Laurel Sutton (she/her) is a linguist, strategist, and co-founder of Catchword, a naming and branding agency. Her love of linguistics began with a BA in Linguistics at Rutgers University and continued in graduate school at UC Berkeley, where she specialized in both sociolinguistics and phonetics. She has co-edited two volumes on gender and linguistics, as well as a volume celebrating Robin Lakoff’s contribution to the field. She is the President of the American Name Society and a Committee Chair of the Linguistic Society of America, and has served as an expert witness on naming and branding issues. She is delighted that her most-cited paper, written in 1994, was one of the first to look at the issue of gender and online communication (“Using USENET: Gender, Power, and Silence in Electronic Discourse”).

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 joined the LSA in 1994, when I presented my first paper at the annual conference in Boston (part of the requirements for my Master’s degree at UC Berkeley). I was a member until I left academia in 1998. I rejoined in 2015 when I became involved with the Linguistics Beyond Academia SIG.

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

As a student, I attended the conferences regularly and was part of COSWL; I was also fortunate to attend the summer Linguistics Institute at UC Santa Cruz in 1991, which was fantastic. Since I’ve rejoined, my focus has been on expanding the activities of the SIG, which includes holding sessions at the annual meeting, organizing webinars through the LSA, and running in-person events. All of this work is done by the SIG team of co-convenors. I always look forward to attending the annual meetings, especially the events held by the sister societies, like the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year Meeting.

What are you currently researching/working on?

Besides the SIG, I devote my non-work energy to the American Name Society, of which I’m the current President. I have a deep interest in onomastics, both personally and professionally, through my company, Catchword (a naming and branding firm). I’ve published papers about topics ranging from the morphology of the names of store brand sodas to a phonetic analysis of the names of the comic book characters, the Legion of Super-Heroes. It’s important to encourage a linguistic approach to onomastics, one that’s data-based and which relies on sound linguistic evidence, alongside the more traditional literary analysis found in the literature. It’s always a pleasure to introduce linguistics students to naming, both as a field of research and as a profession!

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

Lack of employment within academia. This is a challenge for the humanities as a whole, one which has been accelerated by the past year’s pandemic. It is compounded by the lack of knowledge on the part of industry about what linguistics actually is, or why it’s valuable to employers. This is changing, but slowly.

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

I’ve personally been thrilled to see linguists embracing technology: as a tool to enable research, as a specialty in industry (NLP, UI, UX, etc.), and as a field of research. My most cited paper, written in 1994, was one of the first to look at the issue of gender and online communication (“Using USENET: Gender, Power, and Silence in Electronic Discourse”); at the time the topic was seen as an amusing hobby. Now there are volumes of great work on every aspect of online communication, in every language and every culture.

Linguistics has also permeated culture in ways that were not possible before the era of social media; some linguists (like Kate Whitcomb @laymanslinguist and Nicole Holliday @mixedlinguist) have tens of thousands of Twitter followers, allowing them to educate and entertain folks about linguistics in engaging and relevant ways.

And the field has, thankfully, become more diverse - I now see so many more women and people of color working as linguists.

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

The LSA can provide a community for linguists, as well as networking opportunities - although to date this is useful only to linguists within academia. Given the lack of academic jobs, the majority of linguistics students have no support or guidance for careers after degree completion, and this is a challenge that the SIG is working to fill. There are few services within the regular activities of the LSA which address the occupational diversity that we know exists, but which has not been recognized by the Society or most of Departments. And it's this need that we focused on during the SIG’s 2021 Linguistics Career Launch, with a goal of providing information and support, both practical and emotional, to linguists entering the job market. The SIG would like to put itself out of business, so to speak; once enough departments and administrators understand the importance of preparing students for industry careers, and actively serve the needs of these students, the work of the SIG will simply become an ongoing service of the LSA.