Patience (Pattie) Epps is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-director of the Archive for Indigenous Languages of Latin America. Her principal research interests involve linguistic description and documentation, historical linguistics and language contact, linguistic typology, and verbal art, with a focus on indigenous languages of the Amazon basin. Since 2001, she has been engaged in fieldwork with languages of the Naduhup family (Hup, Dâw, and Nadëb) in the context of the multilingual Upper Rio Negro region of northwest Brazil. She is also interested in broader-scale explorations of language contact and change across Amazonia, and in investigating how these effects inform our understanding of the dynamics of linguistic diversity in South America and beyond. Significant publications include the monograph A Grammar of Hup (2008, Mouton de Gruyter), and various articles. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, the American Council of Learned Societies, and other initiatives.

The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

When did you first join the LSA? 2001, while in graduate school.

How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

I go to LSA meetings as regularly as I can, and I have taught at two summer Linguistic Institutes. I am also a member of the Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation (CELP).

What are you currently researching/working on?

A current major research focus for me is the documentation and description of Nadëb, an indigenous language of the northwest Amazon, in collaboration with post-doc Karolin Obert and community members. Fieldwork is sadly on hold for the time being, but we are continuing our work on the language with texts and other materials. I am also continuing my work with two other languages of the same small family (Naduhup), Hup and Dâw. One ongoing project is the documentation of Hup incantations, in collaboration with specialists in the community and anthropologist Danilo Paiva Ramos. This genre among Hup speakers is relatively endangered – more so than the day-to-day use of the language – but it is of deep cultural importance to community members, and awe-inspiring as verbal art and as an encyclopedic compendium of local ecological and cultural knowledge. Alongside these projects, I’m engaged in wider-scale comparative work on language contact and change across lowland South American languages, with an eye to investigating what these dynamics can tell us about population histories over time, and about the emergence and maintenance of linguistic diversity in the region. This is a very difficult time for Amazonian indigenous peoples, so my colleagues and I are doing a lot of worrying; but we are hopeful that the communities we work with will make it through the current challenges relatively unscathed, and we’re looking forward to going back.

What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

I think it would have to be Ken Hale’s now-classic paper from 1992, ‘Language endangerment and the human value of linguistic diversity’. His discussion of the ritual language Damin (from Mornington Island, Australia) underscores for me the ways in which language can illuminate the intricacies of human thinking, the ways in which linguistic and cultural diversity are intertwined, and what can be lost when this diversity disappears.

How has the field of linguistics changed since you first started your work?

I feel very fortunate to have been part of a growing wave of scholarship that is committed to language documentation and to the appreciation of linguistic diversity. Grammar-writing has regained a place of honor in the field, and conscientious archiving of documentary outcomes has become standard practice, bolstered by initiatives like the Archive for Indigenous Languages of Latin America. Linguistic fieldwork has become more culturally grounded, ethically informed, and collaborative. More and more native and heritage speakers of understudied languages are receiving training in linguistics; I'm proud to be a part of that initiative through my U. Texas department's ongoing focus on PhD training of speakers of indigenous languages of Latin America.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

I would give a piece of advice that I myself received and have always been grateful for: pursue the areas of research that you find most interesting and most meaningful, those efforts that you can really put your heart into. Academia comes with a lot of challenges, so it’s worth digging in and focusing on what you find most intellectually and personally engaging, rather than getting diverted onto other pathways just because they are in vogue or might seem more accessible.

What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field?

This is a difficult question for me; the LSA makes so many different kinds of contributions that are important in many different ways! Both as a student and since, I have found the summer linguistic institutes to be an incredible experience for learning and interacting with other linguists, so that would have to be high on my list. The outreach efforts the LSA takes on in support of linguistic diversity, endangered languages, and language rights are another area that to me seems critical.