Featured Linguist: Lisa Matthewson (The University of British Columbia)
Tēnā koutou katoa – K’alhwá7al’ap – Simgigyat, sigidim haanaḵ’, ͟ganhl k’uba wilxsihlxw – Greetings to all of you! The first of these greetings is in Māori, reflecting my New Zealand heritage. It literally means something like ‘You all plural.’ The second is in St’át’imcets, the Salish language I have been working on since 1992, and literally says something like ‘You plural are apparently there.’ The third is in Gitksan, the Tsimshianic language I have been working on since 2010. However, Gitksan doesn’t really do greetings. To a friend, informally, one could just say ‘Nit! – literally the third person independent series 3 pronoun. But the words above are a traditional way to begin a speech, and translate as ‘Male chiefs, female chiefs, princes and princesses.’
Rather than telling my story in chronological order, I’d like to start with what happened to me just last Friday. I am currently researching discourse particles in Gitksan, and I was trying to test my hypothesis that the particle ist is used whenever the speaker is fully answering the current Question Under Discussion. In order to test this – following up on a suggestion by Norvin Richards – I was asking my consultant whether Gitksan versions of discourses like the following sound good, with ist in the second utterance:
A: I don’t want to know whether Bob came to the feast.
B: He came.
My consultant decided to teach me about his language that day by using the metaphor of how the passed-away Gitksan people would react. The really bad discourses had them spinning in their graves. Not-so-bad ones had them turning halfway; for some, they would just twitch their toes, and for the ones that were actually good, they rested peacefully. This may sound gruesome (and I felt bad that I was torturing them so much!), but he assured me it was just a metaphor and all in fun.
That, right there, is why I’m a fieldworker. I actually get paid to have this much fun.
As for how I got to be this lucky and have this amazing job, it began, I think, with my high school German teacher, Wilma McMillan. She was maybe not viewed as ‘cool’ by teenagers, but I loved her. She played with the language unrelentingly, and German class was never boring. I will never, ever forget that Nacht ‘night’ is a feminine noun, because Frau McMillan told us it was obvious: What do men think about at night? Women! (With my adult brain, I know that this is not only sexist but heterosexist. But still, I’ll never forget the gender of Nacht.) Similarly her explanation of the hard-to-translate word gespannt (anxious/excited, but not quite either of those) involved much enthusiastic body language and emotion. Impossible to forget.
But there was, in fact, a single defining moment that made me a linguist. I’ve told this story many times to friends and acquaintances. It was in my first linguistics lecture in my first year of university. Our professor, Ray Harlow, explained and proved that the ‘p’s in the words pit and spit are pronounced differently. What?! Seriously?! But they’re both p’s! How does my brain know that? How do I know to pronounce them differently, yet I hear them as the same? From that moment on, I never wanted to do anything else in my career but find out how language works.
Other defining moments stand out like snapshots along the way: a talk by Donna Starks during my undergraduate studies in New Zealand, about her fieldwork on Algonquian (‘Hmm, intriguing idea: one can go places and find out about interesting languages?’) … a talk by Max Cresswell around the same time (‘Why is he so obsessed with donkeys? I am confused, but yes, those are interesting sentences!’) … my MA supervisor, Laurie Bauer, telling me if I didn’t get a PhD and become a linguist he would eat his hat …
Then, my first meeting with a real Salish speaker, Mrs. Dorothy Ursaki, in a Field Methods class at UBC. I was terrified, but she was the sweetest, kindest lady, even if my first attempt at transcribing a pharyngeal had me hearing it as a nasalized back vowel. And of course, my first trip to St’át’imc territory. I was petrified again, because I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the language yet (it contains ejective lateral affricates), so how could I dare to work on it? I was so scared that I couldn’t even concentrate on the spectacular British Columbia scenery and resorted to my fall-back position, reading a book while we drove. Henry Davis laughed at me for that. But from my first day in St’át’imc territory, I was welcomed and I was hooked. We worked in the beginning with three remarkable women: Beverley Frank, Gertrude Ned, and Rose Whitley. They have all sadly passed away, but they were all passionate about their language, and they were all dear friends.
Since I have the floor right now, I’ll say a bit about my beliefs about linguistics. I believe that there are important and deep similarities across languages, and we should search for them in order to uncover what might be innate. There are also many important differences across languages – more than many believe, especially in the semantics. These differences should also urgently be worked on. Not all languages are like English. English does not equal ‘natural language’, and we shouldn’t assume that it does. (We can temporarily assume it does for the purpose of a null hypothesis, which we then attempt to falsify by scientific testing.) Endangered languages need to be researched by as many people as possible, and we also need to give our full support and help to revitalization and retention efforts.
This isn’t supposed to be an acknowledgments piece, but I want to mention that dozens of people have helped me have this job I am so lucky to have. Family, friends, teachers, mentors, consultants, colleagues, co-authors, students, postdocs, and funding sources – far too numerous to name. Oh, and of course, The Linguist List! (How else would I have found the relevant job postings?)
Kia ora – Kukwstum’ckál’ap – Ha’miiyaa – Thank you!