of my earlier worries about unification, I think). I also spent a quiet few months on the Isle of Skye working on Gaelic Noun Phrases (thank you, the Leverhulme Trust!), with further fieldwork trips over the Scottish Hebrides to Barra and Lewis, where I pestered the local populations with what they obviously thought were bizarre questions about their language, and discovered many a fine whiskey.

Linguist with Highland Cows

Linguist with Highland Cows

London is an amazing place to do linguistics. There are hundreds of languages to work on, fantastic colleagues, both at Queen Mary and in the larger linguistics community here, and it’s probably because I’m in London that that TV company called me to ask me to make up a language for them, completing this cycle of my linguistic life.




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Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

I suppose that there are some linguists familiar with the fact that I began my fieldwork as a missionary. When I decided to become a Bible translator with Wycliffe Bible Translators/The Summer Institute of Linguistics (legally distinct entities with the same membership and doctrinal allegiance required to be a member of the former), I had no idea what linguistics in fact was. I quickly got an idea, though, as my path took me to the University of Oklahoma SIL summer courses, where I took my first-ever linguistics course with Kenneth L. Pike.

Pike was a huge influence on me at the time. I watched him do monolingual demonstrations in front of large audiences and make the case through personal example that linguistics was a holistic enterprise, engaging the full mind, personality and body of the linguist. I learned from him at the time what I have only recently begun to think of as the most important insight of 20th century linguistics, the etic-emic distinction.

But I was not thinking about linguistics any more than I had to at the time. I realized that my courses in Koiné Greek and my experience with Spanish, growing up on the California-Mexico border had first revealed to me my love for languages and had prepared me to also enjoy linguistics. But my primary objective was to build a church among an indigenous community somewhere in the world.

I did not even have a bachelor’s degree. I had a Diploma in Foreign Missions from the Moody Bible Institute. Though I had done more than would have been necessary for a bachelor’s degree, supplementing my Moody education with general education courses at Grossmont Community College in La Mesa, California, I had never thought about graduate school, aside from seminary. But SIL required graduate-level courses in linguistics to become a Bible translator so I took them, becoming more and more interested in linguistics as a discipline, though giving no thought to linguistics as a career.

As my family and I finished our linguistics training, we went with SIL to Chiapas, Mexico, for “jungle camp” – training in survival skills, first-aid, butchering meat, canning and other forms of food preservation, and “survival hike,” the final examination. In survival hike I was required to spend a week alone in the jungle, after a fifty mile hike, called out at random from among the “jungle campers” with SIL, and allowed to carry no food, no weapons, and only what I had on my person at the time (I walked around with fifty feet of rope, matches, two canteens, and a nylon poncho) all hanging from a military surplus gun belt.

After this, my three children, my wife, and I were assigned to a Tzeltal village, where we were expected to participate in village life, help in daily tasks, learn the language as well as we could in six weeks, write up a “phonemic analysis,” a morphological analysis, and a syntactic analysis of the language, as well as compiling as much of a dictionary as we could manage. We were also given a conversation exam, to test our ability in the language. I worked with men in the fields. But my work was cut short by my first field illness – typhoid fever, gotten honestly by drinking a fermented corn drink with the men. After a night of unpleasantness in the outhouse in our village, my blood pressure had dropped to 60/40 and the local SIL nurses had me carried out by mule to catch a flight to a hospital in the small town of Alta Mira.


After a few days, when I returned to my family in the village, a letter was waiting for me from Steve Sheldon, the new director of SIL in Brazil. He said that because he was now director he could no longer continue his work among a particular tribal group, the Mura-Pirahã, confessing to me that though he spoke the language, he had not been able to “crack its grammar.” Because my grades in linguistics had been high, he wondered if my wife and I might be interested in being assigned by SIL to translate the Bible for these people, whom I had never heard of. He said that three other teams had turned him down before he got to me. I received with this letter an assessment by an SIL anthropologist of the living situation among the Pirahãs. He said it was the most psychologically difficult he had ever seen and that the people had no colorful culture, spoke no Portuguese, and were speakers of a language unrelated to any other living language. I said yes immediately.


When we arrived in Brazil, October 24, 1977, I went as soon as I could for an initial visit with the Pirahãs. While there, I received a radio message that all SIL teams had been ordered out of their villages and that Brazil was trying to label all SIL members as “persona non grata” in Brazil.

As SIL thought of responses to this, I was asked if I would be interested in applying to the graduate program at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) as a potential way of being authorized, as a graduate student at a Brazilian institution, to continue work among the Pirahãs. I said yes immediately again, even though I still did not speak a word of Portuguese. My family and I boarded a bus in Belém, Brazil and took the 60+ hour trip to Campinas, where I went straight to the home of the linguist SIL had told me to contact, Prof. Dr. Aryon Dall’Igna Rodrigues. Aryon, who was to become one of the closest friends and most admired mentors of my life, presented my GRE scores and grades from SIL-affiliated schools (UT Arlington, U of Oklahoma) to the faculty of UNICAMP’s Institute for the Study of Language, and they accepted me into their Mestrado em Linguística program.

Then a transmogrification began to occur, one that I have recounted in various places, especially in my book, Don’t sleep there are snakes: life and language in the Amazonian jungle. Because of my admiration for and friendship with Brazilian linguists and other intellectuals and because of my growing understanding and admiration of the Pirahãs, I began to question my belief in God, my commitment to converting others to Christianity, and just about every value that had led me from Southern California to the Amazon, from the time I was 17.

There was one big catch to my loss of faith, though. An unbelieving missionary is an unemployed missionary. So I began to think that perhaps I might be able to become a professional linguist.


I did my ScD at UNICAMP, the first doctorate in linguistics the university ever awarded. I began to try to publish. Although almost 100% of my first submissions were rejected, I was successful at winning an award from the American Council of Learned Societies for Recent Recipients of the PhD and a grant from the National Science Foundation. And with the backing of Professor Kenneth L. Hale, I was accepted as a Visiting Scholar in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I met to discuss my ideas with Chomsky, Thomas Kuhn (just down the hall then from Chomsky), Morris Halle, Jay Keyser, Luigi Rizzi, and others, including my office mates Pino Longobardi, Adriana Belletti, and Shigeru Miyagawa. I began to get work accepted in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, IJAL, Linguistic Inquiry, and numerous conferences. But still, my educational background was weird – a diploma from a Bible school and graduate work at a then obscure, third-world university (far from that now!). I applied for jobs and made a couple of short lists, at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and UCSD.

At Berkeley I was met at the airport by Chuck Fillmore and taken to his house to stay with him and his wife Lily. It was a surreal experience to be so well treated by one of the most famous linguists in the world. I was walking on air. Interviewed by the graduate students they asked me “We specialize in Californian languages here. Why would we want to hire an Amazonianist? No one works on Amazonian languages in the US.” And as I entered the packed room to give my job talk, the professor walking me in commented “I hope you aren’t going to talk about any of that generative s*&t. We don’t do that here.” My talk was on a generative analysis of Inflectional Phrases and clitics in Pirahã. I didn’t get the job.

Then I received an offer from the University of Pittsburgh and began my ten-year working relationship with Sally Thomason and Terry Kaufman, still two of my best friends and most admired linguists. Chomsky helped me all along, by writing letters of recommendation for my job applications and my tenure application. Rich Thomason told me after I received tenure that “There probably aren’t that many people who get letters from both Chomsky and Geoff Pullum.” Perhaps not.

From this unlikely path, I have worked at UNICAMP, at Pitt, at the University of Manchester, at Illinois State University, and now at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where I serve as Dean of Arts and Sciences. Along the way my students have included Iris Berent, Ted Gibson, Rick Kazman, Eric Nyberg, and many others. I have seen how hard it is to get a job. And I have lamented the lack of good tenure-track positions for the brilliant new linguists, smarter than I, who have gone into this field.

My son, Caleb Everett, quit his job as a stockbroker and commodities dealer with Morgan-Stanley, just after they had assigned him to the World Trade Center, about a month before 9/11. He said he was going to become a professor of linguistics. I asked him to reconsider. “The job market sucks,” I put it eloquently. He responded “Dad, if you can get a job, I can get a job.” And so I learned that pessimism is not all that useful as career advice. One should simply say “If it doesn’t work out, you have at least followed your passion. If it does, the life of a professional thinker, the career of an academic is the best I know of.” Caleb applied to four jobs and received four offers, eclipsing me pretty handily.

So my advice to linguists today is similar to what one of my dearest friends, Peter Ladefoged, told me more than 35 years ago – “There may be 300 PhDs chasing 15 jobs and everyone will think that they are the ones who will get the jobs. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But perhaps the best linguistics of the future will come from plumbers, carpenters, and others.” I publish, teach, and spend my life in linguistics because I am passionate about knowing more about this strange species of primate to which I belong. I love people and their languages. And there are few better ways I can imagine to spend one’s life.




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