About the LSA Member Spotlight

Originally created in 2011 and now making its debut on the new LSA website, the LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month.  If you would like to be featured in a Member Spotlight, or would like to recommend someone else to be featured, please contact David Robinson, the LSA's Director of Membership and Meetings.

Click here to see previous Member Spotlights. 

Sally McConnell-Ginet (Cornell Unviersity, Emerita)

Sally McConnell-Ginet began her academic life in philosophy and mathematics (AB,Oberlin College and MSc, The Ohio State University) before discovering linguistics (PhD, University of Rochester, 1973), a field allowing her to pursue her love of language and of analytical thinking. She is now Professor Emerita of Linguistics at Cornell University, where she chaired the Department of Modern Languages & Linguistics as well as the later Department of Linguistics, directed the Women’s Studies Program, codirected the Cognitive Studies Program, and directed the LSA's 1997 Linguistic Institute.

Though she still does linguistics, she has broadened her scope of activity since retiring, which she did in part so a younger linguist could be hired.  She not only walks and swims a lot, but she is more engaged with her local community: for example, she teaches math in a maximum security prison as part of the Cornell Prison Education Program, on whose board she also serves;  she swam across Lake Cayuga this past summer on her 75th birthday and, with lots of help from linguist friends, thereby raised nearly $19,000 for Hospicare, continuing to work with hospice post-swim; she engages with local professional theatre through board work, fundraising, and the like, and she and husband, Carl Ginet, indulge their theatre addictions as much as possible.  Good health (genetic luck!) has made these and other rewarding projects possible in retirement.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

In 1971, as a graduate student.

Q: Can you briefly describe your involvement with the LSA during the time you’ve been a member?

My first LSA talk was at the (now defunct) Summer Meetings in 1973 in Chapel Hill.  In the early 1980s I served on the (also now defunct) Language Review Committee, and subsequently on the committee that recommended Sally Thomason to succeed Bill Bright as Language editor.  I became a member of COSWL and then of the Executive Committee and of several other committees and in 1997 I directed the Cornell LSA Linguistic Institute.  From 1999-2004 I was Secretary-Treasurer, and in 2005 became VP/President Elect and in 2006 President.   

Q: What motivated you to join the Society and to continue or expand your involvement with it?

Harry Whitaker, a student of Vicky Fromkin’s and my syntax teacher, more or less commanded us graduate students to join.  I stayed and got involved both because of many wonderful people whom I met through LSA (Bill Bright, Elizabeth Traugott, and Gregory Ward are among the many whose dedication to LSA inspired me) but also because I believe strongly in LSA’s mission.

Q: What in your opinion is the most important service the LSA provides to its members?

Connecting us to one another not only within but also across specialties.  Institutes play an especially important role in forging those ties early and deeply.  I myself was a latecomer to the LSA Institute scene for family reasons but was well introduced to this wonderful linguistics tradition at the exceptionally stimulating Institute organized by Ivan Sag at Stanford in 1987.  Ivan's recent death leaves a huge hole, not only in the lives of his many good friends and colleagues but in the profession generally and the LSA particularly.  It is fitting indeed that there is now an Ivan Sag Institute Fund for student support at Institutes, a cause very close to Ivan's heart.

Q: To the field?

Representing us to the wider world.

Q: What is your current research and how did you become interested in it?

I’m working on word meanings and semantic change in sociopolitics and in our collective intellectual life. These topics have long interested me but I resisted them because they terrified me (and to some extent still do), being profoundly important and also incredibly challenging. Thinking about the interaction of language with gender and sexuality and working on those topics with Penny Eckert forced me from the relatively safe haven of formal semantics into the roiling waters of broader semantic and pragmatic inquiry.

My work on how debates over defining 'marriage' have been central in struggles over ongoing changes in marriage as a legal and cultural institution was first published in a festschrift for Larry Horn (a devoted LSA member), and I discussed this example briefly in my LSA Presidential Address of January 2007 and the subsequent 2008 Language paper, "Words in the World."  I continue work in this area, which may result in a book aimed not just at linguists but a wider general public—or may just lead to a few more papers.  

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

Wow.  I don’t know enough to single out a single biggest challenge. There are many within the discipline—the ongoing balance of work on structure and on change and, connected to that though differently bifurcated, the balance of formal and functionally oriented work.

But an overarching concern is the long-term survival of the field. And there I think LSA has a critical role to play in getting the distinctive contributions of linguistics to the understanding of language known among non-linguists: from schoolchildren to other academics, from a wide range of the general public to policy makers.