The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. If you would like to recommend an LSA member (including yourself) for a future Member Spotlight, please contact Brice Russ, LSA Director of Communications.

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John R. Rickford, Stanford University

John Rickford headshot

John R. Rickford is J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, and President (2015) of the Linguistic Society of America.  His interests include sociolinguistics, language variation and change, US English, especially African American Vernacular English, and pidgins and creoles.  He is (co-) author/editor of several books, including Dimensions of a Creole Continuum; African American Vernacular English; Spoken Soul; Style and Sociolinguistic Variation; Language in the USA; and African American, Creole, and Other Vernacular Englishes in Education.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?
Probably in 1973, when I attended the memorable Linguistic Institute at the University of Michigan.

Q: Can you briefly describe your involvement with the LSA during the time you’ve been a member?
Well, in addition to attending and presenting at Annual Meetings and Institutes like other LSA members, I was a member of the LSA Executive Committee in the 1990s, and taught at the 2003 Linguistic Institute at Michigan State University (where I held the Herman and Clara Collitz Professorship in Historical Linguistics and gave a plenary Forum lecture in that capacity), and at the 2007 Linguistic Institute at Stanford (where Ed Finegan and I did a course on Stylistic Variation).  I also presented papers at the Creole Workshop at the 1986 Linguistic Institute (CUNY, Graduate Center), at the Workshop on Ethnographic Methods in Sociocultural Linguistics, and at the Robert Le Page Workshop, both at the 2007 Institute (Stanford).  I was a member and Chair of the LSA’s Committee on Ethnic Diversity in Linguistics (CEDL), and also presented a paper on “Increasing the Representation of Under-Represented Ethnic Minorities in Linguistics” at CEDL’s Symposium on Diversity in Linguistics at the LSA Annual Meeting in Minneapolis in January 2014. 

At the January 1997 LSA Annual Meeting in Chicago, while serving on the Executive Committee, I introduced (at Geoff Nunberg’s suggestion) the four-point resolution on the Oakland School Board Ebonics issue that the LSA membership overwhelmingly approved after minor revisions, and In 2002 (after a nomination by Mary Bucholtz) I received the LSA’s Linguistics, Language and the Public Award, primarily for my talks, articles, opinion pieces, and interviews with print, radio and TV media about the Ebonics Issue.  (My Spoken Soul book, coauthored with Russell Rickford, had also won an American Book Award in 2000.) 

In 2003 I wrote the “What is Ebonics (African American Vernacular English)” information booklet/pamphlet for the LSA’s FAQ (“Frequently Asked Questions”) series. 

In 2013 I was nominated and elected LSA Vice-President and President-Elect, and began serving on the Executive Committee in that capacity in 2014, becoming President at the end of the Annual Meeting in January 2015.

Q: Why did you choose to run for LSA President? 
Well, to be honest, it was flattering to be nominated, but I also thought I might be able to help improve this already sterling organization--for instance, by developing opportunities for linguists in industry (not just in academia), and by enhancing our outreach, training and hiring of linguists of color.

Q: What do you aim to accomplish during your term as President? 
With the help of a creative working LSA committee, I’ve already begun to work on the issue of increasing linguists’ awareness of job opportunities in industry (through the well-attended panel on this topic at the January 2015 LSA meeting in Portland), and hopefully, students’ preparation for such jobs before they graduate.  While college and university jobs in linguistics and related fields will always be important, there simply are not enough such positions for the increasing numbers of linguists graduating from college each year.  And industries like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Lexicon Branding, Ethnic Technologies, Nuance and scores of others need the expertise of members of our profession to surge forward and excel. 

I have other ideas for improving LSA meetings, increasing our representation of people of color, and improving our outreach to the media and the public that I’ll present and develop at our always stimulating Executive Committee meetings, where I also get new insights and brainwaves.

Q: You're well-known, not just for your research on African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), but as an advocate for the legitimacy of AAVE as a linguistic variant, its use in educational contexts, etc.

Do you feel that cultural perceptions of AAVE have changed since the Oakland and Ann Arbor 'linguistic debates', and what can linguists do to continue to promote linguistic diversity?
I’d like to think that cultural perceptions HAVE changed since these big debates.  Maybe they have, a little, especially in the widespread popularity of rap and hip hop, and Black comedy, both genres that often include AAVE.  But in relation to education, I see more evidence of stasis, and continuing ignorance of the systematicity of  AAVE and its potential to help inner city kids master mainstream English as an additional register (via contrastive analysis) and do better in school more generally. 

And in relation to employment, housing, and criminal justice, I continue to see lots of evidence of dialect discrimination and prejudice.  There is a real need for us to develop our understanding of issues like how much and why AAVE and other vernacular varieties pose problems of intelligibility (as was apparently the case with the testimony of Rachel Jeantel in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case), and to come up with new ways of combating linguistic and dialect prejudice.

Q: What are you researching currently? 
Oh, many things, but primarily two: 

(1) The question of the relative independence or interaction of linguistic and social constraints on sociolinguistic variation. To make this more specific: to what extent do women and men, or upper class and working class speakers, differ not just in terms of the probability of their using specific features, but in terms of their linguistic conditioning?  Can we predict or formulate any general principles about when these two axes of variation are likely to be independent or not?  At present I’m investigating this issue primarily through the study of relativizer omission in nine varieties of English, from the Caribbean, the UK and the USA. 

(2) How much does neighborhood mobility influence linguistic competence and performance?  With colleagues and students at Stanford and other institutions/universities (Chicago, Pennsylvania, Pitzer, National Bureau of Economic Research) I’m studying the speech and reading of hundreds of African American and Latina/o youth and adults in five US cities, to see if there are significant differences after eight to ten years between those who were offered vouchers to move to lower poverty areas (the experimental group), and those who were not (the control group).

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members?
The opportunity to share, learn about, and discuss new research and ideas at the LSA's Annual Meetings, and to give and take courses, exchange ideas and network with other students and scholars at its biennial Linguistic Institutes.  The LSA’s flagship journal, Language, and its other publications and FAQ series are also invaluable sources of information and inspiration for linguists, scholars from other fields, and the general public.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today?
That is a BIG question, difficult to answer outside of specific subfields.  But speaking at the most general level, I think it would be how to keep refining our theoretical models and methods, and attracting the best students to our field, while also trying to find ways to make our profession more relevant and useful to schools, courts, governments and other institutions in the US and around the world.

Most faculty members would probably agree with the theoretical side of this answer but would happily ignore potential applications (apart from those in artificial intelligence or computer engineering).  But many students, graduate and undergraduate, want to do more with linguistics, and I don’t believe we should leave the question of how we can be useful to humanity (beyond “understanding language”) to those who self-identify as “applied linguists.”

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say to the LSA membership as a whole?
I suspect that my answer to the preceding question might generate enough thought and controversy, so let me draw the line here and save “anything else” for future opportunities.  Thank you for the invitation to share in this Spotlight.