Featured Linguist: Joe Salmons (University of Wisconsin – Madison)
‘Featured linguist’ blurbs used to directly address the question ‘how did I become a linguist?’. Every single day I think about that, how lucky I am to be a linguist and one doing what I’m doing.
Growing up mostly just outside Kings Mountain, North Carolina, from first grade into college I was a really weak student and came close to dropping out of high school. But I graduated and stumbled into the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and into Philosophy and Foreign Languages, departments with amazing profs who worked hard to help me along. About halfway through, things clicked, especially in the philosophy and history of science, and I just worked on learning languages, especially German. Philosophy courses didn’t yield big answers but I learned something about how to approach problems. The German program made it possible for me to go to Germany one summer, my first trip ever outside the southeastern U.S. Both things were life changers.
To understand the historical underpinnings of some of the exciting stuff in philosophy, I went to get an MA in German at the University of Texas at Austin. Here again, things clicked because of a professor and a subject. Learning languages was fun, but there were weird things going on, say, where German word forms did and didn’t have umlaut or which nouns took which gender. I took the required course in the history of the German language with Edgar C. Polomé; every session answered those kinds of questions and things I hadn’t known enough to wonder about. I could never quite figure out the rules for how to think and argue in literature classes, but this was familiar turf: Figuring out generalizations about data. And even if Karl Verner and Hermann Paul weren’t always presented in terms of hypothesis testing and theory building, it was easy to see a science developing and advancing.
I learned from Edgar for the rest of his life. Most of my History of German: What the past reveals about today’s language was directly shaped or inspired by Edgar, but it’s his insistence on trying to see the big picture, language structure integrated into history and society, that drove the writing of that book.
After grad school, I got a job at Purdue University, where I soon met Monica Macaulay, another featured linguist in this fund drive. She changed my life completely, not just because we came to spend all our time together, but because she knew mountains of stuff about linguistics. Before long we’d co-authored our first article, the classic “Offensive Rock Band Names: A Linguistic Taxonomy” (Maledicta 10.81–99, 1989). From her and others, I saw that understanding language change demanded understanding linguistic theories and thinking about problems beyond just sound change. I’m still trying to do that.
And Monica and I got married. I played bass and guitar in a lot of bands in those years, including with the Nailbiters, Mobile Home and Carnival Desires but mostly with Rusty Cow recording artists, Phrogs, who rocked the wedding.
When the chance came to move to Wisconsin, where Monica had grown up, we jumped. That the great Germanist Rob Howell was (and still is) here was key and the history of Wisconsin linguistics is irresistible —people like Frederic Cassidy, Einar Haugen, Eduard Prokosch, Morris Swadesh, W. Freeman Twaddell and others taught here and W.P. Lehmann, Robert D. King, Dennis Preston and others studied here. Lester W.J. Seifert — universally called ‘Smoky’ — has come to exemplify Wisconsin linguistics for me. He taught an amazing range of courses in and far beyond Germanic linguistics but also taught German language on Wisconsin Public Television and travelled the state to talk to community groups about language, in addition to making early recordings of heritage German across eastern Wisconsin. He didn’t just teach and research, he engaged the state in what he was doing and why it mattered.
With time, it became possible to follow in Smoky’s (and others’) footsteps. Tom Purnell and then Eric Raimy joined the faculty and we started the Wisconsin Englishes Project (http://csumc.wisc.edu/wep/), doing research, teaching and doing outreach using regional language and dialect as a hook.
We’re still trying to understand language in its full context, from the social setting to cognition. That work has offered incredible opportunities, like editing Diachronica and working with the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, both rich collaborations with new chances to learn.
To be able to do these things with the students and colleagues I collaborate with is humbling but it’s also a pure joy and easy pleasure.
What a trip, and it’s not over.
For more than five years, Monica and Anja Wanner, Rajiv Rao and I had the privilege of editing book reviews for LINGUIST. We saw up close how hard the LINGUIST staff and especially students work to provide us all with so many resources. Those resources wouldn’t have replaced all the support I got from so many generous people along the way, but they sure do supplement that kind of support. Step up and support LINGUIST.