So, you know how most kids want to be firefighters, or doctors, or scientists when they grow up? When I was a kid I wanted to be a librarian. Yes, I was the biggest nerd in the world. It was just that I loved to read and I loved to organize things, so organizing books sounded really good. I also played Scrabble with my mom, and we would look words up in her immense “Shorter Oxford English Dictionary,” which we regarded as the authority on all matters language-related.
When I was 15 we moved to Santiago, Chile. My mother was thrilled because her children were going to learn to speak a second language. So, being 15, I decided I wasn’t going to learn it. Unfortunately, I did, despite my best efforts. So I spent about six months hiding it from my parents until it just got too hard to pretend. We were there for a year and a half. By the end of our time there my Spanish was so good I could fool people into thinking I was Chilean. It’s been downhill ever since.
I graduated in Chile from Santiago College – that was my high school – a girl’s school with the motto “for finer womanhood.” I was 16 and it made perfect sense to me that since I had graduated from high school I was an adult. So I took off overland with my boyfriend and spent three months traveling through South America. My parents, of course, were absolutely horrified. It was quite an adventure and I did live to tell about it. Then the boyfriend and I moved to Prescott, AZ, where we attended a hippy college for a while. Next up, San Francisco, where I went to art school. (Of course.) We lived on a houseboat in Sausalito. I finally dumped art school (no talent, just a love of art supplies) and the BF, and moved to Berkeley.
Eventually I realized I might want to go to college (a real one), and that there was one in the town I lived in. So I applied and got into UC-Berkeley. It took me 7 years to finish. I kept dropping out to do things like hitch-hike through Mexico, but that’s another story. Everyone in Mexico laughed at my Chilean accent so I quickly modified it.
I took random classes in college, just not sure what I wanted to do. But then one day I saw a course listing for a class in the English department that I thought would help me with my crossword puzzles, an obsession at the time. It turned out to be 1965-era Standard Theory, taught as gospel truth. (This was the mid/late-70s.) I was hooked. And OH MY GOD at the end of the semester I discovered there was a whole department of this stuff. That was it, I never looked back. I had finally found the place where I could combine my love of words and my love of organizing things into systems.
Cut to grad school (still at Berkeley – who would want to leave that beautiful place?). I was there in a phase where the only required course in the linguistics graduate program was a 2-semester sequence in field methods. (This is how I managed to get a PhD and never take an actual phonology course!) They were offering two sections the year I took it. I knew one was going to use Vietnamese, and I said, no way, that’s a tone language, I’m not doing tone. The other one turned out to be Mixtec. Nuff said.
Despite the tone, I discovered I loved eliciting and analyzing data. Eventually I did fieldwork in Mexico (and I’ve written about that elsewhere), and wrote my dissertation on the language. After a year’s stint at George Mason University I wound up in the English department at Purdue University. Indiana was a bit of a shock after 14 years in the Bay Area. But I met my husband, Joe Salmons, there, and made a lot of good friends.
The year after I got tenure, though, we moved to Madison to take jobs at the University of Wisconsin. I grew up in Madison, so it was quite strange to return home after all those years. When we moved there I was just finishing up my grammar of Chalcatongo Mixtec, and it seemed like a good time to make a change. Ever since hearing Amy Dahlstrom talk about Algonquian languages in graduate school I had had a bad case of Algonquian envy. Wisconsin has five native languages which are still spoken, three of which are Algonquian. I satisfied my Algonquian envy by starting to work on Menominee, and have continued that ever since. There’s a steep learning curve for Algonquian linguistics, but it’s totally worth it.
A couple of interesting things have happened along the way, to me and to the profession. I didn’t start out feeling like an Americanist – that is, I didn’t feel like I was one of those people who would characterize themselves as working on American Indian languages; I just happened to work on Mixtec (and also a California language called Karuk). But that identity snuck up on me, and I definitely define myself as an Americanist now. The other thing that has happened is that the field has undergone a radical transformation, and me along with it. This is the recognition that the vast majority of the languages we work on are severely endangered, that our work with communities has as much value as our scholarly work, and that we need to take responsibility for helping communities out with language revitalization when and how they want us to.
Documentary and theoretical approaches coexist and enrich each other, and American Indian languages are in the thick of it. When I was in graduate school it was pretty much unthinkable that people from the theory-dominant departments would do fieldwork – now it seems like most everybody does some. And I find myself working with community members on dictionaries of Menominee and Potawatomi, something I never could have imagined myself doing when I was in grad school. The benefits of these changes to the field are enormous, and I think we’re in a much healthier place as a discipline now.
From 2009 to 2014, Joe Salmons, Anja Wanner, Rajiv Rao, and I were the review editors for Linguist List. It was a lot of work but we were proud of the quality (and quantity!) of the reviews we posted. After stepping down from that, I became a co-editor of the Papers of the Algonquian Conference, and last January I became president of the Endangered Language Fund (http://www.endangeredlanguagefund.org/). We give grants for small projects on endangered languages all over the world.
Just a footnote: linguistics ruined Scrabble for me. It’s just that pesky question of what counts as a word! I mean, can you use “ish”?
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