Featured Linguist: Bonny Sands

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

Professor Bonny Sands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,
– The LL Team

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