I suppose that there are some linguists familiar with the fact that I began my fieldwork as a missionary. When I decided to become a Bible translator with Wycliffe Bible Translators/The Summer Institute of Linguistics (legally distinct entities with the same membership and doctrinal allegiance required to be a member of the former), I had no idea what linguistics in fact was. I quickly got an idea, though, as my path took me to the University of Oklahoma SIL summer courses, where I took my first-ever linguistics course with Kenneth L. Pike.
Pike was a huge influence on me at the time. I watched him do monolingual demonstrations in front of large audiences and make the case through personal example that linguistics was a holistic enterprise, engaging the full mind, personality and body of the linguist. I learned from him at the time what I have only recently begun to think of as the most important insight of 20th century linguistics, the etic-emic distinction.
But I was not thinking about linguistics any more than I had to at the time. I realized that my courses in Koiné Greek and my experience with Spanish, growing up on the California-Mexico border had first revealed to me my love for languages and had prepared me to also enjoy linguistics. But my primary objective was to build a church among an indigenous community somewhere in the world.
I did not even have a bachelor’s degree. I had a Diploma in Foreign Missions from the Moody Bible Institute. Though I had done more than would have been necessary for a bachelor’s degree, supplementing my Moody education with general education courses at Grossmont Community College in La Mesa, California, I had never thought about graduate school, aside from seminary. But SIL required graduate-level courses in linguistics to become a Bible translator so I took them, becoming more and more interested in linguistics as a discipline, though giving no thought to linguistics as a career.
As my family and I finished our linguistics training, we went with SIL to Chiapas, Mexico, for “jungle camp” – training in survival skills, first-aid, butchering meat, canning and other forms of food preservation, and “survival hike,” the final examination. In survival hike I was required to spend a week alone in the jungle, after a fifty mile hike, called out at random from among the “jungle campers” with SIL, and allowed to carry no food, no weapons, and only what I had on my person at the time (I walked around with fifty feet of rope, matches, two canteens, and a nylon poncho) all hanging from a military surplus gun belt.
After this, my three children, my wife, and I were assigned to a Tzeltal village, where we were expected to participate in village life, help in daily tasks, learn the language as well as we could in six weeks, write up a “phonemic analysis,” a morphological analysis, and a syntactic analysis of the language, as well as compiling as much of a dictionary as we could manage. We were also given a conversation exam, to test our ability in the language. I worked with men in the fields. But my work was cut short by my first field illness – typhoid fever, gotten honestly by drinking a fermented corn drink with the men. After a night of unpleasantness in the outhouse in our village, my blood pressure had dropped to 60/40 and the local SIL nurses had me carried out by mule to catch a flight to a hospital in the small town of Alta Mira.
After a few days, when I returned to my family in the village, a letter was waiting for me from Steve Sheldon, the new director of SIL in Brazil. He said that because he was now director he could no longer continue his work among a particular tribal group, the Mura-Pirahã, confessing to me that though he spoke the language, he had not been able to “crack its grammar.” Because my grades in linguistics had been high, he wondered if my wife and I might be interested in being assigned by SIL to translate the Bible for these people, whom I had never heard of. He said that three other teams had turned him down before he got to me. I received with this letter an assessment by an SIL anthropologist of the living situation among the Pirahãs. He said it was the most psychologically difficult he had ever seen and that the people had no colorful culture, spoke no Portuguese, and were speakers of a language unrelated to any other living language. I said yes immediately.
When we arrived in Brazil, October 24, 1977, I went as soon as I could for an initial visit with the Pirahãs. While there, I received a radio message that all SIL teams had been ordered out of their villages and that Brazil was trying to label all SIL members as “persona non grata” in Brazil.
As SIL thought of responses to this, I was asked if I would be interested in applying to the graduate program at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) as a potential way of being authorized, as a graduate student at a Brazilian institution, to continue work among the Pirahãs. I said yes immediately again, even though I still did not speak a word of Portuguese. My family and I boarded a bus in Belém, Brazil and took the 60+ hour trip to Campinas, where I went straight to the home of the linguist SIL had told me to contact, Prof. Dr. Aryon Dall’Igna Rodrigues. Aryon, who was to become one of the closest friends and most admired mentors of my life, presented my GRE scores and grades from SIL-affiliated schools (UT Arlington, U of Oklahoma) to the faculty of UNICAMP’s Institute for the Study of Language, and they accepted me into their Mestrado em Linguística program.
Then a transmogrification began to occur, one that I have recounted in various places, especially in my book, Don’t sleep there are snakes: life and language in the Amazonian jungle. Because of my admiration for and friendship with Brazilian linguists and other intellectuals and because of my growing understanding and admiration of the Pirahãs, I began to question my belief in God, my commitment to converting others to Christianity, and just about every value that had led me from Southern California to the Amazon, from the time I was 17.
There was one big catch to my loss of faith, though. An unbelieving missionary is an unemployed missionary. So I began to think that perhaps I might be able to become a professional linguist.
I did my ScD at UNICAMP, the first doctorate in linguistics the university ever awarded. I began to try to publish. Although almost 100% of my first submissions were rejected, I was successful at winning an award from the American Council of Learned Societies for Recent Recipients of the PhD and a grant from the National Science Foundation. And with the backing of Professor Kenneth L. Hale, I was accepted as a Visiting Scholar in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I met to discuss my ideas with Chomsky, Thomas Kuhn (just down the hall then from Chomsky), Morris Halle, Jay Keyser, Luigi Rizzi, and others, including my office mates Pino Longobardi, Adriana Belletti, and Shigeru Miyagawa. I began to get work accepted in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, IJAL, Linguistic Inquiry, and numerous conferences. But still, my educational background was weird – a diploma from a Bible school and graduate work at a then obscure, third-world university (far from that now!). I applied for jobs and made a couple of short lists, at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and UCSD.
At Berkeley I was met at the airport by Chuck Fillmore and taken to his house to stay with him and his wife Lily. It was a surreal experience to be so well treated by one of the most famous linguists in the world. I was walking on air. Interviewed by the graduate students they asked me “We specialize in Californian languages here. Why would we want to hire an Amazonianist? No one works on Amazonian languages in the US.” And as I entered the packed room to give my job talk, the professor walking me in commented “I hope you aren’t going to talk about any of that generative s*&t. We don’t do that here.” My talk was on a generative analysis of Inflectional Phrases and clitics in Pirahã. I didn’t get the job.
Then I received an offer from the University of Pittsburgh and began my ten-year working relationship with Sally Thomason and Terry Kaufman, still two of my best friends and most admired linguists. Chomsky helped me all along, by writing letters of recommendation for my job applications and my tenure application. Rich Thomason told me after I received tenure that “There probably aren’t that many people who get letters from both Chomsky and Geoff Pullum.” Perhaps not.
From this unlikely path, I have worked at UNICAMP, at Pitt, at the University of Manchester, at Illinois State University, and now at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where I serve as Dean of Arts and Sciences. Along the way my students have included Iris Berent, Ted Gibson, Rick Kazman, Eric Nyberg, and many others. I have seen how hard it is to get a job. And I have lamented the lack of good tenure-track positions for the brilliant new linguists, smarter than I, who have gone into this field.
My son, Caleb Everett, quit his job as a stockbroker and commodities dealer with Morgan-Stanley, just after they had assigned him to the World Trade Center, about a month before 9/11. He said he was going to become a professor of linguistics. I asked him to reconsider. “The job market sucks,” I put it eloquently. He responded “Dad, if you can get a job, I can get a job.” And so I learned that pessimism is not all that useful as career advice. One should simply say “If it doesn’t work out, you have at least followed your passion. If it does, the life of a professional thinker, the career of an academic is the best I know of.” Caleb applied to four jobs and received four offers, eclipsing me pretty handily.
So my advice to linguists today is similar to what one of my dearest friends, Peter Ladefoged, told me more than 35 years ago – “There may be 300 PhDs chasing 15 jobs and everyone will think that they are the ones who will get the jobs. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But perhaps the best linguistics of the future will come from plumbers, carpenters, and others.” I publish, teach, and spend my life in linguistics because I am passionate about knowing more about this strange species of primate to which I belong. I love people and their languages. And there are few better ways I can imagine to spend one’s life.