Shobhana Chelliah is a Professor of Linguistics and Associate Dean for Research and Advancement at the College of Information, at the University of North Texas (UNT).  She is a documentary linguist interested in creating descriptions that expand typological discovery, primarily of the Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in Manipur state, India. Her publications include The Grammar of Meithei (Mouton 1997) and the Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork (co-authored with Willem de Reuse, Springer 2010). With support from the National Science Foundation, she’s created a digital resource for the Lamkang Naga language (Southeast Mainpur) housed at the UNT Digital Library. 

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

 Reviewing a health brochure (center) with young
speakers of Lamkang Naga in Hyderabad (2017).

When did you first join the LSA?

It must have been in 1989 when the LSA was in New Orleans.  I’m looking forward to getting back to there for the 2020 meeting!

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

I’ve been a presenter, panel member, panel organizer, and Junior Chair and Senior Chair of the Committee for Endangered Languages and their Preservation (CELP).   I’ve also attended, in part or whole, 4 amazing LSA institutes - Tucson, Santa Cruz, Albuquerque, and Santa Barbara. 

What are you currently researching/working on?

I’m currently working on creating a library of interlinear glossed texts (IGT) for the Tibeto-Burman languages of Northeast India.  I am curating these from generous Sino-Tibetanists and contributing my own IGT collections for Meiteiron (Manipuri) and Lamkang Naga.  A team of us at the University of North Texas (Alexis Palmer, computational linguist; Oksana Zavalina, information scientist, and Christina Wasson, anthropologist) are collaborating to make this library, which we are calling the Computational Resource for South Asian Language (CoRSAL), searchable across IGT, extensible for additional analysis, and useful for researchers and language pedagogy. In support of this effort, I’m also engaged in capacity building in India through workshops offered on archiving as related to language documentation, linguistics training for students from indigenous populations, and championing IGT to supplement other data types typically collected by language documenters in India.  Students from the University of North Texas are partners on these activities.

I have also been moved by experiences related to me by the Lamkang Naga community to learn more about how political instability affects language endangerment.  I realized that while I had tools to help the community with documenting and describing language, I had no training to understand how history might influence engagement with documentary materials housed in an institutional repository, how communities might want to document conflict, and how to do that documentation without causing harm.  With NSF funds, I’ve been working with two colleagues in UNT’s Political Science Department, James Meernik and Kimi King, to bring together political scientists working on language issues and linguistics working in politically unstable regions to see how we could support research in both areas. The initial Language Endangerment and Political Instability conference is described at linguisticsandpolitics.unt.

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

Our biggest challenge and also opportunity is making linguistics impactful.  We do consider broader impacts in the NSF sense of improving societal outcomes but what about scientific impact?  We could contribute significantly to language-based research in social and behavioral sciences, which in many instances theorize at a lexical level and work with European languages or translations into European languages.  WEIRD!  In addition to collaborative research and packaging language science for a non-linguistic audience, it would be transformative to these sciences if we partnered to create, from events like war crimes testimonials, digital corpora that are in reusable data formats with metadata and linguistic annotation. I get it that we still need do our core research but in all of our subdisciplines from Phonetics and beyond - if we could see new applications for our sciences, might that not guide us to new discoveries? A value of language documentation and description is that new data prevent us from circling back to the same theoretical issues and data sets.  New applications would help in the same way.

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

The summer institutes and yearly LSA meetings allow us to move beyond the circle of friends we’ve cultivated in area and subdiscipline conferences.  The opportunities for learning and new partnerships are many and allow for the fertilization across subdisciplines we need for exciting science.

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

Get your local community hooked on Linguistics!