April 2017 Member Spotlight: Donna Jo Napoli
Donna Jo Napoli is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. Previously she taught (in reverse chronological order) at the University of Michigan, Georgetown, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Smith College. She worked in theoretical syntax for the first half of her career and then got involved in sign language studies and now works mostly in four areas: the linguistic creativity of taboo language, the analysis of all components of the grammar of sign languages, advocacy for language rights of deaf children (with a team), and producing ebooks for deaf children (with Gene Mirus of Gallaudet). After a BS in Mathematics at Harvard, she got a Ph.D. in Romance Languages at Harvard, and then did a postdoc in linguistics at MIT. She's taught around the world and held fellowships in the Netherlands, Australia, England, Ireland, and Italy.
The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.
Q: When did you first join the LSA? 1972. I took my first linguistics course (with Janet Fodor) and she lit a fire under me.
Q: How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined? These won't be in any particular order, since I don't have years written down. But I've served on many LSA committees: Executive Committee; Language in the School Curriculum Committee; Membership Committee; Nominating Committee; Status of Women in Linguistics Committee (chaired); Undergraduate Program Advisory Committee; Linguistics, Language, and the Public Interest Award Committee (chair). I also served on the Editorial Board of LANGUAGE.
Q: What are you currently researching? This is hard to answer. I have a range of things I'm involved in, nearly all of them with a range of collaborators. Rachel Sutton-Spence, Ronice Quadros, and I have just finished up a project on the effects of predicate type on word order in Libras. That project, like most, opened up more questions than it resolved ... so we hope to continue on some of those. I've also been working steadily with Nathan Sanders on issues of biomechanics and how they affect sign language phonetics -- looking at more than two dozen languages. This has grown into a program for how to analyze the movement parameter of signs with respect to diachronic studies. I've been working steadily with Lorraine Leeson on issues of reference and visual geometry, using narratives in Irish Sign Language to make comparisons between sign language narrative and other kinds of visual narratives. I've just started working with Casey Ferrara on the mathematics of spatial relationships in ASL. By myself, I've just opened up work on what I call iconicity chains -- where some physiological sensation (of the somatosensory system) is mapped into a visual reality which is then mapped into an abstract semantic sense. I see these iconicity chains as possibly comparable to what happens in mimetics in spoken Japanese and Korean. What I'm finding as I age is that I'm going back to interests I had long ago. My first degree was in mathematics -- and I never lost my love of it. I'm seeing more and more connections between math and language.
Q: What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study? Good grief -- there are so many favorites. But if I'm going to put aside all fears of people labeling me a dinosaur, I have to say that Richard Kayne's FRENCH SYNTAX is my all time favorite. I used to lose myself in the footnotes. Everyone can learn from that book how to use footnotes as a service to the field. That is, we all have insights -- we might know that somehow A connects to B -- but we just might not be able to find the evidence right now. If we put those hunches in footnotes, we start others thinking about it, and maybe they can find the evidence. The field can move forward in giant leaps if we all do that. We have to put aside our egos -- our fear of being shown to be wrong. So what if we're wrong? When others show we're wrong, that advances the field, too. And, hey, what if we're right?
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today? Maybe the need to adjust to the changing landscape. I think the day of simply doing research in theoretical linguistics and talking only to other linguists about it is past. The LSA has certainly made important advances in two areas I think are critical. One is connecting to other disciplines. The other is appreciation of applications of linguistics. Linguistics has a terrific amount to add to many different types of inquiry; we should be connecting to scholars who are dealing with any problems that involve language -- from the humanities to the natural sciences. And linguistics has a terrific amount to teach the world about culture and society; we should eschew any kind of snobbery about what the field truly is. Yes, of course, anyone who does linguistics needs to understand how to analyze a grammar. But it is just as legitimate to apply that analysis to practical matters challenging society as it is to apply that analysis to understanding the human brain. What makes us linguists is our common focus on the study of language. What makes us valuable to the world is how that study impacts our knowledge of ourselves and our societies.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field? It's so hard to answer that question. From the practical standpoint, the field needs linguists and linguists need employment, so all services related to employment are of critical importance to both individuals and the field. From the discipline standpoint, LANGUAGE comes in first in my mind, but the summer institutes are not far behind. Right now the linguistics dept I teach in is large and thriving -- we are lucky. But I was alone for a while and then with just one colleague and then with just two. It was slow-going. We sent students to the summer institutes all the time, to help enrich their program -- because we were just too few to have a broad set of offerings. And even though we have grown a lot, we still send students regularly to the summer institutes -- now more for depth of offerings and for specialties we do not cover.
Q: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics? I've been teaching in an undergraduate institution for 30 years -- though I am fortunate enough to have taught graduate students before that and to have taught graduate students at various other institutions in recent years, and, finally, to be pulled onto dissertation committees now and then (this past year one in Brazil and another in Italy -- both were quite lovely). That said, I do indeed often advise people who want to pursue a career in linguistics -- mostly undergraduates considering applying to graduate school. My first question is: Is there anything else you have a passion for that has more likely career possibilities than linguistics? It sounds harsh, but my first loyalty must be to people -- to my students, in particular. I have seen too many truly smart, productive linguists have to leave the field for lack of employment. I don't want my students to be among them in the future. But if someone tells me that linguistics is the love of their life, then I commiserate (briefly) and offer advice. First, work on a non-Indo-European language. Sure, go ahead and continue working on whatever European languages you might have been working on before -- but add in a nonIE language and really plunge into it. Yes, the world's languages have a ton in common. But we are learning every day that things we didn't expect to happen do, in fact, happen ... we just hadn't looked far enough before. Second, build up knowledge of how linguistics relates to some other field. Do research that connects the fields. Read widely. Third, consider the community whose language(s) you are exploring. Get involved in whatever way you can in giving back to the community. Get involved in the ethics of fieldwork and of working on endangered languages and of working on the languages of oppressed people. If you do these things, you may open yourself up to possibilities for jobs in a variety of academic departments as well as employment in the public sector. And if you do these things you will surely be intellectually enriched and get more satisfaction out of your work -- more contentment in yourself as a giving person. That's the point, after all.