Photo credit: Gibrán Morales Carranza

Gabriela Pérez Báez is a faculty member of the Linguistics Department at the University of Oregon. As part of her interests in and dedication to language revitalization, Gabriela directs UO’s Language Revitalization Lab and is the Co-Director of the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages alongside Daryl Baldwin. In this role, she has worked with community-based researchers in the United States to support archive-based research for language revitalization. Gabriela’s research centers on linguistic diversity and strategies to sustain it. Within that broad umbrella, Gabriela has worked to document, analyze and revitalize Zapotec languages in her native Mexico. Gabriela has published on language revitalization, migration and language vitality, and on the analysis of Zapotec and other Mesoamerican languages covering topics such as verbal inflection and derivation, semantic typology, and spatial language and cognition. She is the lead compiler of two dictionaries of Isthmus Zapotec within a participatory and interdisciplinary model. The La Ventosa Diidxazá Lexico-botanical Dictionary was published in 2019 with over 1000 specialized entries and multimedia assets. Gabriela served as Curator of Linguistics at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution and in its Recovering Voices initiative which she directed between 2014 and 2016. She holds a doctorate in linguistics from the University at Buffalo.

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? 

Shortly before the first time I presented at the LSA Annual Meeting, held in Anaheim, CA in January of 2007. In 2019 I became a life member of the LSA.

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

I have been a member of the Committee on Endangered Languages and Their Preservation for many many years.

What are you currently researching/working on?

I became a linguist in order to contribute to the sustainability of Indigenous languages in Mexico, where I was born and raised. I continue to work on Mesoamerican languages and have focused in particular on the documentation of Zapotec languages. I recently published lexico-botanical dictionary which is part of a larger lexicographic documentation project for Diidxazá (Isthmus Zapotec, zai). Now, many Indigenous Mesoamerican languages have communities not only in Mexico but also in the United States. At the Language Revitalization Lab at the University of Oregon Linguistics Department we are working towards developing resources to support the continued use of these languages –all of them endangered– in diaspora contexts.

Now, in my past role as Curator of Linguistics at the Smithsonian Institution, I became heavily involved in the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages which I co-direct with Daryl Baldwin since 2014. Along with a team of invaluable collaborators, we have been able to advance the tools and training that we can offer Community Researchers to carry out the rigorous and long-term archive-based research for the revitalization of awakening languages. . At the Language Revitalization Lab at the University of Oregon Linguistics Department we are working towards developing programmatic approaches to supporting archive-based research for the revitalization of awakening languages.  

I have also devoted the last few years to developing approaches to carry out comparative analysis of revitalization practices around the world. I therefore carried out the Survey of Revitalization Efforts along with an army of collaborators, notably Rachel Vogel and Uia John Patolo, and documented 245 revitalization efforts around the world. I expect to advance this work further with the hopes of identifying predictive factors in revitalization. Alongside this work, I have collaborated with various colleagues and the UNESCO to develop a large-scale survey on language use around the world with the goal of developing recommendations to the international community as to the critical importance of linguistic rights for the attainment of sustainable development goals and human rights.

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

Early on in my graduate studies, a mentor asked me why I was interested in working “with endangered languages”. He found this line of work to be depressing. Fast forward 17 years and working on language revitalization (a different focus than that on endangered languages!) is a vibrant field of constant innovation and growth. Language revitalization is a rather new endeavor in human history and it is astounding to see it’s rapid expansion. Linguistics has changed significantly -although undoubtedly not enough– to be of service to language revitalization practitioners around the world. The literature on linguistics and language revitalization has exploded in the last ten years and collaborative, community-based research has become the standard for best practices to strive for. This has been a rapid and much needed transformation that creates tremendous opportunity for Linguistics to make a tangible contribution to humanity.

What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

I was always greatly stimulated by the writings of Len Talmy from whom I learned about Semantics at the University at Buffalo.

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

As Joseph Campbell –not a linguist but a scholar of comparative mythology and religion– used to say, follow your bliss. Make sure to go into Linguistics with passion so that it is a meaningful and rewarding part of your life. I left a lucrative career in Graphic Design in order to become a Linguistics and I am grateful every day for having taken that detour.

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

The linguistics discipline needs to open up to a diversity of ways to think about language. More and more members of language communities –especially communities whose languages are being revitalized– are engaging in linguistic analysis. However, the motivations and expectations can often be different from those of academically-motivated linguists. Yet, the work of community researchers allows linguistics to be of tangible benefit to society and enhances the rigor and worth of linguistic analysis with unique community perspectives. As a discipline we need to be open to these perspectives and given them the same weight and value, if not more, as academic perspectives.

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

I see the LSA as being the convening ground within which we are able to shape the direction in which our field should go. This is especially important in terms of leading the Linguistics discipline in such a way as to address pressing societal issues. An example of this is the attention that has increasingly been given to issues related to endangered languages and the perspectives and interests of Indigenous peoples. Much work remains to be done, but the Linguistics discipline in the United States has articulated and implemented many valuable responses.

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

I became a linguist with the goal of contributing to the sustainability of linguistic diversity in my home country, Mexico. As I learned about linguistics, I realized that learning about the diversity of languages in an objective way was a powerful tool for becoming an advocate for equality and social justice. Languages have long been used as tools for discrimination and marginalization and linguists are well positioned to provide sound, evidence-based arguments to support the equal treatment of all and the respect of linguistic rights and human rights more broadly.