The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. If you would like to recommend an LSA member (including yourself) for a future Member Spotlight, please contact Brice Russ, LSA Director of Communications.

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Brian Joseph, The Ohio State University

Brian Joseph photo

Brian D. Joseph is a Distinguished University Professor of Linguistics and The Kenneth E. Naylor Professor of South Slavic Linguistics at The Ohio State University.  He received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Harvard in 1978; after a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, he joined the faculty of The Ohio State University, where he has been for the past 35 years.  He served as department chair of Linguistics from 1987-1997. He has held fellowships from the Fulbright Scholar Program, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Linguistic Society of America.

He is author or co-author of 5 books and more than 225 articles on topics that range across the Indo-European languages, but especially Greek and Albanian, and that treat aspects of morphological and syntactic theory, and both internally and externally motivated change in all components of grammar.

Q:  When did you first join the LSA?

I joined the LSA in 1976, when I was a graduate student at Harvard about to go off to Greece to do research for my dissertation; I wanted to be able to take issues of Language with me to read so as to keep up with developments in the field (this was way before the days of internet and JSTOR and laptops and pdfs and such!).  I read issues of Volume 52 cover-to-cover during the year I was away.  I also saw joining the LSA as part of my “professionalization”, part of becoming a professional linguist, and, I confess, I was looking ahead as well to the following year when I would be looking for jobs and would be going to the LSA Annual Meeting as a result (Chicago, December 1977).

Q:  Can you briefly describe your involvement with the LSA during the time you’ve been a member?

So, I’ve been a member of the LSA for 38 years, and during that time I have attended dozens of annual meetings (the last 20 or so without missing one, I believe) and have given lots of papers at these meetings (and sister society meetings too).  Also, I had two stints as an associate editor of Language, taught at four LSA Institutes (1991, 1993, 1999, 2003), was director of one Institute (1993, at Ohio State), served on the Nominating Committee (1996, 1997, 1998) and a few ad hoc LSA committees, helped to found the LSA Committee of Editors of Linguistics Journals, and -- most important in my mind –- had the privilege of being editor of Language from 2002 through 2008.  Currently, also, I am the LSA Archivist.  I have enjoyed all aspects of my LSA involvement, and count as well my successful recruiting of new members from amongst my own students over the years!

Q: What is your own research about?

For the most part, my research has been focused on understanding language change at all levels (sounds, forms, sentence structures, meaning), though that has necessitated understanding language synchronically as well.  Most of my study of language change has started with Greek, both in relation to its genealogical relatives within the Indo-European family and in relation to its geographic neighbors in the Balkans.  Thus I have also worked a lot on Sanskrit (and have taught it for years at Ohio State), as a relative of Greek, and on Albanian, as a relative and neighbor. 

The genealogical work has been aimed at developing general ideas about how languages change over time, and the Balkan work has been aimed at developing a sense of how language contact affects, and effects, language change.  More recently I have become interested in what I call “language sustainability and resiliency”, looking at what factors play a role in language robustness or lack thereof, in part via fieldwork on the Greek dialects of southern Albania and on the effects of urbanization on Lithuanian.

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

I think that linguistics has often had a hard time justifying itself -- and linguists justifying themselves -- in American academia: 

Are we just about studying languages?  (Well, yes, in a way, but not in the practical way that many nonlinguists might think of first.) Are we just about grammar? (Well, yes, in a sense, but not grammar in anything like the way many nonlinguists conceive of it.)  Do we produce tangible benefits from our research? (Well, yes, but it depends on how “tangible” one considers knowledge about the human brain to be, or about human perception, or about human maturation and development, or about human evolution and migration, or about human expressiveness, or about human attitude-formation…)

Does what we do make a difference? (Heck yes, in many ways:  from recognizing dialect and language differences and their relation to prejudice and social injustice, to understanding speech and language perception, production, and processing and what that understanding means for speech and hearing pathologies and for computational natural language systems, from seeing the relevance of discourse in the classroom for real learning to appreciating one of the basic ways in which all humans are linked in the present day and across time, and so on…)

Linguistics has a tremendous amount of insight and both basic and advanced knowledge to offer academia (and the world), but we could do a much better job of making our contributions more widely known (one of the ways in which the LSA comes in, though we as members can each do our part as well).

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

As big and diverse as the LSA and its membership are, I think that its most important service to members (and to some extent as well to the field) is how the Society serves as a focal point reminding us of all that we have in common when it comes to our love of the study of human language in all its dimensions.  From the annual meetings and biennial Institutes that bring us all together physically, to the pages of Language that bring us together intellectually, the LSA should be a constant reminder for all of us that we are engaged together in this enterprise of the examination of the unique mode of human communication we call “language”.