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

John McWhorter is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He previously was Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. Professor McWhorter specializes in language change and language contact. He is the author of nine books on language issues intended for a general audience, and is a frequent contributor to prominent publications and media outlets. 

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

Looking at my lovely beige row of issues of LANGUAGE I see that I first joined in 1993.
Q: How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

I have been serving on the Publicity Committee since 2010, and in the past I was Associate Editor of LANGUAGE for two years.

Q: What are you currently researching?

Right now I am honing a theory explaining why a certain few Central Malayo-Polynesian languages are radically isolating. Many would say that these languages simply lost their affixes by chance, but I think the difference between them and the rest of the Austronesian family suggests an interesting contact story, reconstructable through aspects of the languages' lexicons as well as the fragments of social history available. I have also been working on a similar thesis about the most analytic languages of Africa, as part of a general thesis I am working out -- controversial to everyone but me, as seems to be my province in life -- that extreme analyticity is diagnostic of large-scale adult acquisition, rather than being possibly due simply to grammar-internal processes.
 Q: What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

After almost 30 years I know of no linguistics book of more Biblical status, at least to me, than Sally Thomason and Terence Kaufman's Language Contact, Creolization and Genetic Linguistics. From the text to the case studies, I find it eminently re-readable and bursting with useful data and references. And yet somehow it is almost pleasurably readable, too. 
 Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today?

I wish there were more general agreement within the field on how syntax really works. I am not sure that we can confidently share with the public what we "know" about syntax now, after several decades of the Chomskyan paradigm. Maybe I'm impatient, but I feel like phonologists paddle more in the same boat than syntacticians.

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

The field becomes more quantitative by the year, as it should, in many ways, if we are serious about this being a science. It is forcing a whole new standard as to what constitutes a valid argument.

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

Remember that doing academic work is about formulating an argument and trying to convince other people of its validity. Being an academic linguist is less a matter of just "liking languages" -- although that's a good start -- than being a lawyer. To me, at least, doing linguistics of any kind is more "The Good Wife" than National Geographic.