The following story was kindly written for us by internationally recognized linguist and editor of the Oxford Handbook of Historical Phonology, Patrick Honeybone!
I think I’ve been very lucky in my career in linguistics. I was lucky that I grew up in a family where it was normal and fun to speak other languages (even though we were landlocked in the East Midlands of England). I was lucky that the schools I attended were big enough and had enough resources to let me take several languages (I’m astonished when I think back that they ran an A-level class in German just for me – I don’t think that would happen in the UK right now). I was lucky that by the time I got to think about where to study, I’d just about figured out that some universities taught linguistic things as part of their languages degrees, and that I should apply to one that did. And I was lucky that, weeks after starting a BA degree in French and German at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, I realised that I really didn’t want to study literature at all, but that Newcastle actually had the perfect degree for me – German and English Language – and they let me swap programmes without any problem.
In the UK, ‘English Language’ means something like ‘the synchronic and diachronic linguistics of English’, and this degree allowed me to study all kinds of things that still fascinate me now: the history and structure of varieties of English and German (and other languages), phonology, other areas of structure like syntax and morphology, sociolinguistics, dialectology, and even the history and philosophy of linguistics. I was lucky that my BA meant I got to spend a year studying in Germany (in Würzburg), where I got properly introduced to the wonders of Germanic-style historical grammars. I was lucky that Newcastle had some exciting lecturers, who showed me all sorts of interesting linguistic ideas, and I was lucky that they introduced an MA programme in Linguistics just as I was trying to figure out what I could do after my BA. I was lucky that I could get funding from the state for an MA, and then for a PhD, and that Newcastle offered the space to think, to combine theoretical and historical phonology, and to figure out that you can make a living out of it all.
I was also lucky that I had some great friends who did degrees at Newcastle at the same time as me, who went with me to my first linguistic conferences, and who made it seem normal to be interested in linguistics. I was lucky to get a job in academia before I finished my PhD. Lucky and stupid: it took another three years to get my PhD after that, but I was lucky to have a kind and helpful set of colleagues at Edge Hill College (now Edge Hill University), who – though we all had a lot to teach – created the space for me to finish my thesis. I was then absurdly lucky to get a job at Edinburgh, where I have found many fantastic colleagues, I have the luxury of teaching just what I want to teach, and where we have managed to set up a group of people interested in historical phonology that is as diverse and interesting as you could hope to find anywhere in the world. My mind is constantly fizzing from the ideas that I get to talk about with colleagues here, and I am also lucky that I’ve supervised some very smart postgraduate students – I’ve learnt a lot from them, too.
Some visionary colleagues set up the Manchester Phonology Meeting just before I was beginning to awake to the marvels of phonology, and that has become a wonderful part of my life. I attended the conference in awe early on during my PhD and I was enthused to see what exciting discussions can take place at a linguistic conference (and how much fun can be had at them). I was excited that these colleagues allowed me to take over the running of the mfm in 2002 (when I was at Edge Hill, which while not in Manchester, was at least in the North-West of England). I have had the privilege to run the mfm (together with a large roster of colleagues from around the world) ever since, and I am constantly grateful that so many interesting people want to come and talk with us about phonology. I seem to run a lot of conferences, which might be a foolish thing to do, but I think that meeting to discuss ideas is crucial, and I like to think that getting the right atmosphere in an event (being open and welcoming, but also offering the chance for the serious discussion of ideas) is quite important. The series of Symposiums on Historical Phonology that we have set up at Edinburgh has also become a great aspect of my life, and I feel lucky that colleagues are interested enough to come to Edinburgh to talk about the many aspects of historical phonology that we all bring together (including: phonological theory, phonetics, sociolinguistics, dialectology, philology, reconstruction and acquisition).
I’ve been lucky that I have been trusted to edit a range of interesting things (like the Handbook of Historical Phonology, English Language and Linguistics, and Papers in Historical Phonology), and I’m lucky that I think (I hope!) that some colleagues have forgiven me if I have not delivered everything that I have promised when I took on too much. Most importantly, I’ve been lucky to have a fantastic family, who support me in all kinds of ways and who work things out so that I can go away for the kinds of trips that academics need to take (and who never cease to remind me that there is a lot to life outside of linguistics).
So: yes – I think I’ve been very lucky. But I also think that you make your own luck. There have to be opportunities available to take, but you also have to figure out what the opportunities are and then how to grab them. And you also have to work out what might work as a new opportunity and then figure out how to implement it – that can be a lot of fun. Finally, I think that we are all very lucky that there is the LINGUIST List. I really don’t think that I could have done everything that I’ve done without it (it’s crucial to publicise conferences, for example, and I make a lot of use of the EasyAbs abstract management system). We are lucky that it’s a fundamentally free and entirely open access way of communicating with all colleagues who are interested in linguistics, anywhere in the world. We should all give what we can in this Fund Drive to keep the LINGUIST List going!