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 for a future Member Spotlight, please contact Brice Russ, LSA Director of Communications.

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Rusty Barrett, University of Kentucky

Rusty Barrett headshot

Rusty Barrett is an Associate Professor in the Linguistics Program at the University of Kentucky and co-director of the 2017 LSA Summer Linguistic Institute. He received his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on issues in sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, Mayan languages and language, gender, and sexuality. His book, From drag queens to leathermen: Language, gender and gay male subcultures is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He is currently writing a volume on language, gender and sexuality for Routledge’s Foundations in Linguistic Anthropology series.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

I first joined in 1992 soon in my second year of graduate school.  I remember because the first issue of Language that I received was the March 1992 edition with the set of articles on endangered languages that Ken Hale put together and it had a major impact on my career as a linguist.

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

I have been to a number of annual meetings over the years, presenting papers and participating in workshops. I have also taught at two Linguistic Institutes (2011 at the University of Colorado and 2015 at the University of Chicago). I will be co-directing the 2017 Linguistic Institute at the University of Kentucky.

Q: Tell us more about your work with the 2017 LSA Linguistic Institute.

Hosting the Institute is a celebration of the current growth of linguistics at the University of Kentucky. We will have a new linguistics department and doctoral program beginning in the fall of 2016 and have made four hires in the last two years. We hope that the excitement about linguistics at Kentucky will rub off on everyone participating in the Institute.  

Although we are still in the early stages of planning, we are working to create an environment that will foster interactions among participants and build a sense of community.  All of the classes will be one building (a state-of-the-art classroom building currently under construction). The dormitory we will use (also new) is right next door to the classroom building and the main dining facility (also new) and the library (not particularly new) are right around the corner. Our hope is that having all activities in a central location will make it easy to stop and spend time with other participants to talk about linguistics.

We are just beginning to plan the course offerings, but we will be following the model of the 2015 Institute by offering both 2-week and 4-week courses.  The theme, Language across Space and Time, highlights areas such as historical linguistics, language contact, and linguistic geography. The Institute is meant to provide students with exposure to areas of linguistics that might not be offered at their home institutions, so we also plan to have courses in a wide range of subfields, including psycholinguistics, computational linguistics, forensic linguistics, and so on.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s deciding whether to attend the 2017 Institute?

It’s going to be amazing!  There will be an exciting range of linguistics courses, workshops and events that introduce a wide range of methodologies and theoretical perspectives. The Institute is a rare opportunity to learn from the top scholars from around the world and to meet other students with similar interests. 

Also, Lexington is a wonderful place to spend the summer. Downtown Lexington (a short walk from campus) has outdoor concerts and film screenings throughout the summer and a farmers’ and artists’ market every Saturday. Lexington (“Horse Capitol of the World”) is surrounded by horse farms to the west and the foothills of Appalachia to the east. The nearby Red River Gorge is a great spot for hiking or rock climbing, there are numerous local sites of historical interest. We will also have the obligatory trip to the various distilleries along the Bourbon Trail.

Q: What are you currently researching?

My current research focuses on Mayan language revitalization in Guatemala. There have been people writing in Mayan languages for two thousand years, but language policy in Guatemala has historically suppressed the widespread use of indigenous languages. In the last twenty years or so, there has been a push to use Mayan languages in a number of new contexts such as social media, journalism, legal documents, academic prose, literature, and popular music. I am interested in the linguistic forms that mark these emergent registers.

One might expect that these new registers simply build on patterns found in Spanish registers, which would already be familiar in Maya communities. However, I am finding that in many cases, the new registers are built on grammatical forms unique to Mayan languages and are often quite distinct from their Spanish counterparts. Most recently, I have been looking at hip hop music in Mayan languages, working with Tz’utu Baktun Kan, a Tz’utujil Maya rapper and visual artist. The linguistic-poetic structure of Tz’utu’s hip hop lyrics is much closer to pre-Columbian texts in Hieroglyphic Maya than it is to contemporary hip hop in Spanish or English. So, I’m interested in how traditional forms of verbal art come into play in the process of expanding domains of language use in the context of revitalization.

Q: What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

I would have to say Edward Sapir’s 1915 article “Abnormal types of speech in Nootka.” My graduate advisor, Tony Woodbury, suggested that I read the paper when I first started graduate school and I still find myself going back to it for inspiration. Sapir’s article was important in challenging me to think critically about the social meanings that can be linked to linguistic variation. We tend to think of sociolinguistic variation as conveying information about the speaker, but the variation in Nootka was used when talking to or about specific types of individuals. The social categories marked in Nootka also challenge us to think about what our own assumptions concerning the types of information conveyed by variation. Most research has focused on variation related to social class, gender, or ethnicity, but Sapir describes specific forms used to index categories like people who are left-handed, people with back problems, or people who are greedy.

It is only quite recently that sociolinguistic theory (such as Penny Eckert’s work on indexical fields) has broadened our understanding of the meaning of variation in ways that can capture the phenomena that Sapir describes. Also, the way that Sapir links patterns in the grammar both with social interactions and with forms of verbal art is something I strive to achieve in my own work, although I will never do it as well as Sapir did! It’s a fascinating read and even though it was published a hundred years ago, it challenges many of the assumptions that are still prevalent in contemporary linguistic theory. 

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

For members, I think the LSA’s most important role is providing opportunities to build connections between linguists, particularly through the Annual Meeting and the Linguistic Institute.  For the field, I think the most important service of the LSA is promoting the field by letting the world know what linguistics actually is and why the work that linguists do is so important.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say to the LSA membership as a whole?

Just that we hope to see you in Lexington for the 2017 Summer Linguistic Institute!