Faculty Spotlight: Jeff Heath


By Ted Stern
Feb 03, 2014 Bookmark and Share

Professor Jeff Heath

Professor Jeff Heath

Professor Jeff Heath (PhD, Chicago ’76) is the department’s very own “linguist-of-all-trades.” His work spans four continents: from the indigenous languages of the Americas, to Australian aboriginal languages, to Spanish and Basque in Europe as well as to Africa. As a true field linguist, he is known for his holistic approach to language documentation and linguistic theory, and has published in the fields of syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology, as well as contact and multilingualism phenomena.

Prof. Heath is a world-renowned expert in several language groups of North and West Africa: the Dogon family, the Songhai languages, the Berber languages as well as Moroccan Arabic. A writer of both descriptive grammars as well as a theoretician, there is no realm of linguistics that is beyond his breadth and scope of knowledge.

These days, Prof. Heath is most active in his research on the Dogon languages and Moroccan Arabic. He is currently preparing a paper on the role of Spanish in Moroccan Arabic for an upcoming conference. It is “The Dogon Project”, however, where most of his current research is focused. At the project website, [link: http://www.dogonlanguages.org]Heath and his collaborators from around the globe have undertaken the mammoth task of describing this Dogon group of West African languages, as well as documenting the culture and society of its speakers. Through videos of the economic activities in which Dogon speakers participate and audio-visual documentation of local flora and fauna, the researchers taking part in the Dogon project have developed a unique and novel new paradigm for eliciting linguistic data in related dialects. This rare combination of imaginative fieldwork coupled with Prof. Heath’s theoretical well-informedness provides linguistics with exciting new discoveries and research.

With Heath’s dynamic and polyvalent interests, it is of no surprise that this semester he is teaching Cognitive Linguistics (LING 545), which gives him the opportunity to share his holistic approach to the intricate network of linguistic subfields and psychosocial paradigms. Last semester, in additional to teaching graduate-level Morphology, he also oversaw a first-year seminar in “Language and Humor.” Not only was there scholarly and critical examination of the pragmatics of humor with this group of first-year students, but students also had comedy improvisation and stand-up workshops! At the end of the semester, Prof. Heath and his students preformed at Ann Arbor’s Comedy Showcase [link: http://aacomedy.com/ ] Open-Mic night.

Prof. Heath’s sheer breadth of work, leaving no stone unturned in the complex linguistic landscape of the languages which he studies, gives inspiration to all University of Michigan linguistics students, who can gain valuable perspective as to the possibilities which linguistics affords. Plus, he always mixes in a good dose of humor.