Chair's Message: Sally Thomason looks backward and forward


By Sally Thomason
Jun 21, 2013 Bookmark and Share

Sally Thomason

Professor Sally Thomason

Dear friends of the Department,

It has been yet another exciting year in the University of Michigan's Linguistics Department, especially now with several hundred registered participants in the Linguistic Institute of the Linguistic Society of America about to descend on our campus for four weeks, plus dozens of other people planning to visit during the Institute, June 24 - July 18.  One of our projects this year was to prepare a history of the department, and one thing we learned while doing this was that, in the past, the University of Michigan hosted no fewer than 20 Linguistic Institutes; but the most recent one was in 1973, 40 years ago, so it is definitely our turn again this year.  Robin Queen and Andries Coetzee, ably assisted by the amazing Jennifer Nguyen (Ph.D., UM Linguistics, 2006), have done spectacular work to make this Institute possibly the most successful one ever in terms of numbers of attendees, classes taught by distinguished visiting and local faculty, workshops, evening lectures, and more.  We all hope that many of our alumni will take the opportunity to visit us during the Institute! 

Two signal honors came to members of our faculty this year: Sam Epstein was named an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in recognition of his many contributions to undergraduate education at the University of Michigan; and Bill Baxter was promoted to Professor in recognition of his many contributions to Chinese linguistics, most prominently his co-authored magnum opus on the reconstruction of Old Chinese, supported by 4000+ on-line lexical reconstructions.  In addition, Marlyse Baptista continued her service as President of the international Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics, a highly visible position that speaks to her prominence in the field.

A major departmental event of the 2012-2013 academic year was another job search, this time for a phonetician.  I am delighted to report that, as the result of that search, Jelena Krivokapic will join us as a tenure-track assistant professor this summer, arriving shortly before the Institute begins.

Also in 2012-2013, Pam Beddor led the College's Cognitive Science Task Force, which produced an excellent proposal for a new interdisciplinary cognitive science major.  This proposal was approved by the various College committees, and the new major will be launched in Winter 2014, headquartered in our department.  The first director of the new program will be our own Sam Epstein.

Our main alumni event this past year was our participation in the Rackham Graduate School's Centennial celebration in October 2012. Our department's Rackham Centennial Lecture was delivered by Professor Loraine K.  Obler, Distinguished Professor of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at the City University of New York Graduate School.  Professor Obler holds no fewer than four degrees from the University of Michigan: a B.A. in Religious Studies in 1969, an M.A. in Linguistics in 1970, an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies in 1975, and finally her Ph.D. in Linguistics, also in 1975.

Our undergraduate and graduate programs continue to thrive.  Several dozen seniors received the B.A. in Linguistics and celebrated with us at our graduation reception in early May.  This annual event is one of the faculty's favorite gatherings of each academic year, giving us the opportunity to congratulate our departing seniors and meet their families.

This year we inaugurated a monthly departmental Journal Club, which is designed to bring together faculty and graduate students from all subdisciplines of our field to discuss a particular article.  Among the articles we discussed were Janet Pierrehumbert's `Stochastic phonology' (2001), Shana Poplack et al.'s `Phrase-final prepositions in Quebec French: an empirical study of contact, code-switching, and resistance to convergence' (2012), and Denis Burnham et al.'s `What's up, pussycat? On talking to babies and animals' (2002).  Our regular research groups and other faculty organizations also flourished -- as did Agraphia, a faculty group whose members are all interested non-full-professors, who meet regularly to set writing goals and discuss research problems.

Finally, here are a few more highlights (in addition to the 20 Linguistic Institutes up to 1973 that I mentioned above) from the history of the department.  The first UM faculty member whose title included (general) `linguistics' was Professor Clarence Linton Meader, Professor of Latin, Sanskrit, Russian, Comparative Philology, and General Linguistics, 1893-1935.  Then in 1897, Professor George Hempl was appointed to the newly established Chair of English Philology and General Linguistics. In 1924 the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) was founded, with three UM faculty members among its founding members: Professors Charles C.  Fries, Samuel Moore, and Fred Newton Scott.  (Another founding member of the LSA, Hans Kurath, came to UM later.)  The first UM Ph.D. in Linguistics was awarded to Florence G.  Beall in 1933. The Program in Linguistics was founded in 1945, with Professor Charles C. Fries as its director; it became the Department of Linguistics in 1963. (Be on the lookout for information about our 50th anniversary celebrations over the next few months!)  Three of the department's graduate alumni and five of its faculty members have served as LSA president, the first in 1945 (Charles C. Fries) and the last in 2010 (David Lightfoot, UM Ph.D. 1971).

This letter is almost my last official action as chair of the department; my three-year term ends on June 30, and on July 1 Pam Beddor becomes interim chair.  From the department's viewpoint, Pam's return to the chair's chair is welcome indeed, and we are all most grateful to her for doing this.  You will no doubt be hearing from her in one year's time, with news from this summer's Institute and departmental activities of the 2013-2014 academic year.

Sally Thomason