Watkins in front of blackboard with hands on chair

The Committee on Ethnic Diversity in Linguistics (CEDL) and the LSA salute Black History Month 2018 by shining a light on the history of Blacks in linguistics.* Most of the work of early Black linguists, as that of other Black scholars, has remained in the shadows of second-class citizenship, even though in a number of instances, their contributions have been foundational, in spite of the many challenges they faced throughout their careers. We put in the limelight LSA member Mark Hanna Watkins (1903-1976), who in 1933 earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology, specializing in linguistics, from the University of Chicago. At the time, such departments were where the majority of linguists were trained, there being no linguistics departments. His 1930 master’s thesis was on “Terms of Relationship in Aboriginal Mexico,” dealing with seven genetically related language groups: Otomian, Tarascan, Aztecan, Mixtecan, Zapatecan, Mixean, and Mayan. His 1933 dissertation, “A Grammar of Chichewa: A Bantu Language of British Central Africa,” was the first grammar of an African language written by any American.

He was a first, or involved in first-time events, throughout his lifetime. He was the first African American linguist to earn his Ph.D. with a dissertation in linguistics. Lorenzo Dow Turner (1890-1972), the Gullah specialist, who is much better known, is generally claimed to be the first African American linguist. His Ph.D. was in English (University of Chicago, 1926); and, he did not learn linguistics in the setting of a graduate school curriculum. Nevertheless, Turner’s training, under renowned linguists such as Sapir, and his oeuvre, notably Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949), established him as a trained, professional linguist regardless of how he received his training. According to the LSA Bulletin, Dr. Watkins first joined the LSA in 1935 when he was affiliated with Fisk University.

It is worth noting that Watkins’ dissertation was a descriptive grammar of the Bantu language Chichewa (Malawi), employing the most sophisticated structuralist methods of grammatical description available at the time. It is remarkable that two of the first six full-length African language grammars were written by African American linguists. Number six, Grammar of Shilha (1955), was written by Joseph Applegate, a fellow student of Chomsky’s at Penn with Zelig Harris. Watkins’ dissertation was published in 1937 by the LSA as number 24 in its Language Dissertations Series. Of interest is that Watkins’ principal informant (or language consultant, as many say today) was Kamuzu Banda, who for several decades until 1994 was prime minister of Malawi. Banda was a student at Chicago at the same time as Watkins, who had planned to work on a Native American language, as most anthropologists of the era did, but had difficulties with the Native American consultant and switched to an African language.

Watkins’ dissertation committee advisor was Manuel J. Andrade. Leonard Bloomfield was an external member of the committee, with whom Watkins had also studied at Chicago. Watkins had taken a number of courses from Sapir, who was very influential and helpful during Watkins’ career and who probably would have been his advisor had Sapir not accepted a faculty appointment at Yale in 1931.

His last academic affiliation was at Howard University, the nation’s sole historically Black comprehensive research university, in Washington, DC. He was among the group of scholars who founded there in 1954 one of the earliest African studies programs and became its director. He retired in 1972. Over the span of his career, Watkins’ research orientation was decidedly more in line with Sapir’s than Bloomfield’s. It was multidisciplinary, drawing on anthropology, sociology, and linguistics. He researched and wrote on the languages and cultures of Africa (primarily Bantu), Native America, and African America and Haiti. Given the many funding challenges he faced and the career limitations facing nonwhites during his lifetime, his publication record is impressive: the Chichewa grammar, which remains today an indispensable reference and the only full-length reference grammar of the language; twelve articles; at least three government documents; and forty-five book reviews in prestigious journals, including Language. An exemplary scholar, as he lay on his deathbed, he dictated to his wife the final revision of “Setswana Phonemics: Sefokeng Dialect,” which appeared posthumously in 1978.

On a personal and wistful note, Watkins is one of quite a few Black scholars and other notables whom I have met or had near-encounters with during my lifetime but was too young to understand who they were or was not given the information I needed to understand who they were. Among them were stars of the Harlem Renaissance and a famous Black historian and college president. I was participating in a foreign affairs summer program at Howard in 1964, utterly unaware that Watkins existed, and in the late 1960s had his office pointed out to me by a good friend who was a graduate student in African Studies. An elderly gentleman was sitting inside. By that time, I had decided to leave foreign affairs for linguistics; but, as fate would have it, she said only that he was an anthropologist, never mentioning his life in language.

*We take this opportunity to pay homage to Margaret Wade-Lewis (1945-2009), the historian of Black linguistics. The contents of this brief biography of Watkins are based on Wade-Lewis 2005.

-- Arthur K. Spears, The City University of New York


Available from Routledge


Wade-Lewis, Margaret. 2005. Mark Hanna Watkins: African American Linguistic Anthropologist,” Chapter 7, in Histories of Anthropology Annual, Vol. 1, edited by Regna Darnell and Frederic W. Gleach, pp. 181-218. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press,

Watkins, Mark Hanna. 1978. Setswana Phonemics: Sefokeng Dialect, in Linguistic and Literary Studies in Honor of Archibald A. Hill, Vol. 2, edited by M.A. Jazayery, Edgar C. Polomé, and Werner Winter, pp. 353-358. The Hague: Mouton.

Editor's Note: As the LSA begins planning for the celebration of its Centennial in 2024, we are pleased to publish this brief essay about the early days of the Society's professional staff. This is the sixth such feature in our new series, “This (time) in Linguistics History,” to be published on a periodic basis via the LSA website. We invite LSA members to submit their ideas and contributions for future history features. The new feature will be coordinated by LSA Archivist Brian Joseph, in consultation with the LSA Secretariat. The trigger event for this periodic feature could be an important day, week, month or year in the history of the LSA and/or the field of Linguistics. We are happy to publish as many features as often as LSA members are willing to contribute. Please submit your ideas via e-mail to Brian Joseph or Alyson Reed.