A number of special activities have been planned to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Linguistic Society of America.  These include:

The Ninetieth Anniversary of the LSA: A Commemorative Symposium


Frederick J. Newmeyer (University of Washington, University of British Columbia, and Simon Fraser University), Chair
David Boe (Northern Michigan University)
Donna Christian (Center for Applied Linguistics)
Sandra Chung (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Sally McConnell-Ginet (Cornell University)
Andrew Nevins (University College London)
Dennis Preston (Oklahoma State University)

The year 2014 marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Linguistic Society of America. The LSA Executive Committee felt that the anniversary was worth commemorating at the Minneapolis meeting and therefore constituted an ad hoc committee to plan events around the occasion. The major event planned by the committee is a two-day symposium on how the field has changed in the past 90 years. One subpart of the symposium includes presentations on how different subfields have evolved; the other subpart is composed of presentations on special topics of historical interest.

First sub-symposium: Talks documenting what we as linguists knew in 1924 compared to what we know now in 2014.


9:00    Phonetics: Patricia Keating (University of California, Los Angeles)

In his 1924 address on ‘The Scope and Aims of Linguistic Science’, LSA President Collitz said: ‘Phonetics nowadays has assumed such proportions as almost to constitute a science by itself.’ Indeed, the 1920s were an exciting time in phonetics, when e.g. Jones, Kenyon, Kurath, Rousselot, Russell, Scripture, Stetson, and Stumpf were active. Yet phonetics was also divided between ‘experimental’ and ‘practical’ approaches, and in no agreement about its relation to linguistics. This talk will describe the state of the art in 1924, and then consider how such factors as technological innovations, increased attention to a wider range of languages, and the development of phonology have influenced research topics and new knowledge in phonetics.

9:30    Phonology: Stephen Anderson (Yale University)

In 1924, when the Call for the Organization of the LSA was issued, phonology per se was not a matter of great concern to American linguists, and accordingly the answer to the question ‘What did we know then?’ is ‘Not much’. The very first scientific paper to appear in Language in 1925, however, after Bloomfield’s ‘Why a Linguistic Society?’ in the first issue, was Sapir’s ‘Sound Patterns in Language’, which announced a rather striking notion of the nature of sound structure in natural language. Sapir argued not only that such structure is quite apart from the concrete properties of speech sounds, but that it is a fundamentally psychological notion, in the sense we would today call ‘cognitive’.

However, the very next paper in the same issue of Language was Albert P. Weiss’s ‘Linguistics and Psychology’, which resolutely rejected the significance of a notion of ‘mind’ and insisted that all ‘psychological’ study of language must be grounded in  externally observable properties and phenomena. Sapir’s conception was displaced for the next several decades by a very different (and non-cognitive) notion of phonemics — a notion that was at the heart of nearly all American theorizing about language during this period, which tended to take phonemics as its model.

With the 1960s came the ‘cognitive revolution’, and a return to something more like Sapir’s conception of phonology than Bloomfield’s. In that regard, we can say that the field is not in fact very far from where it started, though undoubtedly rather better grounded in its assumptions about the mind.

10:00    Morphology: Mark Aronoff (Stony Brook University)

This talk focuses primarily on how improvements in the automation of linguistic data storage and manipulation have led to changes in morphological analysis and theory over the last fifty years. I discuss three electronic data storage devices — word lists, dictionaries, and corpora — showing how they have improved over time and how these improvements have permitted new methods of analysis and, perhaps more interesting, new theories of morphology and the lexicon. I begin with two products of computational linguistics of the 1960s: A. F. Brown’s Normal and Reverse English Word List, compiled under Air Force contract in 1963 from 18 dictionaries; and Henry Kucera and Nelson Francis’s Computational Analysis of Present-Day American English, published in 1967 and based on the then massive million-word Brown corpus.

The core of this talk will address the phenomenon of hapax legomena, words that occur only once in a corpus, and the use of hapaxes to model morphological productivity. The more corpora have increased in size over time, the less useful hapaxes have become diagnostically. The moral of this fact is that a tool that is useful at one scale (like the bubble chamber in physics) may become obsolete as the data to be analyzed moves to another scale. I close by reminding the audience of some classic empirical findings in morphology known at the founding of the society in 1924 that have withstood the test of time and technology and still defy analysis.


2:00    Syntax: D. Terence Langendoen (University of Arizona)

Linguists in 1924 largely accepted the classical view of syntax as the set of principles that determine the structure of sentences, considered as sequences of words, which may be grouped into classes depending on their combinatory possibilities. Some were aware of the enormous power of syntactic principles to account for both the expressive range of individual languages and the variation in syntactic structure cross-linguistically, but how to express them was not yet apparent. Many also chafed at the a priori nature of the traditional ‘notional’ characterizations of syntactic classes, and sought to replace them with empirically grounded definitions based on their co-occurrence relations with each other in particular languages. A major breakthrough was achieved 60 years ago with the first formalizations of principles for determining syntactic structures, which facilitated an extraordinary increase in the detailed investigation of the syntactic structures of individual languages and of cross-linguistic comparisons of such structures, as well as the development of a variety of alternative syntactic formalisms. At the same time, as comparable advances were made in other areas of linguistics, much has been learned about the interaction of syntax with phonology, morphology and semantics, leading to a better understanding of grammatical structure as a whole. Finally, interdisciplinary research involving syntax in such areas as psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, neurolinguistics, and computational linguistics has led to deeper understanding of the acquisition of syntax, how it is deployed in interactions, how the brain processes syntactic information, and how it can be effectively modeled in computer systems.

2:30     Semantics/Pragmatics: Barbara Partee (University of Massachusetts)

Let’s divide the past 90 years into three 30-year chunks for a thumbnail overview.

In 1924, the dominant fields in linguistics were Indo-European studies and comparative philology, plus anthropological linguistics, which dealt mainly with the study of non-written languages. Semantics meant word meanings; semantic drift was important for historical and comparative work. In philosophy, a mostly separate world, there was great progress in the development of logic and the beginnings of philosophy of language, spearheaded by Frege and Russell.
In Period I, 1924-54, we have the rise of structural linguistics in America, with little semantics and no pragmatics; behaviorism made ‘semantics’ almost a dirty word. But Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Curry were developing the logical analysis of natural language; and after them Reichenbach, Tarski, Austin, Strawson, Quine, Grice, and Davidson, who were mostly unknown to linguists until the 1960s.

Period II, 1954-84 brought explosive changes. The Chomskyan revolution led to interest in semantics (Katz, Fodor, Postal) and to the Generative/ Interpretive Semantics ‘wars’. Then came Montague Grammar and the development of formal semantics by linguists and philosophers, as well as cognitive approaches (Rosch, Lakoff and Johnson, Jackendoff). And linguists discovered Grice and presuppositions; pragmatics grew out of generative semantics, and ‘formal pragmatics’ out of formal semantics. Lexical semantics also became more sophisticated, e.g. the pioneering work by Fillmore.

By 1984, semantics was a core area of linguistics. In 1984-2014, semantics and pragmatics have matured and expanded into acquisition and processing, computational, corpus, and statistical semantics, semantic typology, the syntax-semantics interface, fine-grained lexical semantics, and more.

3:00    Language, Behavior, and Cognition: Thomas Bever (University of Arizona)

In 1924, there were two emerging giants of linguistic theory: Edward Sapir, and Leonard Bloomfield. Each was surprisingly empiricist in his thinking and writing at the time: surprising for Sapir in light of later writings that considered deep complexities of language; surprising for Bloomfield because of his major 1914 book, The Study of Language, which was eclectic and primarily an exegesis of continental ideas, including notions of sentence syntactic structure as including inner and outer forms. While Sapir would tend to more considerations of the relation between thought and language, Bloomfield was already in motion to strict behaviorist structuralism. What happened?  While Skinner’s forays into language did not really appear until a decade later, behaviorist constraints on what counts as a scientific theory already pervaded philosophical and experimental psychology: the preoccupation with defining everything in terms of empiricist learnability had taken sway. In 1924 we can surmise that Bloomfield was percolating his 1925 LSA talk, and 1926 paper, ‘A set of postulates for a science of language’, in which his prior rationalist approach was replaced by a rigid formulation of taxonomic ‘bottom up’ methodological strictures: The most famous outcome of all that was the complete exclusion of any dynamic interpretation of the sentence, in favor of listing a few frozen construction types.

This is what linguists ‘knew’ then: It is interesting to compare these ideas with some current views on the primacy of constructions and syntactic versions which deny multilevel representations in syntax. Have we progressed in 90 years?

3:30    Break

4:00    Language and the Brain: Lise Menn (University of Colorado), Matthew Goldrick (Northwestern University)

Understanding how the brain produces and understands language critically depends on having the right conceptual and empirical tools. In 1924, psycholinguistic theory was in its infancy. Most neurologists were therefore trying to associate places in the brain with ‘functions’ that were essentially unanalyzed — e.g. ‘speaking’ ‘reading’, ‘understanding’. At a more basic level, linguists and neurologists worked in separate intellectual universes, sharing neither concepts nor data. Furthermore, the only way to see the brain was to cut it open at autopsy. It was difficult to use such data to establish links between brain structures and behavior, as it required comparing detailed pre-mortem behavioral records with post-mortem observations of many individuals.

In the intervening 90 years, neurologists and linguists have developed lively intellectual connections, and psycholinguistic theories have provided a framework for understanding how different kinds of information can be recruited and integrated to support language processing. Imaging technology can now index the size of brain regions and their connectivity in healthy, living brains as well as in the brains of speakers with language disorders. Instead of just looking at structural damage, neuroimaging allows us to (indirectly) observe the brain in action, including the time-varying electrical activity of neural ensembles and changes in metabolic activity within specific brain areas. We will discuss recent work illustrating the convergence of these conceptual and technological innovations — theoretical proposals that rely on the dynamic recruitment of distinct neurocognitive mechanisms to model language processing.

4:30    Applied Linguistics: Elaine Tarone (University of Minnesota)

This presentation will trace the development of applied linguistics as a discipline beginning with the formation of the Linguistic Society of America in 1924, when, in defining the scope and aims of the discipline of linguistic science, Collitz (1925) identified applied linguistics as one of that discipline’s three broadest subdivisions. In that role, the subdivision assumed a ‘linguistics applied’ approach in which principles and practices of descriptive and historical linguistics were assumed to be useful in supporting work on such areas as the study of languages in schools and colleges, and spelling reform. In 1948, the subdivision of applied linguistics was producing enough scholarship to support publication of a new journal at the University of Michigan: Language Learning: A Journal of Applied Linguistics. By the 1960s, applied linguistics had moved away from a ‘linguistics applied’ approach and developed a separate identity as an interdisciplinary field of study — one that drew upon linguistics, psychology, education, sociology, and computer science — to investigate and develop solutions for language-related real-life problems. Research and scholarship in this interdisciplinary field grew exponentially, and in 1977 a separate professional association was formed: the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL).  AAAL initially met under the umbrella of LSA, but by 1990 the organization had grown to the point where it could meet on its own. The presentation will show how, within this changing institutional context, applied linguistics as an area of scholarship has both deepened and expanded over the past ninety years.


9:00     Historical Linguistics: Sarah Thomason (University of Michigan)

By 1924, research in historical linguistics was solidly grounded in the Comparative Method, which was fully developed by the beginning of the 20th century. The vast majority of historical linguists in the early decades of the 20th century concentrated on elucidating the histories of Indo-European languages. The position and significance of two branches of the family — Anatolian and Tocharian — were not fully understood at the time the LSA was founded, but the main outlines of the family and the main innovations in its other eight branches were already well understood by then. Genetic classification of a number of other language families was also well under way. In the past 90 years several major scholarly initiatives have significantly altered the field. First, historical research on languages and language families all over the world has expanded dramatically. In addition, the scope of historical linguistic investigation has expanded beyond the traditional foci (lexicon, phonology, morphology) to include phonetic research on sound change and sophisticated studies of syntactic and semantic change. Second, the study of contact-induced language change has become much more prominent than it was in 1924; this in turn has led to major advances in distinguishing between internally-motivated and externally-motivated linguistic changes, and therefore to more satisfactory explanations of changes. Third and most recently, historical linguists and geneticists have been adapting quantitative methods drawn from biology in efforts to solve historical linguistic puzzles.

9:30     Language, Culture, and Society: Roger Shuy (Georgetown University)

By the time LSA was founded in 1924, the association of language, culture, and society had already been introduced by Saussure, who had declared language to be a social fact. Dwight Whitney had also claimed that the development of speech is wrought by the community, which was echoed later by Saussure, Meillet, Martinet, Bloomfield, and in more modern times by Weinreich, Labov and many others. Even in LSA’s early years the descriptive nature of this work conflicted with the mentalist traditions that went back as far as the Neo-Grammarians’ disputes with the Indo-Europeanists and dialectologists, and disagreements continue today between descriptivists and mentalists.

This paper briefly traces the development of the scope and methodology of studying the intersection of language, culture, and society from the multidisciplinary advances in dialectology, language contact, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. It outlines the development of both macro and micro sociolinguistics that solidified in the 1960s and 1970s through various meetings such as those held by the Social Science Research Council and LSA in 1964 and the Georgetown Round Table in 1972. 

As the field of linguistics added new analytical tools such as pragmatics, speech acts, and discourse analysis, new ways of discovering both macro and micro language variability supplemented the study of language, culture, and society as it is known today. Along with this came the application of these tools and methodologies to areas of human life such as language learning, teaching and testing, as well as medical communication, and law.  

10:00    Panel and audience discussion on what we have learned (and how the field has evolved) in the past 90 years

Second sub-symposium: Talks on special topics in the history of American linguistics over the past 90 years. This sub-symposium is co-sponsored with NAAHoLS.


2:00    History of the LSA: Frederick Newmeyer (University of Washington)

This talk outlines the history of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), intermingling hard statistics (e.g. membership figures) with little anecdotes. I begin with the ‘Call’ — the appeal to found a new society devoted to the scientific study of language. I outline the reasons why the signers of the Call found it desirable to create the LSA, as well as the difficulties (professional and personal) involved in bringing the Society about. I then touch on some of the most interesting aspects of LSA history: the creation of the summer institutes, the difficulties in keeping its head above water during the depression, and the steps taken to facilitate fieldwork in Amerindian communities. I go on to discuss the LSA’s contribution to the war effort in the 1940s and treat the explosion of the field (and therefore the Society) in the post-war years. The talk concludes with some remarks about the current state of the Society, in particular the reasons for the recent decline in membership and the challenges to the LSA and other societies posed by the near universal availability of on-line resources.

2:30    Women in the field, 1924-2014: Margaret Thomas (Boston College)

Women committed to the study of language have participated in the LSA throughout its history: from the 31 who came forward to be counted as among the 274 ‘Foundation Members’ (Falk 1994); through those who were active in the first 60 years of the LSA when the office of President was only twice held by a woman; to the present-day ongoing analysis of gender-based inequities within the field, and the efforts to redress those inequities initiated by Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics. This presentation explores (1) how, over the 90-year history of the Society, women language scholars became self-conscious of themselves and of each other as members of a specific gender-based population within the LSA, and (2) what effect that self-consciousness has had on the Society in general. I examine both discipline-internal factors, which grew up inside of the LSA and led women to recognize that they shared professional goals and experiences with other women linguists, and general social-historical factors that acted on the LSA from the outside, which encouraged women language scholars to define themselves (either formally or informally) as members of an identifiable group. 

3:00    The LSA Institute over the years: Julia Falk (La Jolla, CA)

When the LSA approved the first two Linguistic Institutes for 1928 and 1929, it did so with a caveat that remained in place for many years: ‘Provided always, that the Linguistic Society incur no financial obligations therein’. The Institutes’ longtime administrator, Professor Edgar Sturtevant of Yale University, rallied supporters to pledge their own funds to an endowment. Costs, however, were — and continue to be — borne primarily by host universities. Courses offered at the early Institutes reflected the historical interests of the majority of LSA members, with most classes devoted to older languages and their historical development and comparison. But introducing the linguistic community to leading-edge topics has been a hallmark of nearly every Institute over the years — descriptivism in the 1930s, the analysis and teaching of uncommonly taught languages in the 1940s, the rise of psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics in the 1950s, the ascendency of transformational grammar in the 1960s. Whatever subjects are being pursued in the classrooms during any particular session, however, senior linguists and linguistics students alike find that the informality of this unique summer program enhances discussion, debate, cooperation, and collegiality, especially important in the decades before frequent-flyer miles and the internet made contact and communication as accessible as they are today. Public lectures, workshops, concurrent conferences, topic-oriented lunch-time discussions, and pub gatherings all have a long history at the Institutes and, for many in attendance, it is these that lead to our best insights and our fondest memories.

3:30    Break

4:00    Language and other LSA publications since the 1920s: Hope Dawson (The Ohio State University), Brian Joseph (The Ohio State University)

The journal Language has always been the mainstay of the LSA’s publications, and, within the academic lifetime of most current LSA members, has been relatively unchanged. The journal’s contents, frequency, look, and even its cover have been mostly the same throughout its nearly ninety years of existence. Such observations grant LSA publications an appearance of stability, and may therefore make the changes now taking place — involving, for example, a shift to an electronic version of Language, the naming of an Executive Editor to support the Editor, and the sponsorship of new journals — seem to be dramatic and significant. A closer look at the history of LSA publications, however, reveals an ongoing interplay of stability and change, the current changes simply being the most recent chapter in the story.

In this presentation we sketch the history of these publications, exploring in particular two ways in which both stability and change are evident: the leadership, and the publications themselves. There have been only seven Editors of Language over its ninety-year history, but changes have come elsewhere in the leadership structure, from the early days of the Committee on Publications, to the current boards of Associate Editors. With regard to publications, Language itself has appeared on a quarterly basis since 1925, but the publishing of additional materials has seen changes, from dissertations and monographs in earlier years to co-journals and online-only sections of Language now. A detailed picture shows a history of adaptation to changes in the field of linguistics itself. 

4:30    Linguists’ work with endangered languages: Lindsay Whaley (Dartmouth College)

Though the label ‘endangered languages’ has become common just in the last several decades, research on languages with a declining speaker base or a relatively small number of speakers has been a regular component of American linguistics for over a century. In the early 20th century, the pioneering work of Boas, Sapir, Bloomfield (all of whom went on to serve as presidents of the Linguistic Society of America), as well as others, established the importance of fieldwork on lesser-studied languages, and this tradition has carried on to the present. Within this tradition two changes are discernable over time. First, there is increasing attention given to endangered languages spoken outside of the Americas. Second, by the end of the 20th century, an explicit mandate emerges, both within the LSA and elsewhere, to document endangered languages and to work in partnership with the speakers of the languages to promote their continued use.

90th Anniversary Commemorative Video Presentation

The LSA 90th Anniversary Celebration at the Annual Meeting in Minneapolis January 2-5, 2014, will include an audio-visual presentation, which attendees can drop by and view between sessions. How interesting and extensive this show will be depends on you.

We have collected some pictures and video of LSA linguists and linguistic events (e.g., past institutes, summer and annual meetings, etc….) but would very much welcome more. It would be especially nice, of course, to have visual documentation of linguists and their activities from long ago, but it will also be good to have more recent material as well. As a part of the video, we will feature several pictures of linguists whose identities you can guess and be eligible to win a prize. So remember to share with us any pictures that you think might be especially interesting for this purpose (and if we choose your contribution you will already have one right answer for the quiz).

Please send what you can in digital format with identifying information (names and at least approximate dates) as soon as possible but not later than September 1, 2013. You may send these materials to [email protected], but if the materials are too large or if you cannot provide a digital format, please get in touch with us at the same address, and we will make other arrangements.  Please also complete and include the permission form, which will allow the LSA to make use of the materials

We appreciate your help!

Sally McConnell-Ginet & Dennis Preston

For the 90th Anniversary Organizing Committee

90th Birthday Celebration

Join your friends and colleagues on Friday evening to celebrate the 90th Anniversary of the LSA with cake, beverages, and singing.  Learn the real story about the connection between the LSA and the song "Happy Birthday to You."