Heidi Harley is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. She completed her undergraduate degree in Linguistics at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, and received her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1995. She has worked at the University of Arizona since 1999, publishing on syntax, morphology, and lexical semantics. She has supervised over 20 doctoral dissertations, and written an undergraduate textbook on English words. She likes being a linguist a lot.

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? 

I think I first joined in fall of 1994, to present at the 1995 annual meeting meeting in New Orleans. That was my first year on the job market, and I wore fancier clothes to that first LSA meeting than to any one since. I was also at the 1991 Institute at UCSC as an undergraduate,  but I don't think I needed to join the Society to attend. But if I did, then my membership goes back to 1991. I became a life member when I got tenure—an excellent value, everyone. 

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

I've presented or organized workshops at several annual meetings, taught at two Institutes, served on the Program Committee and served on the Executive Committee. As part of my Executive Committee service, I also was part of the Publications Committee, the ad-hoc Outreach Committee, and the Audit Committee.

What are you currently researching/working on? 

Right now I'm working on the problem of how the subject argument is suppressed in passive constructions, like "Five glasses were shattered in the course of the evening", and how those non-expressed subjects are interpreted. In many languages, the suppressed subject is necessarily understood to be human—in Hiaki (also known as Yaqui, Yoeme and Jiaki), a Uto-Aztecan language I work with, this is definitely the case. I suspect (with others) that the humanness requirement on suppressed subjects may have confounded the investigation of the agentivity of impersonal passives cross-linguistically. I have been able to show that in Hiaki, the agentive status of the suppressed subject is not relevant to the formation of passives, but that the humanness requirement is highly relevant. Passivization in Hiaki suppresses the highest argument of any predicate (and promotes the next highest), whether agent, experiencer, benefactive, or theme, whatever, as long as it's understood to refer to a human. This has important implications for our treatment of argument structure: Passive is not restricted to predicates with an external argument, so the typical VoiceP-based approach, according to which the passive morpheme heads an argumentless flavor of Voice, must be wrong. Instead, I propose that the passive morpheme reflects an agreement relationship between the Voice head and a null argument-saturating predicate lower in the argument structure. 

What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

This is the hardest question ever! Recently I have really appreciated Julie Anne Legate's 2015 study of voice in Acehnese, especially for its use of diagnostics the field has developed through many decades of study of other languages to clarify the categorial status of a function word and hence the whole syntax of an important construction with significant implications for our understanding of clause structure. Among other things, her work really showcases how the understanding of universals of linguistic structure has improved over the past forty years, letting her accurately diagnose syntactic structures in a less-studied language that were very puzzling when first described. Legate triangulates on the correct analysis via multiple tests derived over many years by painstaking study of individual corners of linguistic structure in other languages, and shows how they all point to the same conclusion. It's really nice. 

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

Big data.

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

Go for it! Linguistics can provide an endless series of opportunities for someone who would like to experience the joy of learning, the thrill of discovery, the pride of mastery, the stimulation of puzzlement, the gratification of teaching, the camaraderie of collaboration and the satisfaction of service. Plus there's so much we don't know that it's relatively easy to significantly advance the frontiers of human knowledge, no expensive equipment required. A lot of the ingredients that can add up to the feeling of a fulfilling existence are available in our field, plus the uppish sensation of being a member of a pretty exclusive club. Join ussssssss.... 

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

The LSA creates venues for all linguists at all levels in all subdisciplines to get together, both at the annual meeting and the institute, where we can exchange ideas, begin new collaborations and initiatives, and simply affirm our shared commitment to understanding language. It also creates ways for us to come together to accomplish specific goals, via its committee structure. I also think it's important that the LSA provides a 'face' for the discipline, allowing us to express ourselves as a group on important issues and policy questions. We ARE the LSA, of course, so we're providing these services to ourselves! Consider signing up for something to help out! (Signing up for something is also a great networking opportunity, letting you get to know and interact with senior and junior people who would otherwise only be familiar with as names on papers or conference programs.)

Is there anything else you'd like to say to the LSA membership as a whole? 

We can and should use our expertise to promote social justice in big and small ways that I don't think we have fully internalized yet (at least I know I haven't). Rickford and King have recently been showing us some of the big ways linguistic understanding can be brought to bear on systemic injustice in the legal system, but there are many smaller things we can and should do—even 'theoretical' linguists like me. For example, we should make it our job to change language attitudes towards nonstandard and second-language varieties at our institutions. Of course we all include short messages about 'prescriptive' vs 'descriptive' approaches to English in our intro to linguistics classes, mostly in the service of helping students to begin thinking about language scientifically, but we  should go much farther. We can help our communities—students, colleagues, administration—understand that different dialects/idiolects/sociolects are not intrinsically 'better' or 'worse' than each other. We can help speakers of Standard American English recognize and adjust their often visceral reactions of contempt to the accented English of second language speakers, or to speakers of other dialects. We can highlight how dialect and accent prejudice leads to value judgements that can seriously interfere with taking in what someone is actually saying. We can help change undergraduates' attitudes towards professors and TAs who speak accented English, improving the learning experience for everyone. In higher education generally, I think some good changes are underway; the academy is beginning to really take on board a lot of hard-won lessons about gender, race, ethnic, religious, and sexual identity.  However, linguistic discrimination is alive and kicking, and is even, I think, often thought of as justified. Language attitudes should be on the radar of diversity officers everywhere, and we can help get them there: We have the knowledge, and most people don't. That gives us both the power and the responsibility to move the process forward.