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

Alan Yu is Professor of Linguistics and the College at the University of Chicago. He is a phonologist, with special interests in the phonology-morphology interface and experimental approaches to sound change. He also directs the Washo Documentation Project. He is (co-) Alan Yuauthor/editor of several books, including A Natural History of Infixation, Blackwell Handbook of Phonological Theory (2nd edition), and Origins of Sound Change: Approaches to Phonologization. He recently completed a term as Co-Director of the 2015 LSA Linguistic Institute, held at his home campus.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

In 1999, during my first year of grad school. 

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

I have served on several committees of the LSA, beginning as a student member on the Web Committee, which was later renamed the Technology Advisory Committee (TAC), which is now discontinued. I also served on the Program Committee and the Committee on Linguistic Institutes and Fellowships (CLIF). I have been to five LSA institutes, twice as a student, twice as an instructor, and, most recently, as a co-director of the institute held at the University of Chicago in 2015. 

Q: What are you currently researching?

My current research focuses on understanding the nature of individual variation in language and evaluating how variation at that level contributes to the emergence and propagation of new linguistic variants. I am also collaborating closely with colleagues in economics and law, looking at the speech patterns of the participants in US Supreme Court oral arguments over the past decades, in search for linguistic cues, particularly phonetic and phonological ones, the lawyers and justices might be using to style their interactions and to what ends. 

Q: What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

There are so many! But one of my all-time favorite is definitely Larry Hyman’s 1976 article on phonologization. This article lays out in a clear and concise way how one might conceptualize the progression of sound change. While people may debate the specifics of the model, the framework laid out in this paper really propelled the study of sound change forward by problematizing the nature of sound change as a multi-level problem, raising research questions that are still matters of great debates to the present day. 

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

One of the biggest challenges facing the field today is how we can effectively articulate the relevance of linguistic research to the general public. Since language is one of most accessible aspects of human cognitive abilities and cultural artefacts, many in the public have folk notions of what linguists should or should not study. Correcting misconceptions and educating the public about the values of studying the less obvious are paramount to the ultimate survival and vibrancy of the field, especially in the current climate of budget shrinkage at the state and national levels. 

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

There is a marked, and very much welcomed, increase in interdisciplinary collaborations and diversity of investigative tools used in linguistic research.

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

I would encourage them to meet as many linguists as possible, and I don’t mean just people within their subfield. You never know what you’re going to learn and what new collaborations you might start. I always think of myself as a linguist first and a phonologist second. Thus, learning what people in other areas of linguistics are up to and what excites them always makes me feel that I’m part of a much larger community. Btw, one simple way to meet lots of different types of linguists in a short period of time is to attend a linguistic institute! 

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

There are really many. I guess one of the most important services the LSA provides is hosting of the annual meetings, which afford members the opportunity to meet and gather, to exchange ideas, to build new professional connections and renew old ones. Also important is the LSA role as a vehicle for linguists to speak with one voice in national debates.