Do you say GIF with a hard or soft G? Espresso or expresso? Clothes or close?
Regardless of how you pronounce these words, you’ve likely been corrected at some point in your life.
The first thing students in Macalester’s “Introduction to Linguistics” course learn is that people who police language aren’t just mean—they are wrong.
“So often what people are instructed on in language is what not to do with language,” says assistant professor Morgan Sleeper ’11. “Or having to be careful about your language: ‘That’s not proper English,’ or ‘That’s not proper Spanish.’ Linguists do the opposite. We’re saying all these kinds of languages are amazing and valid and beautiful. We’re going to study them to see what language can tell us about people, because that’s what we study as a social science.”
Linguistics, the scientific study of language, welcomes our endless idiosyncrasies while applying scientific methods to study, document, and often protect languages around the world.
Macalester’s linguistics students, faculty, and alumni are linked by a palpable and contagious enthusiasm for linguistics. By virtue of what they study—how every one of us uses language—linguists, says Edwin Reyes Herrera ’20 (Sonoma Valley, Calif.), are “constantly ‘on’…Once you get trained, you can’t get untrained.”
Where do they see linguistics? Everywhere.
Students in Sleeper’s “Introduction to Linguistics” spend the first half of the semester learning the tools that linguists learn to analyze data. They study the phonetics (sounds), phonology (sound patterns), morphology (word formation processes), syntax (wordorder rules), and semantics (systems of meaning) of language.
During the second half of the semester, he says, students take those analytical tools and begin to look at the social uses of language— how people use language in their everyday lives—as well as language changes, multilingualism, language endangerment and revitalization, and language and education.
“The cool thing about linguistics is that anyone can do at least part of it because we all have experience with language,” says Bryan Ball ’19 (Yakima, Wash.), a linguistics and German double major. “Everyone has a knowledge of how their language works.”
Everyday Linguistics: KINDNESS
“In our department, we have a focus on kindness and scholarship that I’m really proud of. Just the idea of not judging people’s language in a bad way is a big one…Our students also know how tied up language is in things like race and gender and class and international origin, and are then understanding and empathetic of those intersectionalities, rather than not.”
—Professor Morgan Sleeper ’11
Martha Danly ’76 discovered linguistics at the Hinsdale Public Library in suburban Chicago while she was in high school. “There was a magazine article about Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is everything I love!’” she says. “It’s logic. Mathematics. Philosophy. The human mind. Brain science. Behavior. I mean—it can’t get better than this!”
When Danly transferred to Mac her sophomore year, the college didn’t have an official linguistics major, so Danly created her own. She later earned a PhD in experimental psychology from Harvard University. A self-described “intellectual omnivore,” she says “the aperture from linguistics to so many fields is infinite.” Danly, who runs her own consulting business, has spent her career in tech, working on everything from online marketplaces and software migration projects to drones. By studying linguistics, she says she came away with skills that she uses in everything she’s done since leaving Macalester. “My current consulting work is a ginormous software conversion project for a major bank, so I think about syntax—breaking down the work into elements, getting things done in the right order, and dependencies—while seeing the big picture as skills I use every day,” she says.
When he was a kid, Sleeper got really interested in Super Furry Animals, a Welsh punk band. “I listened to the CD all the time, and I would sing along to it in English because I thought it was in English,” he says. “A year or two later, I found out they were singing in Welsh.” This led to Sleeper’s interest in Welsh music and language. He planned to major in music but deferred his Mac admission offer for a year when his family moved to Italy. “I was learning Italian, and I was trying to teach myself Welsh, Chinese, and Finnish,” he says. “I got into the sociocultural issues around how people use language in day-to-day life.”
At Mac, Sleeper majored in linguistics, took music courses, and did fieldwork on Irish music and language. After earning a PhD in linguistics from the University of California–Santa Barbara, Sleeper joined Mac’s Linguistics Department last year. One of his areas of research is identity in Welsh rock music. “My work shows that when people switch between Welsh and English in Welsh rock music, they’re also doing musical shifts that go along with those linguistic shifts,” he says. “It’s the music and the language shifting together that are working to create their sort of unique identities as bands or performers. Everything I do with language and music is basically trying to show that you can look at language by itself, and you can look at music by itself, but if you look at it together, you get more richness out of that analysis.”
Reyes Herrera came to Mac with an interest in journalism and communications. To complete his distribution requirements, he enrolled in “The Sounds of Language,” taught by linguistics chair Christina Esposito. “The class is all about learning how to produce and perceive all the sounds that make up the world’s languages,” says Reyes Herrera. Two weeks into the class, Esposito pointed out a sound element in Spanish, Reyes Herrera’s first language, that he’d never thought about before. “A light bulb went off in my head,” he says. “Later that week I went to her office, and we talked some more, and I was like, ‘You know what? Just sign me up.’ And I declared my major right then and there.”
Now a junior, Reyes Herrera is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship scholar who intends to pursue an advanced degree in linguistics. Last summer he conducted an acoustic analysis of three generations of Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. to learn how Spanish and English had changed over generations. “I really enjoy being able to quantify the language,” says Reyes Herrera. “And I love being able to interpret the numbers…[and] become a part of the language’s community.” His results showed unexpected similarities between the first and third generations—grandparents and their grandchildren—due to strong relationships between the two groups, and a desire by the third generation to stay connected to its language, culture, and family. Reyes Herrera will present his research at the Acoustical Society of America in Louisville this summer.
“Vocal fry is the creakiness at the end of a sentence, or the end of a paragraph, when people change the quality of their voice to indicate they are coming to the end. Linguists have known about it forever, and we all do it. But five or six years ago, the media picked up on its use among young women, calling it a disease that would ruin their careers because it sounded unpleasant. We explore that in my class. It’s one of the ways in which people assign rules to the English language based on power structure and dynamics. It’s a way to criticize young women’s language and criticize young women. It’s a way to say what they are doing is wrong. Who makes those decisions? Who gets to say that we sound unpleasant? Certainly not linguists.”
—Professor Christina Esposito
Every Single Sound
Esposito studies languages, like Hmong, that contrast what is called voice quality in linguistics. “I work on languages that change the quality of the person’s voice, and that changes the meaning of the word,” she says. She demonstrates. “Say that ‘ma’ is a word that means table,” she says. “But ‘ma’ (spoken in a creaky voice) might mean cup, and then ‘ma’ (spoken in a breathy voice) might mean recorder. So it’s not the pitch that’s changing, it’s the voice features that are changing.”
To conduct research, linguists may record language and conduct acoustic analysis, such as measuring sound waves, in a lab. To transcribe spoken languages linguists all use the same tool: the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a universal transcription system that can be used for any spoken language. “So if you think about it as an English speaker, if you were working on a language that had a click, how would you write that down?” asks Esposito. “The IPA has a way to transcribe every single sound that we know about that has been documented in languages, and it’s really useful,” she says. “Because we all have a shared language in linguistics, I can even email data to a friend who’s not here and say, ‘What do you think?’ because we’re all trained in the IPA.”
Macalester linguistics students start learning the IPA in introductory classes. They later use it in their “Field Methods” course to transcribe a language that is not known to them.
“I’m on the cross-country and track teams, and when I’m on a long run, I say words out loud and think about the sounds. My favorite sound is called a voiced bilabial fricative. It’s kind of like your lips are vibrating a bit. It’s not really a ‘b’ or a ‘v’—it’s in between, and that’s why I like it, because it kind of reflects who I am. I’m very proud of my Mexican heritage, and I identify as a Mexican Latino. But, then, at the same time, I understand that I’m second generation—I grew up here. So I feel like I’m always in between, and that sound really shows who I am.” —Edwin Reyes Herrera ’20
Esposito describes a list with 63 sentences in Maasai, a language spoken in Kenya and Tanzania, used in an intro class. Students compare similar forms, and after analyzing the list, Esposito says they can tell her something about the language.
Linguistics major Christina Irvine ’11, who now works at the English Language Center at the University of Denver, remembers the exercise. “We’d get a set of similar short phrases in other
languages, and we would have to decipher the grammar or vocabulary rules,” she says. “In English, it might look like this: 1. The dog. 2. The dog chews. 3. The dog chews bones. 4. The dogs chew bones. 5. The dog chews a bone.”
It seems simple in English, says Irvine, but when the language is unknown, you have to use different formulas to figure out the subject, verb, and object, and how they operate. Irvine describes linguistics as “math with words” and says solving these kinds of puzzles was a favorite part of her linguistics classes.
“This is what linguists spend hours doing,” says Esposito. “Everyone at Mac is trained in writing, reading, articulating, but this is a very uniquely linguistic thing—problem-solving in this way. We’re really good at big, messy, sloppy data, and figuring out what it’s about.”
Because search engines use speech technology and semantics, companies like Google hire linguists, says Esposito. A Mac grad works there now, and another will join Google when she graduates. “Linguistics,” says Esposito, “is going to give you a rich set of tools for use in anything in life.”
All Macalester linguistics majors are required to take the capstone course, “Field Methods,” usually as juniors or seniors. Students meet with a bilingual speaker—often called a consultant—of a language unknown to them and, using their tools as linguists, attempt to understand its structure.
Irvine’s class had a consultant who spoke Cambodian. Bryan Ball worked independently with a consultant who spoke Latvian. “I could see the practical uses for everything I’d learned at Mac,” he says. Meeting weekly with the consultant, Ball worked through first words and then sentences of increasing complexity, recording the sessions and doing transcription as the consultant spoke.
This semester, the consultant is a woman who speaks Karen, a Southeast Asian language spoken in lower Myanmar and the borders of Thailand. “I have been scouring the world looking for something on this,” Esposito says. “The dialect that the consultant speaks seems to be previously undocumented by linguists. So here you have this group of Macalester students working with a consultant, using all the tools they’ve learned in linguistics classes, working on a language that has no prior linguistic documentation. It’s so ripe for research for them. It could lead to publications for them. It’s just an amazing class, and it’s really fun to teach.”
Reyes Herrera is part of the current class. The collaboration with his classmates, he says, is one of the best things about the course. “It’s not just to fulfill a capstone requirement—it’s to start documenting the language and start forging the path for someone else,” he says.
“I was just reading an article about how learning languages and being multilingual as a child makes a positive impact on your memory, IQ, and other mental and cognitive functions. And to think of the juxtaposition of those who perceive that speaking other languages is somehow foreign or evil—that physically pains me.” —Christina Irvine ’11
Endangerment and Revitalization
Does the cat face with heart eyes emoji signal the end of language?
“A lot of people are sort of fire-and-brimstone—‘This is the end times of written language,’” says visiting linguistics instructor Maria Heath. “Emoji are going to kill English, right? And so linguists have to jump in and say, ‘We’re going to study this and prove to you that it’s not something you should be worried about.’”
This semester, Heath is teaching “Internet Linguistics: The Language of Social Media.” Her students have been exploring language use on various social platforms; the curious, “much interesting” grammar of doge memes; and how different generations are using social media. During a small-group discussion about texting, students concluded that their parents are more apt than they are to use emoji in texts.
Internet data, she says, is a great source of people using language in real situations that linguists can analyze. In class, Heath explores internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch’s stance that emoji use may actually point to a language’s health. “If people are using [English] creatively and in a wide variety of contexts,” she says, “that shows that it’s robust and living.”
“Finstagram is a secret Instagram account where you can post anonymously without people judging you based on knowing who you are—it’s different than the Instagram account you maintain for your friends and family. Negotiating anonymity down to the point of having two completely separate identities on the same platform in order to do two different social performances of yourself? That’s super interesting.”
—Instructor Maria Heath
But many other languages are in great danger of being lost forever. Linguists predict that only 5 percent of the 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world are expected to survive into the 22nd century. Ball became interested in the topic after taking the Endangered Languages course. He was struck by what he imagined would be a sad and isolating experience for speakers as a language died.
Ball has applied to work for the State Department and hopes to work in language revitalization. He’s also considering ways he can help locally. Just south of his hometown of Yakima, Washington, is the Yakama Nation, a Native American reservation. “They speak Sahaptin, which has just around 100 people left who speak it,” he says. “I know there is some movement to get young people to speak it. And my hope, if I were qualified to do it, would be to help with that.”
BY JULIE HESSLER ’85 / ILLUSTRATIONS BY JULIE VAN GROL
April 25 2019Back to top