Historical Linguistics at the LSA

The LSA is winding up now in Pittsburgh, with the final sessions this morning.

This is the first LSA in my memory (which goes back only 10 years) where it was possible to spend pretty much all the time in sessions on historical linguistics. It was also a year where there were lots of sessions on language documentation, and more papers on interesting languages scattered throughout the rest of the program than I remember from previous years. I think this is a really good sign of the breadth of the discipline.

Within historical linguistics specifically, Joe Salmons (from the University of Wisconsin) and I organised a plenary symposium on historical linguistics. Our aim in choosing speakers was to showcase the state of the art in the field – its application to a diverse range of languages and using diverse methodologies. I think we succeeded in that, if I do say so myself. We had papers on Hittite (Ancient Anatolia) and Ju-|Hoansi (Namibia), on Chamic (spoken in Vietnam) and South America, and on English and Germanic. We had sociolinguistcs, morphologists, syntacticians, phoneticians, and others, and we talked about brains, society, and prehistory.

Furthermore, I cannot resist pointing out that the average age of speakers was 42 and the gender balance was, if anything, skewed towards females. I point this out for one reason only; I have lost count of the number of people who have intimated that historical linguistics is, in the words of a certain senior male figure on the LSA, the providence of the “aged gentlemen at the end of the corridor.” Not true. The centre of gravity of the field is well and truly the offices of the junior people by the photocopiers.


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