Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell

LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell (March 2015-1)

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell


My journey to becoming a linguist was a circuitous one, taking me first through music, into engineering, then back to music, and finally landing in linguistics. I suppose it began when I was nine years old and I got my first (toy) drum kit for Christmas. I really took to playing the drums, and two years later I got my first real drum set. In high school in Dearborn, Michigan (U.S.), I enjoyed most subjects, but math and science were the ones that came most naturally for me. So, not knowing what else to do, I applied to and then enrolled in the nearby College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. In the meantime, a few friends and I had formed a band, and we began writing music and playing live shows in Detroit and Chicago, inspired by the blissed-out shoegazer rock coming out of England at the time.

At the age of twenty, I realized that I didn’t really want to become an engineer. I had caught the travel bug, and after an eye-opening cross-country road trip to California, I bought my first motorcycle and a tent, and I rode out to San Francisco for a fresh start. Some former bandmates followed shortly after, and we formed a new band, Transient Waves. We built a budget recording studio in our basement, and recorded our first album. This obviously didn’t pay the rent, or anything else for that matter, so I supported myself by waiting tables in restaurants and working in coffee shops. I became friends with many coworkers from Mexico and Central America, and to keep our minds stimulated while cooking and serving pasta in North Beach, we began teaching each other our native languages. That was where my interest in language began.

Several years later, and after two more albums in two more cities, Virginia Beach and Philadelphia, I returned to Michigan. I missed the excitement of the university setting, but not knowing what I wanted to study, I opted to sample many topics in the local Washtenaw Community College, from philosophy, to history, to auto mechanics. What grabbed my interest most was Spanish language and literature. I wanted to build upon my restaurant Spanish and learn the nuts and bolts of how the grammar worked and how it differed from Iberia to Mexico to Argentina, and how it differed from English. With this in mind, I re-enrolled at the University of Michigan and declared a Spanish major.

Since I enjoyed exploring Spanish grammar so much, I took some introductory linguistics courses, and I knew pretty quickly that that was my primary field. One of those first classes was Language and History, inspiringly taught by Bill Baxter. In that class I thought for the first time that I wanted to be a professor some day. A short while later, Sally Thomason allowed me to enroll in her graduate class in historical linguistics. In that class I decided I was going to go to graduate school in linguistics. Sally also connected me with some of her graduate students, and I was a research assistant for Nancy Pérez, making lexical databases of Matlatzinca and Ocuilteco, Otomanguean languages of Mexico, from colonial era and modern sources.

I applied to graduate schools, and I was most drawn to the University of Texas, where there is a vibrant community of faculty and students documenting and researching indigenous languages of Latin America, including speakers of such languages. In my application, my numbers were good, but my statements were relatively weak because I only had a vague idea that I wanted to do historical linguistics and perhaps work on Mayan Hieroglyphic writing. Fortunately, Texas took a chance on me, and near the end of my first year in the program, Hilaria and Emiliana Cruz, graduate students and speakers of San Juan Quiahije Chatino, another Otomanguean language of Oaxaca, Mexico, invited me join their Chatino Language Documentation Project, along with Tony Woodbury. Thus, my initial linguistic research was done in collaboration with native speakers and community members, and that will always remain an important part of my work.

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell (March 2015-2)

Chatino Language Documentation Project members in Oaxaca City, April 2008 Left to right: Alma Delia Cruz Candelario, Eric Campbell, Emiliana Cruz, Gabriel Cruz Peralta, Tranquilino Cavero Ramírez, Tony Woodbury, Hilaria Cruz, Margarita González Hernández


The Chatino group proposed that I work on the divergent, outlying, and little-studied Chatino variety of Zenzontepec. What a great opportunity this was, so I accepted the invitation and made preliminary plans to travel with them to Mexico in the summer of 2007. I learned that Terry Kaufman and John Justeson had included the language in their lexicographic Project for the Documentation of the Languages of Mesoamerica (PDLMA), so I contacted Terry to see what further plans he had, if any, regarding the language. I was surprised and thrilled when that communication turned into an invitation to join the PDLMA and take over the work on the Zenzontepec Chatino lexical database that Troi Carleton had begun, pending an interview with Kaufman and Justeson over tacos during the next Maya Meetings in Austin, and assisted by recommendations from Nora England, Tony Woodbury, and Sally Thomason.

Making a dictionary isn’t typically the way one starts working on a new language, but it suited me well for several reasons. First of all, I’m interested in all levels of linguistic structure and how all of the pieces fit together. To create and check entries in the database I had to first figure out the basics of the segmental phonology, some morphology, basic syntax to identify grammatical classes, how the lexicon is organized into semantic domains, and ethnographic and cultural information associated with the forms. Second, I learned a lot about the language, and about Mesoamerica in general, during that first summer, and I had plenty of data for my M.A. thesis, an analysis of the morphology and phonology of verbal aspect/mood inflection. I didn’t break through the tone system until the second summer. Finally, and importantly, I formed a bond that will last forever with Tranquilino Cavero Ramírez, the Chatino speaker hired by the PDLMA to work with me.

In my third year of graduate school, I was awarded a documentation grant from the ELDP, and began assembling a small team of native speakers to record a corpus of varied genres of language-in-use in the community. With this support, Tranquilino Cavero Ramírez, Flor Cruz Ortiz and I transcribed, translated, and archived the texts, and from these and supplementary data, I am writing a grammar of Zenzontepec Chatino.

Featured Linguist: Eric Campbell (March 2015-3)

Esteban Ruíz Ramírez speaking to Eric Campbell and Tranquilino Cavero Ramírez about traditional plant medicine in El Jicaral, Zenzontepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, Feb. 2010


Since 2012, during the summers I have been involved in workshops for speakers of Otomanguean languages, in coordination with a team of linguists from Mexico and the U.S. It is an exciting time in Oaxaca because there is a growing support for this kind of work and a growing interest in learning linguistics on the part of community members. Unfortunately, many of the languages are endangered, but many still have young speakers. These speakers have some skills in digital technologies now, and because of this there is great opportunity to enhance the maintenance and understanding of these languages.

Now, I’m (very pleased to be!) back in California. I’m in my first year as a faculty member in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s an invigorating intellectual environment where people approach language from various perspectives that all share a focus on understanding language in use, in almost every corner of the globe. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where in this story I became a linguist, but at some point these experiences all shaped me into a person who seeks to understand how languages work, how people use them, how they got to be the way they are, how they are similar to one another, and how they differ. Finally, a crucial factor to my becoming a linguist has been the enduring support of my parents and my wife, without whom I never would have made it through graduate school or gotten here.


Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2015 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List really needs your support!


Leave a Reply