Episode 38: Anthony C. Woodbury on Language Documentation & Field Linguistics Training
September 29th, 2022
MTB: Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and today’s episode is with Anthony C. Woodbury. Anthony C. Woodbury is a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin where he holds the Jesse H. Jones Regents Professorship in Liberal Arts. He earned his B.A. and M.A in Linguistics from the University of Chicago and his PhD in Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley. He has taught in the UT Linguistics Department since 1980, serving as its chair for nine years. He was elected Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America in 2017, and Vice-President and President of the Society for 2022 and 2023.
Woodbury’s research focuses on the Indigenous languages of the Americas and how they reveal general as well as historic linguistic diversity and creativity on the parts of their speakers. Themes in his writing have included tone and prosody; morphology, syntax, historical linguistics; ethnopoetics, speech play, and verbal art; as well as language documentation, revitalization, and the role of linguistics in the struggle for human rights and intellectual justice, especially under conditions of language shift that is directly or indirectly coerced. He is also co-director, with Patience Epps, of the digital Archive for Indigenous Languages of Latin America at UT’s Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. He now centers his teaching on PhD and other training in linguistics for speakers of Indigenous languages of the Americas.
This interview was particularly exciting for me. Of course, I am excited about every interview and every guest I have on the podcast, but this one was especially thrilling because Tony Woodbury is one of my linguistic heroes. He’s someone who has written several very well-known and influential pieces on language documentation and language revitalization, and he was also kind enough to provide a reading list of sorts which I will be linking in the show notes, so if you’re interested in some of the pivotal pieces that Tony has contributed to the field, you can check those out. And during this interview, I was particularly struck by Tony’s commitment to training PhD students and just students in general who are speakers of Indigenous and endangered languages. You can really tell that this is something that he is very passionate about and cares a lot about. Several of the guests on this podcast have actually been students and mentees of Tony, so that was kind of nice to hear a bit more about their work from his perspective.
And the last thing that I’d like to mention at the top of the show before sharing the interview is just to remind everyone that if you have already worked your way through the Field Notes back catalog, you can check out the Field Notes Patreon page. There are monthly mini bonus episodes that are released just for Patreon supporters at the $5 per month tier and above, and the topics of these mini bonus episodes often they are with guests of the podcast who came back to answer a few more questions. Sometimes I poll the Patreon listeners and ask them what questions they would like upcoming guests to respond to, and there are also several episodes on academia and language-documentation-adjacent topics. There’s a recent episode with long-time friend of the pod Lauren Gawne of the Lingthusiasm podcast and the Superlingo blog. She came on Field Notes in season one to do a regular episode, and she recently did a mini bonus episode on data citation. There’s an episode on PhD time and task management that I think anyone in academia could probably benefit from, not just PhD students. That’s with Sarah Dopierala. And another mini bonus ep that recently came out was one I did by myself on my tried and true resources for all things language documentation. So if you’re interested in checking that out or if you’d like a way to support the podcast, you can find the Patreon page at patreon.com/fieldnotespodcast, and I’ll link that in the show notes as well. And of course, thank you so much to people who are already Patreon supporters. Your support helps me keep the podcast free of ads, and it also supports several of the tools and services that are needed to produce this podcast. So yeah, thank you so much for your support.
MTB: Hi, Tony. How are you doing?
Anthony C. Woodbury: Hi, Marti.
MTB: Thank you so much for making time out of your busy schedule to chat with Field Notes. The first thing I would love to ask you is, how did you first become interested in linguistics?
Anthony C. Woodbury: How did I first become interested in linguistics? I think it all started in fifth grade …
Anthony C. Woodbury:… when on a Monday the teacher said, “All right, we’re going to diagram sentences,” and they told us what a noun and a verb was and an adjective, and by the Wednesday, we were already making these, you know, kind of old school sentence diagrams and I was saying to myself, “Wow, this stuff is at least as complicated as math,” but I noticed that we all learned it so quickly that we must have known it before. And that, it just amazed me that there’s this incipient linguistic awareness that you have that is so close to the surface but still hidden to you. And that was where it started.
And then a few more years after that, my mom went back to school. She finished her BA, and then she went to Yale to do a PhD in anthropology, and she immediately gravitated towards linguistics within anthropology and worked with Floyd Lounsbury and started to go to Nedrow, New York, to Onondaga in Upstate New York and work with people there who were speakers of Onondaga. So I had an awareness of linguistic fieldwork from that when I was in high school. And then when I got to the University of Chicago, I immediately made a beeline for the linguistics department and just had such an incredible guidance and mentorship from faculty there, but also from the graduate students who were there at the time. And so that really got me launched, and so I’ve been sort of hooked on linguistics from the beginning. And fieldwork per se, at the University of Chicago, Jerrold Sadock was a syntactician, but he also had been doing work in Greenland…
MTB: Oh, wow.
Anthony C. Woodbury: … on Kalaallisut, the Indigenous language of Greenland, and so I got hooked on that and then came back to the Yupik-Inuit-Unangan languages when I was in graduate school and started doing work in Alaska. So that’s basically the real short story.
MTB: Yeah. Wow. That’s so cool. That’s so awesome that your mom like did linguistic fieldwork before you did, but I’ve never…
Anthony C. Woodbury: Oh, yeah.
MTB: … heard that before. That’s really nice. Okay, so you mentioned… Were you able to go to Greenland and do fieldwork in Greenland as well?
Anthony C. Woodbury: I never went to Greenland, no. I just sat with lots of grammars and dictionaries and other people’s work and tried to figure out some things about syntax, but that got me interested in trying to actually work with a language on a much broader level and a much more holistic kind of a way, which was my opportunity when I got to Alaska.
MTB: That’s amazing. Okay, so then so then you went to Alaska and that was your first fieldwork that you did in graduate school. What was that like? Where did you go from there?
Anthony C. Woodbury: Well, in graduate school, the person who was my mentor was Mary Haas, who was a student, actually, of Edward Sapir’s, and she worked in just all over the place in North America, and so that kind of inspired me to be working in North America on a language family that I was a little bit familiar with, so I went to the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks at the University of Alaska where Mike Krauss had gathered an amazing group of people very, very centered around Indigenous linguists who were working on dictionaries and texts in their languages. So I asked, you know, “Where would be a place where there hasn’t been a lot of work done on a Yupik-Inuit language?” and they sent me to Chevak, Alaska, on the west coast of Alaska on the Bering Sea, and there, a specific variety of Central Alaskan Yupik called Cugtun is spoken, and I had the opportunity to spend time in Chevak over a number of different visits and to write a doctoral dissertation about the grammar of that, and also to work with people who were interested in being recorded and recording stories and transcribing them, translating them together with Leo Moses, the person I got to know there who’s a just a magnificent linguistic scholar. So I think I’ve put, for the podcast, I gave a link to the book of stories that came from that, so if anybody’s interested in looking at that. And there’s also a link to an .mp4, I think, that has the audio for those stories, so…
MTB: Excellent, and I’ll make sure that’s in the show notes so people can find it easily if they’d like to check it out. And since then, what have you done in terms of groups that you’ve worked with? I know you’ve done a lot of different things, and I’d love to hear about the progression since your doctorate.
Anthony C. Woodbury: Sure. It’s actually very few, very few places, actually. So I continued working with Central Alaskan Yupik, mainly in Chevak, but also in Bethel, Alaska, that lasted… Well, it’s still going, in a sense, but the last time I was there was in 2002, and right at that point, some big changes happened at the University of Texas and we started to focus on Indigenous languages of Latin America. And at that time, along came Emiliana Cruz, who is a native speaker of one of the Chatino languages, and the year after that her sister Hilaria Cruz came along, who you spoke with a couple…
Anthony C. Woodbury: … of weeks ago, I think. And so Emiliana and Hilaria kind of got me into working in Mexico, so as our department started to focus on Indigenous languages of Latin America, I quickly studied Spanish and started to try to become involved with that, and that is a project that’s still going, really, that where we’ve done work mainly in certain villages, but basically the language family is spread out over about… There are three languages. One of the languages is spoken over about 16 villages, and in each village, it’s substantially different. So Hilaria is a speaker of one of those 16 varieties called Eastern Chatino. And so our project involved a lot of work all throughout the Chatino languages, so those 16 villages, I think we’ve made it to almost all of them. And then there are two other languages, one spoken in an area more inland called Zenzontepec and another spoken just in one little village by mostly older people called Tataltepec. And so I’ve, you know, had a chance to work in all of those places, but especially within Eastern Chatino, I’ve been working in a village called San Marcos Zacatepec that is a… It’s a place where a form of Eastern Chatino is spoken, but it’s a super conservative form, so it basically has a lot of the original structure that is not present in most of the other Eastern Chatino languages, and a very, very complicated and interesting tonal system.
MTB: Oh, cool.
Anthony C. Woodbury: But it’s spoken just by very, very much older people, so there are really only a couple of hundred people left who speak it, and they are usually in their 60s or more. And so that is the place where I’ve been doing a lot of work more lately. Although during the pandemic I haven’t been down there, I’m hoping to get there in a couple of months.
MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely, and so you mentioned like since the pandemic, you haven’t been able to do fieldwork.
Anthony C. Woodbury: No. No, I haven’t.
MTB: Which I think is the case for most people, but I’d love to hear more about what other recent projects, fieldwork, and other linguistic projects you’ve been working on. Is there anything you’d like to share with us?
Anthony C. Woodbury: Sure, but let me just also say about fieldwork that it’s kind of transformed for me in a lot of ways, and it’s… So one thing that I’ve always liked to do is to visit other people’s fieldwork, so that’s something that I started doing, actually, when I was a graduate student, and I’ve, you know, had a chance to visit different places in Australia, for example, where colleagues have been doing fieldwork, and just the chance to meet people in communities where language issues are very ascendant and language preservation and reclamation is very important has been just a really important adjunct to doing fieldwork for me.
And then there’s two other things, actually. One has been teaching field methods. So I teach a course called Field Methods in Linguistic Investigation that I think I’ve probably taught it 20 times now, and I always find a speaker of a language that I’ve never encountered before, and then, you know, we try to work with that. And so that has been a source of a lot of interesting exposure to languages. And then the final thing, and this is probably the most important for me now, is incorporating so-called fieldwork within a broader framework of training people who are speakers of various languages to be linguists, to get their PhDs in linguistics. And that segues into, actually, the question that you just asked: what are my projects?
And I would say that everything kind of centers around this big change that we had about 20 years ago here. The big change was that UT decided to really, the University of Texas decided to really invest in Latin American studies. And at the time, I was chair of the linguistics department and I thought, “Gee, this is something that we could do too,” and so we hired Nora England, who was well known for her work in Guatemala, particularly with Mayan languages. And the thing that was so striking about Nora was that unlike most academics who try to put their hat in the ring for a job, she wasn’t talking about, “Oh, well, I need money for this kind of research and we’ll do this and we’ll do that.” She only said, “There’s really only one thing that I need. I need to have money to support students from Latin America who are speakers of Indigenous languages as they try to get their footing in English so that they can be graduate students. If we do that,” she said, “Everything else is going to fall in place. Academics are great at getting money for their research projects, and just don’t worry about that.” And she really targeted the thing that was most important in trying to establish a program like this. And now, 20 years later, we’ve had 10 students come through that program. You’ve interviewed two of them. You interviewed Gladys Camacho Ríos a little bit back, and she’s just finishing her PhD right now. She’s a speaker of Quechua from Bolivia. And you also spoke with Hilaria Cruz, who’s one of the two original Chatino speakers who came to our department and got her PhD with us. And so that basically formed, becomes a framework for doing work with languages. It got me into working with Chatino languages, but it also, in working with people, gave me exposure to other languages. So in some sense, I guess you could call it fieldwork, although I don’t really think of it as fieldwork, but working with Gladys, for example, gave me exposure to Bolivian Quechua and working with another student who just finished, Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He’s a speaker of Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec, also from Oaxaca, where Chatino is spoken. And, you know, I got a lot of exposure to that through working with him, so it’s a completely different sort of orientation, but it still is part of, I think, the larger enterprise that we’re all involved in. And sadly, Nora died in January, and so then starting on projects, one project that we have (I think I sent you a link to it) was a series of oral history interviews with Nora. We have this class for research and documentary linguistics that has everybody who’s involved in it — students and faculty — and so one hour each week last fall (this was at a time when Nora knew that things weren’t going so well), we talked with Nora about her life in linguistics and in working with Indigenous languages in Guatemala. And so you can listen to Nora. She’s crisp, interesting, gripping. I promise it’s not a slog to get through seven hours of it. It’s very, very, very engaging stuff. And there’s a lot of basic, I guess you could call it sort of theory or an approach or a framework to the use, how linguistics fits in, how fieldwork training fits into the kind of enterprise that she got going with us, this enterprise of having people come and get their PhDs in linguistics. That’s been just a very, very big thing for me. And so you can, you know, you can see more about that in that video series. Right.
MTB: And I just want to say about Nora England as well, I watched the preview that you sent to me of her video lectures, and you’re absolutely right. She’s so mesmerizing. You can… The passion that she had for her work really comes through, and she’s so funny. I didn’t… Like I had read publications by her, but I never had a chance to meet her and yeah, I didn’t know that she was such a, like, funny and, you know, very vivacious and just completely mesmerizing to hear her talk about, you know, the work that she did and so relatable as well, when she was saying like, “Oh, I can’t go to Guatemala. I have a husband, and I can’t speak Spanish.” [laughs]
Anthony C. Woodbury: Yeah, right? [laughs]
MTB: And then she did.
Anthony C. Woodbury: Details, details.
MTB: Yeah. Just wow. Really, really inspirational.
Anthony C. Woodbury: Yeah. Right, and so just to get into this a little bit more, what exactly is her program? Well, it’s kind of, as she says actually in that very first preview that we put up, the point basically is to — that what we as in linguistics have is a bunch of tools, tools for finding things out about languages, and those tools we can teach to other people, and the goal of it, as she says, is to have the actual experts on the languages be people who are speakers of the languages. It’s not good enough to say, “Oh, well, there’s some gringo who is an expert in our language and we can always call on that person.” No. It’s better to have people who are speakers of the language, people who belong to the communities, to be the actual experts, and she dedicated herself to making sure that that happened, and you can hear all of the different things that transpired as that took place.
MTB: Yeah, I think that came home for a lot of people during the pandemic as well, because the language documentation and the projects that were able to continue were the ones that were community-led and community-centered where people, you know, people in the communities were the linguists who had been perhaps trained by outsiders, and things could carry on because people were still working in their communities versus like, like you said, the one gringo who has to fly in and come into the community as an outsider.
Anthony C. Woodbury: Yeah, exactly. Right.
Anthony C. Woodbury: Right. Right. And, you know, I mean, but people have done all kinds of amazing things. I’m nowhere near up on it, but things that people have done for remote fieldwork, for fieldwork using all kinds of electronic goodies to accomplish things, but that’s sort of her program. And for me, basically, what I see in it is, I think it’s easy to agree that the tools of doing linguistics are a very fertile and useful thing, but there’s a… There can be a way that people look at those tools, and then they look at the discipline, and they look at how those tools are used, and so when you start to look at disciplinary agendas, that’s the point where people sometimes wonder, “Gee, you know,” and I’ll take this maybe from the point of view of a person working on their PhD, they say, “Gee, linguistics is great. I’ve been able to figure out things about my language, but where does it go? I mean, what are we what are we going to do with it? Am I going to write a dissertation about relative clauses in my language and compare it to relative clauses in various other languages and find out whether we’ve pushed the boundaries of relative clauses or not, and whether that’s going to be sort of the point of the dissertation?” And if you think about it, what linguistic…
Linguists are a very fractious bunch. Right? We love to argue with each other and fight and have camps and have different schools of thought and frameworks and stuff, but one of the things that we all seem to agree on is that we’re trying to figure out what is universal about human language, and if we’re going to look at what’s not universal, it’ll be just to sort of see how that pushes the boundaries. In other words, the anchor of everything is the study of universals, and that can be… That’s not the only agenda that one can have, and it can be in some ways an off-putting example, only to try to see how my language sort of fits in among other languages.
And so another dimension that I like to think about is to try to look, to try to recall that linguistics is also a part of the humanities and that when we study language, whether we’re looking at grammar or whether we’re looking at how people use language in more discursive kinds of settings, that we’re also, that we’re looking at something that is a product of history, a product of minds honing something, of minds seeing particular patterns and taking them in certain directions. And so I’m very interested in trying to sort of emphasize that aspect of things.
When I first started in linguistics, I would read about, let’s say, Algonquian languages, and I was just amazed at the sort of, not just, you know, that they do this or that they do that or they have this category or that category, but just sort of the whole suite of characteristics that Algonquian languages would have, and how they would tend to have that, you know, from one language to another. In other words, that these, you know, seemingly very, very exotic or exotically constituted patterns were so persistent and so strong across these languages. And so to start to look at the humanistic dimension, which I would define really as looking at things from the point of view of what we can appreciate about and what we can interpret from what has happened in history or what people have done, rather than only looking at kind of what it is and what it isn’t, which would be the more scientific kind of dimension — which also is important, obviously.
So I think I should give you an example of this just to make this a little bit less sort of, you know, kind of abstract. So with the Chatino languages, when Emiliana first came to us working on her PhD, her variety of Chatino hadn’t been described really. Another variety of it had been described pretty well, actually, that was pretty close, that it was kind of on the verge of mutual intelligibility with her variety — work by an excellent linguist named Jeff Rasch who worked on Yaitepec Eastern Chatino. But anyway, we basically were sort of on our own in trying to figure things out, and Emiliana talked about this very sort of poignant situation that she had been in where she basically decided, “I’m going to write my language”, and so she would sit down and she’d write it out, and then the next day she’d look at what she had written and she couldn’t figure it out. And it was poignant and tough because Spanish speakers were always going around and saying, “Well, that’s not really a language. It’s a dialect that you speak, and it can’t really be written because a dialect is something that’s not written. A language like Spanish is what’s written,” and then only to find that it’s a little bit confirmed when she tries to write it. So clearly, the reason for the difficulty was that there are tones in Chatino, and she wasn’t writing the tones. So in her particular variety of Chatino, a single syllable could have one of 14 or 15 tonal patterns. And I say “tonal patterns” because sometimes you squeeze more than one tone onto a single syllable. And if you don’t keep track of that, you’re not going to be able to really recover what’s there.
And Emiliana’s eventual dissertation basically explored that question. Her dissertation was called Tone and the Function of Tone in San Juan Quiahije Eastern Chatino. And so basically what she found was not only that, yeah, you have to know what the tone is in order to figure out what the word is, but that the tones are doing all kinds of different things, that the tones are giving you the differences between, let’s say, a third-person singular and a second-person singular of a verb, or they may be giving you a progressive aspect versus the habitual aspect of a verb, or it may be giving you different kinds of possessed forms of a noun. And she also found that tone was doing other things too, that sometimes you’d have tones that were real sort of specializers, that they would only occur, let’s say, in loan words coming from Spanish or that they would occur in words for cute animals.
MTB: Oh, wow.
Anthony C. Woodbury: And there would be these sort of classificatory specializations that would happen. And then also, if you knew the tone of some parts of a verb paradigm, you could figure out the rest of them, but you have a different pattern for the grammatical categories depending on where the tone is for, let’s say, the third-person singular past tense. And so all of these things made tone very, very, very important. And she then was immediately eager to teach the language to teach writing to kids who were native speakers in her town, San Juan Quiahije. Kids, pretty good speakers, and so it wasn’t an issue to revitalize the language, really. It was just to get people more aware of the language. So it’s kind of like when I was in fifth grade. She was able to teach kids so quickly to write all 14 of those tones that you knew that they had to have known it all along in some sense, and with doing that and then being able to see the tonal systems of different villages that may have sounded different but which underlyingly had the same tonal set so that the same words that would come out with, say, a certain tone in her variety would come out with a different tone in another variety, but it’d always be those same words so that it was basically a consistent set. So she came up with the idea of labeling words as tone group A, B, C, D, E, F, G, so super abstract sounding but corresponding across all of the varieties. So if it’s a G, and so… I’ll just give you an example. If it’s the word for “chicken,” in her variety it’ll be ktu [with a tone rising from low to high] like that. If it’s in the Yaitepec that I mentioned, it’s kwtu [with a tone descending from very high to mid], and if it’s in San Marcos Zacatepec that I’ve been working on it’s kwito, with [level] mid-tones [on each syllable]. So basically that is group G, and it whatever is Group G is going to have those sounds. That’s not the cute animal one because chickens aren’t cute, but…
MTB: Okay. [chuckles]
Anthony C. Woodbury: But anyway, that’s sort of the way that works. So this then has kind of led into our work in other varieties. And the thing, the point that I want to emphasize, though, is that by… So you think of tone, right, as the quintessential example of something that linguists, you know, love to be obsessed with. You know, fine, good, but, you know, what relevance does it have to people in general? Well, if writing your language is important and if your language is like that, then tone starts to be important. And so there then get to be a lot of contentious, you know, issues within school systems about, you know, “All right, so you want to write Chatino, but we don’t want to have the gringos imposing these funny tones on us, and we want to write it using, you know, whatever.” And so there’s two issues here, obviously. It’s the, you know, figuring out tones is something that you have to kind of learn the tools before you can do it. It’s not that hard if you know the tools, but if you don’t know the tools, you can’t really do it. It’s also something that’s pretty easy to learn, as Emiliana was able to demonstrate, but in a way, the sort of the breakthrough that comes with being able to do that allows you to sort of kind of change the discourse, that basically to decolonize the writing of Chatino, what you’re doing is you’re saying, “No, we assert that this language has tones. They’re very important. They do all of these various things that Emiliana was able to document in her dissertation,” and so linguistics starts to sort of aim in a different direction. We’re not so interested in trying to figure out, you know, what’s universal, but rather to figure out, what is it that constitutes this sort of bedrock core of Chatino that happens to be tone? And we can then ask ourselves, you know, in a kind of a humanistic vein of, why? And of course, we don’t know, have any good answer to this. How is it, or why did tone become so focal and central? Why didn’t it go away in, you know, some varieties? It really stuck around everywhere even though it transformed its actual shape from one variety to another.
And so that’s what I mean when I say that ideally what we want to do is to not just train people to be linguists and then they sort of follow the same programs that have been ascendant within linguistics as a discipline that hasn’t been as inclusive as it could be and to try to — you know, and this is hard work; this is not, you know, for the faint of heart — but to try to come up with different kinds of ways to go in linguistics. And so it just seems to me that looking at the humanistic side of things is a way to make some space…
Anthony C. Woodbury: … for that. Probably, there are other ways, too.
MTB: Yeah, that actually leads really nicely into the next thing I wanted to ask you about, which is, what… So what do you foresee in the future? What further research would you like to see or what direction do you think we’re going in?
Anthony C. Woodbury: Well, what, I mean, again I want to sort of put this in sort of an institutional framework. I think that right now, I want to really see students be… So one of the ironies, okay, about linguistic fieldwork or documentary linguistics is, it’s sort of come to be a kind of an area of linguistics, is that it doesn’t — that there’s a sort of a whole earlier sort of stage in linguistics where there was a lot of work where people would be working on their own languages, they’d make up sentences, they’d put stars or two stars or a question mark and star next to the sentences that they weren’t sure about, and they basically did a lot of work through introspection rather than the more, you know, now approved way of doing research where you go out and have texts, and you curate the texts, and you archive the texts, and all that stuff. But if you think about it, that was a, in some ways, a kind of a lost art that’s going to be very important for people who are working on their own languages. So one of the things that I’d like to see in the future is more focus on taking all of this expertise that a lot of our colleagues actually have, because they work on English or Japanese or whatever is it they’re speakers of, and they can get very, very, very deeply into their languages through that. And so to try to bring that back into language documentation, I think, is a kind of a very big goal.
Anthony C. Woodbury: Another is just trying to make the landscape for graduate students a little bit more open so that they don’t have to only just maybe, you know, write about relative clauses in their language, but that they can… You know, relative clauses are the thing, that’s fine, but that they could try to really think about what the tools of linguistics can do for them. There are some answers that we all know that the tools of linguistics are pretty good for coming up with grammatical descriptions and making language learning materials if you want to revitalize your language, but there are other things too, and I was impressed by Emiliana’s creativity in dealing with that. And I’ve actually seen different kinds of creativity of that sort in the work of other students that I’ve worked with. So Ambrocio [Gutiérrez Lorenzo] who I just mentioned, was very, very good at bringing the kind of refinement of semantic judgment that was a part of the earlier linguistics into his work on his own variety of Zapotec. His dissertation was on complementation in Zapotec, so it was much more kind of traditionally linguistic in that sense, but still, it had a certain spin to it that was different from other work that’s been done on Zapotec languages. So that’s something that I really would like to see more of, and I think that that’s important.
MTB: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. Can you tell us more about your main research interests and what areas of linguistics you’re interested in working on?
Anthony C. Woodbury: Yeah, so basically I’m interested in the Indigenous languages of the Americas. That’s sort of the frame in which I think, and it’s been very nice in our department because we’ve had this focus on Latin America and formerly or along the side, I’ve had an interest in in Indigenous languages in North America. We now have one student who is a native speaker of Sugt’stun, which is a variety of Yupik spoken on the Alaskan Pacific Coast. It’s sometimes called Alutiiq, but it’s not Aleut, which is now normally known as Unangam or Unangas. But she is a first-year graduate student with us, just finished her first year, Ivana Ash, and she is working on her language. And so that basically is… So, again, our teaching enterprise seems to kind of cover the whole ground for me, thanks especially to Ivana for joining our program.
But when you get into kind of linguistic areas, I’m actually interested in in all of them, but ones that have particularly grabbed me have been in sounds, tone, and prosody. So tone with the Chatino languages, but that quickly moves you into morphology as well. And prosody, the Yupik languages are pretty notorious for having quite intricate prosodic systems that vary from one place to another, and in fact Ivana’s language has one of the most fabled and storied amazing prosodic systems of all. And also morphology, syntax, and historical linguistics are all of interest to me, and I do things here and there on those.
Another is an area that my colleague Joel Sherzer always framed as speech play and verbal arts. Some people talk about it as ethnopoetics, but basically it’s the study of any kind of artistry that people bring to their use of language. So in Joel Sherzer’s framing of what he called a discourse-centered approach to a language and culture, the times when people use their language in a way that’s heightened in some way is a kind of area where you get more rapid and instant insight into languages while at the same time, obviously, documenting a part of language that people are likely to put a lot of value in, and so that’s kind of an area that is important for me. And Joel and I used to teach a course called Speech Play and Verbal Art together, and then when Joel retired, I was joined by Anthony Webster and Patience Epps, my two colleagues. And so we wrote a couple of papers based on that. So there’s a paper that’s been wanting to come out for a long time but just not quite been out on how to document speech play and verbal art, and that’s an area that I’m interested in. So trying to put that together with documentary practice is something that I’m interested in.
The final area that I want to talk about is, you know, so these things are all kind of grow together, but basically language documentation and revitalization and the role of linguistics, so just framing what I was saying about the teaching language documentation, revitalization, and the role of linguistics in the struggle for human rights and intellectual justice, which is a term that I like to use for a lot of this, because basically, language is an intellectual attribute of all of us as humans and also us as humans belonging to groups that are constituted in one way or another and that are organized around particular languages, so that basically to tamper with people’s, you know, linguistic rights is to tamper with their intellectual options. It’s a form of intellectual injustice to take, to coerce people in the various different ways that we know that people can be coerced, from continuing with their languages and continuing to use their languages for all sorts of different things. So that basically is a framework, I think, that is useful for talking about some of these…
Anthony C. Woodbury: … issues.
MTB: Absolutely. Definitely. The last thing that I’d love to hear your take on is, do you have any advice for people who are working now in the pandemic on their PhDs?
Anthony C. Woodbury: That’s a really hard one, because, you know, I’ve seen — the creativity that I’ve seen people do dwarfs any speculations that I could make. But I would say the first thing, I mean, if you’re just starting out, the first, that you want to make sure that you’re up for really, really getting to know the lexicon and grammar of the language that you’re going to be working on if you’re not a speaker or of it, but if you are a speaker too, that you have to be committed to really, really digging into the full range of parts of the language as a linguist, and you also need to be very sensitive to sound structure, you have to be very sensitive to meaning and interested in meaning and discerning about meaning to be able to really to make progress. And especially about meaning, it’s a very different proposition depending if you’re a speaker or not a speaker. Being a speaker involves being able to be very discerning as you introspect, and not being a speaker, it means you need to really be sensitive about how you interact with people. And a kind of a related thing to that, this is a piece of advice that was sort of brought home to me recently, more recently, by Stéphanie Villard, who is one of the people who worked on one of the varieties of Chatino. Stéphanie said, “You know, if I had to do it all over again, I would have learned… I would have spent six months in Zacatepec” — she also worked in San Marco Zacatepec — “and just worked on learning the language.” Stéphanie is a really good language learner, and she actually sounds to me pretty darn good in that language, but she thinks that if she had spent six months there at the outset, that it would have gone better for her. And I think that’s a really important point if you’re not already a speaker of the language, or even if you are, just to get in contact with more people and converse with more people so that you’re really sort of primed for the task. I think that that’s just super, super important.
MTB: Yeah, that’s good advice. Thank you, Tony.
Anthony C. Woodbury: Sure.
MTB: Where can people find you online if they want to learn more about your work and read things that you’ve written? Do you have Academia or ResearchGate profile?
Anthony C. Woodbury: I actually do. I have Academia, so there’s a bunch of stuff on Academia that I gave you a couple of links. You can just google me and, you know, I’ll turn up here, and then I think there’s some YouTube talks that you could find.
MTB: Perfect. Great. Thank you so much, Tony.
Anthony C. Woodbury: Well, it’s my pleasure, Marti. Thank you.
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