Laura McPherson is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Dartmouth College. Her research is driven by primary fieldwork and in-depth description of tonal languages, primarily in West Africa. She has written two reference grammars of African languages, A Grammar of Tommo So (2013) and A Grammar of Seenku (2020). From a theoretical perspective, her work focuses on diverse aspects of tone, including its phonetics, its phonological representation, and its interfaces with morphology and syntax. She is currently conducting a cross-linguistic study of musical surrogate languages to document these endangered traditions and analyze their phonetic and phonological underpinnings.

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

When did you first join the LSA?

I first joined the LSA in graduate school, probably around 2010. 

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

I have attended several annual meetings, to present posters or papers and to be on both sides of the interview process. At the most recent meeting, I took part in the Pop Up Mentoring Program, where I mentored a couple of undergraduate students on taking the next steps towards graduate school. It is a great event and I encourage everyone to participate! Most recently, I joined the team at the LSA's newest journal, Phonological Data and Analysis, as one of three Co-Editors.

What are you currently researching/working on?

My most current project investigates linguistic structure in musical surrogate languages, like talking drums. These endangered traditions have received a lot of attention over the years from anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, but despite their communicative function and close relationship with language, they have remained largely ignored by linguistics. As a phonologist, I am interested in which aspects of phonetic and phonological structure get encoded into musical form: Tone? Syllable structure? Segments? If so, at what level of representation? What can this tell us about the phonological structure of the language and musicians' metalinguistic awareness? As a fieldworker and documentary linguist, my goal is to produce high quality documentation of these traditions, many of which are highly endangered as their roles are taken over by mobile phones and as traditional musicians take up new styles to appeal to a global audience. 

What is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today?

To me, the biggest challenge is in determining what kinds of work are viewed as valuable, and who gets to decide. As I mentioned earlier, linguistics as a field is incredibly diverse in the languages studied, the aspects of those languages (structure, usage, etc.), and the descriptive and theoretical approaches to these topics. Like too many other fields, linguistics has privileged certain voices over others, shaping what we accept as "core linguistics" and what is "at the fringes". We must fight the instinct to take the status quo as the only objective reality and imagine the ways in which our understanding of the language faculty could change and expand with the inclusion of other viewpoints. In an ideal world, the LSA Annual Meeting could facilitate this exposure, but it relies on each of us as reviewers to question our own assumptions about what is important. 

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

The LSA's most important services are the events that bring people together: the annual meetings and the institutes. I have not had the pleasure of attending an LSA Institute myself, but I have heard from numerous colleagues just how vital they were for their training and development, both in terms of what they learned and the people they met. As for the annual meeting, it is an opportunity to exchange ideas with friends and colleagues from all over the country and the world, and perhaps most importantly, from all of the subfields. No other conference captures the incredible diversity of our field in quite the same way.