December 2016 Member Spotlight: Arthur Spears
Arthur K. Spears is Presidential Professor Emeritus at The City University of New York. He was in Linguistics and Anthropology at The Graduate Center and Anthropology at The City College, where he served as chair for many years and was also Director of Black Studies. A lifetime LSA member since 1998, he has been a member and is currently chair of the Committee on Ethnic Diversity in Linguistics (CEDL). His research focuses on language in society and culture, dealing principally with African American English and Haitian Creole. His research areas are pidgins/creoles, race and ethnicity, education, grammatical analysis, and communicative practices. Two fondly remembered highlights of his journey in language were studying in South America’s Southern Cone as a Fulbright Grantee and working as a traveling interpreter for national and international organizations during his graduate school days. His latest work is a textbook, edited with Marianna Di Paolo: Languages and Dialects in the U.S.: Focus on Diversity and Linguistics (all royalties go to the LSA to support CEDL travel grants).
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? Somewhere between 1969 and 1971; I can’t remember exactly.
Q: How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined? Mostly I have given papers at the annual meeting. Over the last two decades, I’ve given most papers at sister society meetings, running concurrently with LSA (the American Dialect Society and the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics). I’ve also presented at symposia and recently co-organized a symposium for the 2017 annual meeting, “Inclusion and Excellence in Linguistics.” In the past I served as a member of CEDL and currently serve as chair. With Marianna Di Paola, I edited an introductory textbook, Languages and Dialects in the U.S.: Focus on Diversity and Linguistics, intended to promote diversity by providing materials for instructors to engage beginning students in linguistic and diversity issues at the same time. We used language diversity in the U.S. as a lead-in for thinking about societal diversity. This book was a follow-up to Penny Eckert’s original idea. All of the royalties are contributed to the LSA to support CEDL travel grants.
Q: What are you currently researching? Race, grammar, and history (perhaps an unusual combo) as they relate to African American English (AAE). This work primarily examines overlooked and sometimes hard to explain grammatical features and subsystems of AAE (that are different from what we encounter in other Englishes) that require recourse to race concepts, (U.S.) racial history, and, of course, diachrony. This is my main project; but, I continue always to work on tense, mood, and aspect (linguistic semantics and pragmatics mostly) as well as ways of speaking in the two main languages I work on: AAE and Haitian Creole. Some of my research would not properly speaking be considered linguistic, that dealing with race and racial formations, though it is informed by linguistics, especially in my “thinking like a linguist” in dealing with sociocultural problems. This line of research is largely a result of my decades-long affiliation with anthropology departments and close collaboration with cultural anthropologist colleagues.
Q: What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study? Not one, but many, each of which affected me strongly because of where I was in my career when I read it, e.g., Dell Hymes’ Foundations in Sociolinguistics and Michael Shapiro’s The Sense of Grammar: Language as Semeiotic.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today? One thing always on my mind is how we can assess and integrate the knowledge produced by all the schools of thought we now have in linguistics. E.g., how can formal linguists, cognitive linguists, sociolinguists, typologists, discourse specialists, and the many others come together to consider systematically and programmatically how the research of each group can inform the others. For decades I’ve listened to one group wrangling over problems that have long since been solved by another group. Our collective knowledge is a magnificent edifice, which can be revealed only through radical collaboration across the board—despite the few egos, we must recognize, sprinkled among us.
Q: How has the field of linguistics changed since you first started your work? It has grown tremendously and proliferated. I can remember when practically everybody in linguistics had heard of practically everybody else. There was a canon, so to speak (even including work in subfields such as neurolinguistics), that everyone read—Chomskyans at least. I started in linguistics with American structuralists, and they had their canon and all knew one another. Changing from one school of linguistics to another while a graduate student, I found, was an intellectually valuable experience, by the way.
Q: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics? Just “interested” or fascinated by it? If they’ve ever stayed up all night reading a linguistics book, dying to know the ending, then they should throw caution to the wind and become linguists. There’s nothing more draining than going into a career that you’re not that interested in.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field? Keeping linguists and scholars in related fields in communication with each other. What’s important for me—and others I’m sure—is having the opportunity at annual meetings to find out what colleagues in other subfields are doing, and to bounce around ideas or hammer out plans for group projects over breakfast, lunch, dinner, or coffee—or in cul-de-sacs, lounge areas, bars, wherever. In relation to what others are doing, the workshops and plenaries are highly useful. Of course, LSA also gives the discipline a face, so to speak, and a center, in providing an institutional mechanism for promoting and disseminating our research. In addition, the managerial and business functions of LSA provide an indispensable foundation for all of our work as linguists.