LISE DOBRIN is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics Program Director at the University of Virginia. She conducts linguistic, ethnographic, and historical research on Arapesh languages and cultures in Papua New Guinea. She has a special interest in the cultural aspects of language preservation, including how and why communities shift their allegiance from their local vernaculars to languages of wider communication; the technical and ethical dimensions of language documentation, description, and archiving; and the epistemologies and politics of linguistic research.

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

What are you currently researching?

I’ve recently begun researching the ambivalent status of embodied knowledge in linguistics: what makes it problematic as a form of evidence and where we see the effects of this in the discipline. This is joint work with anthropologist Saul Schwartz, and it grows out of our reading of field methods texts, something we did when we were writing an article about participant observation in linguistics. On the one hand, native speaker intuitions are considered a privileged source of insight into language. On the other hand, there is an attraction to the objectivity that language corpora provide. The ambivalence is not just about the relative merits of elicited judgments vs. textual data. That’s something linguists know how to talk about, and have done so for years. But there is also adherence to a tacit principle of objectivity that calls for linguistic intuitions to be distanced from the analyst before the knowledge they produce can be accepted as authoritative, and under some circumstances this makes linguists’ intuitions problematic, even when the linguist is a speaker. The topic has taken us into areas that might seem unrelated, but we believe are not: the debates over recursion in Pirahã, linguists’ recent fascination with collaboration, and the intriguing possibility of oral annotation in lieu of written transcription as a method of language documentation.

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

Since I first started grad school the field has become more inclusive, allowing for a broader range of work to count as “linguistics”. In 2005 I gave a paper at the LSA annual meeting about some surprising obstacles to language activism in New Guinea, and it was assigned a slot in a session on historical morphology because there was no more appropriate place for it! What a contrast to this year’s program where the topics addressed included not only formal linguistics, language change, sociolinguistics, etc., but also creative ways of teaching linguistics, data citation practices, and more. I’ve also noticed that certain areas that have historically been treated separately, like computational linguistics or sign language research, are now more deeply woven into the fabric of the program (i.e., just one among many methods used to solve some type of problem, or one language among many addressed in a session). I find these trends encouraging. An expansive and inclusive vision of what linguistics is and has to offer is better than patrolling the boundaries of the discipline with such vigilance that we make ourselves irrelevant.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today?

It’s the same challenge facing other academic fields at a time when public confidence in universities is eroding and budgets are shrinking: maintaining our strength as a discipline by making that case that what we do makes a valuable contribution to society. We need to be able to get funding for linguistic research, convince administrators to replace linguistics faculty when they retire, and make our perspective heard on matters of public concern. The LSA’s efforts to increase outreach is an important step forward, but we all have to do our part. We have to advocate for ourselves within our own institutions, and we have to keep on clearly articulating why the work we do matters.

When did you first join the LSA?

I remember it vividly! It was 1995, and I was a University of Chicago graduate student preparing to give my first LSA paper. I had become fascinated by a language I had read about in a monograph, Mark Aronoff’s Morphology by Itself. It was the Arapesh language of New Guinea, which had a large inventory of noun classes that was tied remarkably systematically to the nouns’ phonological form. Getting to know this language was like meeting the person who would become your spouse! With Mark’s encouragement, I went on to do fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and wrote my dissertation on Arapesh noun classification and agreement. My sense of scholarly purpose was coming together in the period surrounding that LSA meeting, so it was a very exciting time.

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

In the mid-2000s I was part of a group calling for the Association to take a leadership role on issues of ethics. I had settled into a job in a department of anthropology—a very ethics-conscious discipline—and this sensitized me to the fact that linguists’ professional resources on ethics had not kept pace with their interests in areas like fieldwork and endangered languages that are rife with interpersonal challenges. So I helped get the LSA Ethics Committee off the ground, and then went on to serve a term as chair of CELP. I’ve also presented on the LSA’s behalf to the AAAS Coalition on Science and Human Rights, and have served as the LSA liaison to the American Anthropological Association.

What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

While recently rereading John Goldsmith’s 1976 classic article ‘An Overview of Autosegmental Phonology’, I was impressed all over again by the way a relatively small conceptual shift (representing phonological features independently of their segmental anchors) made visible structures that until then could hardly be conceived of, much less used to frame or solve linguistic problems. As Goldsmith says at the end of the article, “The most astounding revelations may be those that change our conception of what we thought were the observables.” When I work with the materials produced by researchers who studied Arapesh before autosegmental notation was available to assist them in interpreting what they heard, I see how they struggled to make sense of phenomena that involve the nonlinear alignment (spreading and shifting) of phonological features in the language, like when rounding in consonants colors adjacent vowels or spills over the ends of words. Processes like these are not rare cross-linguistically, but earlier researchers had a hard time describing them because they presuppose representational possibilities they simply could not imagine and so could not “observe”. 

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

Hands down, it’s the sponsorship of profession-wide gatherings like the Annual Meeting and the LSA Institutes. Those broad LSA-sponsored meetings are much more than a way for linguists to share information; they allow the extended linguistics community to gather together and physically constitute itself as a group. Common trends emerge, and discipline-wide conversations move forward. Participating in these meetings lets linguists feel the “communitas” of belonging not just to a department or a list of researchers focusing on some area, but to a larger collectivity—a whole discipline.

What message do you have for students getting started in the field?

It might seem like there is some “right way” to cut a path through the profession, but that is not true. You are not the same as your classmates! So the more you can find opportunity in your experiences and learn what kinds of problems and approaches suit you, the more satisfying your professional life will be and the more you can make your own contribution. As a beginning linguistics student, I would never have imagined I would invest huge amounts of effort in creating a language archive, or help build digital tools for mobilizing documentary linguistic materials, or get involved in a life-long exchange with New Guinea villagers, or write articles about scandalous events in the history of anthropology. I’ve loved doing these things, but I never set out to do them. I followed my interests and that is where they led me.