Letter to Our Alumni
October 18, 2020
Dear Alums of Yale Linguistics:
I hope that this message finds you well and able to cope with the truly challenging times through which we are living. I am writing you as I begin my second year as Chair of the Linguistics Department at Yale. Our department hasn’t been in touch in some time and so I thought I’d write to share some news and establish a channel of communication. Since 2020 sits between two decades, I’ll look both backward and forward.
A friendly warning: this letter is long – but you should feel free to jump around, picking and
choosing what interests you!
As many of you know, the Linguistics Department faculty has changed almost entirely over the last 10 years. Among the senior faculty, Stanley Insler, a Sanskritist who worked exten sively on the history of IndoAryan languages and the literature of ancient India and Iran, retired in 2012. Sadly, he passed away on January 4, 2019, a major loss to all who knew him. Larry Horn, who introduced linguists to the importance of scalar implicature, wrote the book on negation, and made important contributions to lexicography, grammatical variation and lying, retired in 2015. Luckily for us, he is still very much an active member of the department and of the Yale community. Steve Anderson, whose scholarly contributions range over just about all the subfields of linguistics and extend to broader issues such as animal communication and language evolution, retired in 2017. He moved to Asheville, NC, where he continues to pursue his varied interests, both linguistic and otherwise.
The current department faculty includes eight ladder faculty (five tenured and three untenured):
1. Claire Bowern’s research focuses on endangered languages (especially the indigenous languages of Australia) and linguistic change, and extends to cultural evolution. She has been at the forefront of applying methods from computational phylogenetics to the study of language change, building on the rich foundation of work using the classical comparative method. She has wideranging research and teaching interests, and has been very successful at involving both graduate and undergraduate students in her work, as you can see by visiting the website of the Yale PamaNyungan Lab.
2. Veneeta Dayal joined our department in January of 2019. Her research focus is the semantics of natural language and its interface with syntax and pragmatics. She has played an important role in extending the empirical focus of semantic research beyond English. Her work on the languages of South Asia and elsewhere demonstrates how a broader empirical perspective yields deeper understanding of phenomena such as questions, in definiteness and nominal interpretation.
3. Bob Frank is a computational linguist whose work applies computational modeling and mathematical formalization to issues in theoretical linguistics, language acquisition and processing. His work also takes on practical problems in Natural Language Processing and the role that linguistic knowledge can play in their solution. He leads the Computational Linguistics at Yale (CLAY) lab, which brings together students and faculty from Linguistics, Computer Science, Statistics, Math and Public Health.
4. Maria Piñango’s research explores the structure of meaning, how it is computed in real time during language comprehension and how it changes over time. Her focus on the cognitive and neural systems underlying human linguistic abilities has brought together scholars from a broad range of perspectives and intellectual traditions to her recurring Meaning in Flux workshop, and has attracted a devoted set of graduate and undergraduate students to her Language and Brain Lab.
5. Jason Shaw’s research investigates how phonological form structures natural variation in speech and how this variation is interpreted by listeners. His approach combines language description with formal computational models and experimental methods that probe the temporal unfolding of speech planning, production, and perception. He has established an active state-of-the-art lab for speech research (in the basement of Dow Hall) and actively collaborates with Haskins Laboratories.
6. Natalie Weber is a recently minted PhD who joined us in 2018 as a theoretical phonologist with research interests in the syntaxphonology interface, especially the relationship between syntactic and prosodic constituents and the phonological realization, lineariza tion and interpretation of morphemes. Their empirical focus is Algonquian languages, Blackfoot particularly. They have brought to Yale the newly established Blackfoot Lab, devoted to documentation, preservation and revitalization efforts.
7. Jim Wood’s research focuses on morphology and syntax and their interactions with semantics, with a special empirical focus on Icelandic and dialect variation in English. His work on Icelandic has explored a diversity of phenomena revolving around issues of case marking and argument structure. His interests in dialect variation have been a foundation for the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, where he has led efforts in applying the latest techniques in geospatial mapping of linguistic data.
8. Raffaella Zanuttini works in the area of comparative syntax. She has carried out extensive studies on the syntactic expression of negation and clause type. Currently, she is exploring evidence for the syntactic encoding of the notions of speaker and addressee. Her interest in comparing minimally different languages led her and Larry Horn to found the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, which makes accessible to the broader public the significance of syntactic variation across North American English.
As you can see, we still cover the areas that have traditionally been represented at Yale (historical linguistics, morphology, phonetics and phonology, syntax and semantics), but we also have faculty doing research in subfields that have developed more recently, like neurolinguistics and computational linguistics. On the methodological side, our faculty continues to gather data through fieldwork and experimental methods, which are now used in a wide range of subfields, but we also employ and develop new computational methods.
We are proud to be able to build on the past as we look to the future. Because our research interests are quite broad, one priority in planning our future is to ensure sufficient critical mass in each of the various research areas, so that students and faculty can work in an environment that allows them to do their best. We are planning to do so both by building and/or strengthening ties with other members and units with shared interests within Yale and, when possible, by increasing the number of faculty members through new hires.
We continue to offer a major in Linguistics and to be blessed with a very talented set of under-graduate students who take our courses and often also participate in our research. Our seniors continue to write extremely interesting senior essays, some purely in linguistics, some combining linguistic analysis with other interests, which range from anthropology to computer science to music and poetry. You can explore the senior essays of the last 10 years (and a few more) by looking at the BA Alumni page. (Please let us know if your Yale senior essay is not listed and you would like us to add it. We’d love to do so!) In recent years, we have noticed a growing interest in our field from undergraduates who major in math, statistics, computer science and more generally who are interested in using quantitive and experimental methods. They form a nice complement to the students who come to us with a strong interest in the humanities. We keep both in mind as we plan our offerings and the future of our program.
Our graduate program is healthy and thriving as well. Over the last ten years, we have witnessed a noticeable jump in the number of applications and a steady increase in domestic and international applicants with a strong background in linguistics. Our graduate students work on topics that span the full range of faculty research interests and move it in novel and exciting directions, as you can see from the titles of their dissertations on the PhD Alumni page. (Do let us know if your Yale dissertation is not listed on this page, and we’ll gladly add it.) While many of our PhDs continue to pursue a career in higher education, it has become common for many to pursue positions outside of academia. We see this among the six students who finished their dissertation over the past year: Rikker Dockum is now a visiting Professor at Swarthmore; Dolly Goldenberg is a Computational Linguist at Apple; Martin Fuchs a Post doctoral Researcher at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics; Parker Brody is a Computational Linguist at Lausanne Business Solutions; and Matthew Tyler is a Junior Research Fellow at Christ’s College at the University of Cambridge. Yale Linguistics is also the home of a new language program in American Sign Language (ASL). This program is the result of an initiative that started in 2017, stimulated by the efforts of Kate Rosenberg ’18, an undergraduate Linguistics major and cofounder of the ASL at Yale club. Kate
observed that while ASL study was available at Yale, it was possible only via noncredit instruction that did not count towards the Yale College language requirement, and asked that we consider the possibility of adding ASL to our regular course offerings. This started a journey of exploration by the Linguistics faculty that led to a very happy ending: we added American Sign Language as a new subject of study at Yale, with full support from students, faculty and the administration. The program is still in its infancy, but we are working hard so that it can develop and flourish. It fills a gap in Yale’s language offerings, meets the interest of an ever growing number of students and faculty, and moves us toward a more inclusive Yale.
Outreach Activities and Social Events
We have started a number of activities meant to bring us together as a group and to allow us to share with others, inside and outside Yale, what linguists do and what we know about language. In Fall 2013 Tom McCoy, ’17 and Aidan Kaplan, ’17, two first year undergraduate students who had been exposed to linguistics in high school through the North American Computa tional Linguistics Open competition (NACLO), suggested that we offer the same opportunity to middle and high school students from the New Haven area. Thanks to their initiative and leadership, we began to bring linguistics to local schools, through visits, classes taught at Splash and Sprout, and by hosting middle and high school students in our department for Sunday afternoon training sessions and for the competition. The commitment, the energy and the effort that our students put into this effort are quite impressive and impactful. We have now hosted the NACLO training sessions and the competition (both the open round and the invitational round) for 7 years straight, introducing hundreds of local students to Linguistics.
On the social side, in Fall 2014 Tom and Aidan, with help from Alexa Little ’16 and Kyle Parsard ’16, founded the Yale Undergraduate Linguistics Society (YULS), whose goal was to raise funds for NACLO and to organize linguistics social events, including screenings of linguistically themed films, group dinners and study breaks. A favorite event of this group, continued to this day, is playing of board games. Tom orchestrated the creation of IPA Scrabble, which is still played and is prominently displayed in our department’s seminar room.
Thanks to the impetus of our graduate student Jason Zentz PhD ’16, we have been participating as a department in the New Haven Reads Spelling Bee. The event is a fundraiser for New Haven Reads, a local nonprofit organization that works to promote literacy in the Greater New Haven. It is also a lighthearted affair held right before Halloween, complete with refreshments and teams with costumes and punny team names. For us, it is an occasion to contribute to our local community while strengthening departmental camaraderie, as we get together before the event to create the two teams that will represent our department and the night of the event to cheer them on. In 2018 one of our teams won the spelling bee and got to bring the trophy to the Linguistics Department, where it generated smiles for the following year.
Faculty and students involved in the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project (YGDP) have been working to engage the broader Yale and New Haven community on issues related to linguistic variation and people’s attitudes toward varieties of English that depart from the standard. They have prepared a presentation on this topic and given it to Yale faculty and staff, and to teachers and students of English at a local high school. These audiences have been grateful to hear linguists’ perspectives on these issues and for the opportunity to reflect on their own attitudes toward different varieties of their own language.
Twice over the last decade, two of our alumnae were awarded the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal, an honor that is granted to the most distinguished graduates of the Yale Graduate School. The entire department enjoyed hearing Sally Thomason PhD ’68 and Marianne Mithun PhD ’74 present their exciting research, while gaining valuable perspective about our recent history from their recollections of their experiences at Yale. Some of our conversations also brought to light the many challenges that women faced, as scholars, just a few decades ago.
We are striving to grant opportunities to a wider set of people and add new voices to our faculty. For a department that until 2008 never had a woman among its senior faculty, it is striking that four of the five tenured faculty members are now women, including the Chair. Maria Piñango was both the first woman and first person of color to be granted tenure in Linguistics at Yale. We plan to continue on this path of extending opportunities and widening representation. We are also committed to creating an environment where everyone feels respected and valued, as an individual and as a scholar.
We continue to focus on improving the experience of our majors, our graduate students and all the students we come in contact with, through our courses and our research. Both our majors and our graduate students benefit from a strong sense of community, which helps them in their personal and academic journey, and in achieving their goals. And we continue to be visible within our field at large, thanks to the efforts of our faculty and students. Within the Linguistic Society of America, our major professional organization (which Yale linguists helped found nearly a century ago), Larry Horn is currently serving as Vice-President and will serve as President in 2021, and Claire Bowern has recently been elected a Fellow.
For all these reasons, though we all feel a great sense of overall uncertainty at this particular moment, I feel proud of our steps forward and am optimistic about the future. Please come visit the Linguistics Department, either online or in person (when the pandemic is finally over). We’d love to see you again! Now that everything is on Zoom, you could even consider joining our coffee hour (which is on Mondays, at 3:30 or at 4:00) or attending a talk. All events are listed on our home page. If you have ideas you’d like to share or thoughts on how to keep in touch, please send me a note (firstname.lastname@example.org). It would be great to hear from you, our alums.
Raffaella Zanuttini Professor and Chair