Presentation of the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award to Victor K. Golla for California Indian Languages (University of California Press, 2011)

by Andrew Garrett (UC Berkeley) 

It is a pleasure to present this award to one of my academic heroes, Victor Golla. The Leonard Bloomfield Book Award is the highest academic honor awarded to a member of the Linguistic Society of America. It celebrates a book, of course, but also a scholar in the community of scholars. So I will first to say a few words about that scholar. Everybody here knows how much Victor has contributed to the documentation and linguistic analysis of Hupa and the other Athabaskan languages of California and Oregon over the last 40 years, through many publications but especially his life-long collaboration with Edward Sapir and edition of Sapir’s Hupa texts, with an original grammar of the language masquerading as an appendix to that edition. We are also familiar with Victor’s learned engagement with the history of linguistic scholarship, manifested in a range of work but especially his edition of the letters between Kroeber and Sapir, founding figures of twentieth-century anthropology. What some of us may not appreciate, because the work has been so selfless, is that over the last 30 years Victor has probably done more to revitalize American Indian linguistics as a field than any other person. It was his leading role in the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, running the organization as it transformed from a seat-of-the-pants outfit to an international scholarly society with 700 members and two annual meetings, that guided us all collectively and brought new scholars into this most precious of fields.

I convey the respect of colleagues who could not be here, including three previous winners of the Bloomfield Award. They asked me to say the following: On behalf of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, its current president, Emmon Bach of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, writes this:

“Let me join many others, unofficially as friend and long time admirer and as current president of SSILA, an organization for a long time associated with and shaped by him, in congratulating Victor Golla on this well deserved honor!”

On behalf of the SSILA membership, its current Executive Secretary, Ivy Doak of the University of North Texas, writes as follows:

“Congratulations, Victor! The officers and members of SSILA are a dedicated group who are continually inspired by your scholarship, leadership and editorial skills. Thank you for this exceptional publication, and for all you’ve done for the Society and the field.”

Lyle Campbell, an Americanist at the University of Hawaii who is one of the few people to have won the Bloomfield Book Award twice, offers the following praise:

“I always count on Victor for the definitive word on the languages of California and for enlightenment on numerous other American Indian languages; I am deeply impressed by his detailed knowledge of the history of American Indian language study and have cited his work in this area a lot; and, on a more personal level, I was always grateful for and relied on Victor’s erudite recommendations of novels to read, both those involving Native American themes and others. Victor is truly a learned man. I suspect the magnitude of Victor’s contribution to and impact on Americanist linguistics will perhaps never be fully appreciated, though it is massive, through his dedication to and service to the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas (SSILA) and through the marvelous contents of the SSILA newsletter under Victor’s editorship. His book on the California Indian languages will be a monument for generations to come. Congratulations Victor!”

Our colleague Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institution, one of the leading historical linguists specializing in North American languages, writes this:

“This is a terrific book, a wonderful contribution that only you could have written, in fact a perfect confluence of author and subject matter.”

Our colleague Marianne Mithun of UC Santa Barbara, herself a previous winner of the Bloomfield Award for her book on the Native languages of North America, writes this:

“Heartfelt Congratulations, Victor! This is a magnificent work, one that will be treasured ever more as years go by, and one that no one else could have created. You know so much, but even more important, you have a deep understanding of each of the pieces and how they fit together. You have always been this way. We are so fortunate that you have given us this rich, multidimensional view of the whole. It is scholarship melded with art at its very best. I wish I could be there in person to share in the celebration of this beautiful work. It is also a celebration of what you as a person have done for the whole discipline concerned with the indigenous languages of the Americas. You have been there from the beginning. You have made the field what it is today, setting it up on its wobbly young legs and carefully nurturing it into the vibrant community it is today. We are grateful, Victor.”

Cathy O’Connor of Boston University, a specialist in Northern Pomo, adds the following words:

“Victor, eight years ago, when I introduced you at your plenary address to the LSA, the book was 80% done, you said. It’s not remarkable that you have now won the Bloomfield Book Award. What is remarkable is your knowledge and dedication, and the generosity you have shown to the Americanist field in linguistics, in several different but equally excellent bodies of work. Deepest appreciation and thanks.”

And Keren Rice of the University of Toronto, herself the winner of the first Bloomfield Award for her grammar of the Athabaskan language Slavey, and last year’s President of the Linguistic Society of America, writes the following:

“Victor stands out to me in many ways. I knew Victor first as an Athabaskanist, where his work on Hupa stands out for its clarity and its depth. He has broad knowledge of Pacific Coast Athabaskan, and it is exciting that he is now passing on that knowledge to students. Victor has always been interested in language broadly, not just for its structure. We have seen themes that have been important to him for many years becoming important more generally in the field, and this is, I think, due much to Victor’s efforts. And last, but far from least, Victor is a remarkable citizen of his field. While others were involved with SSILA, I think it was really Victor who set the standards very high for what SSILA might be, with the amazing newsletter that he edited for so many years. I wish I could be present, Victor, but will be thinking of you from a distance. Thank you for all that you have done.”

(We’re almost done!) Before the ceremonial presentation itself, I want to add a few words of my own about the winner of this year’s Bloomfield Award. Leonard Bloomfield was one of the giants of twentieth-century linguistics, an architect of an academic discipline. With this award the Linguistic Society of America honors a volume that (to quote) “makes an outstanding contribution of enduring value to our understanding of language and linguistics.” The stated criteria for the award are novelty, empirical import, conceptual significance, and clarity. And Victor’s book California Indian Languages certainly qualifies. There is nothing like it for any area of the Americas; in a specialized field where too much lies unpublished in archives or obscure publications, Victor brings everything together in one book. This is the necessary starting point for any linguist interested in any indigenous languages of California — almost a third of the languages of North America.

It is also a significant contribution to the history of linguistics, with its precise accounts of canonical figures like Kroeber, Sapir, and their students and colleagues, but also key 19th century nonlinguist researchers, and in the 20th century the zoologist C. Hart Merriam and the famously secretive linguist John Peabody Harrington, each of whom created priceless documentary corpora of California language material that Victor fully describes.

Most broadly, of course, Victor’s book is about what makes California so distinctive as a language area: why it is so complex and multifaceted. In creating an explanatory portrait of this area Victor brings together linguistic detail and ecological context in the first complete and convincing account of its overall history and dynamics. He does so with a beautifully assembled volume, one so appealing that it is also bound to draw general readers into its subject and into an engagement with linguistics, California’s Native languages, and the people who speak them or seek to restore them. It is unusual to find a significant original contribution to scholarship, like Golla’s, that is also accessible and of obvious interest to the general reader. Such work is finally an important public service to our field.

It is a pleasure to present the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award to Victor K. Golla for his 2011 book California Indian Languages.