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Forecasting 2017 and Beyond: Linguistics

A&S News asked some Faculty leaders what’s ahead in their fields in 2017 and beyond.

Here’s what the head of our linguistics department, Keren Rice and her colleagues see coming soon.

Photo of Keren Rice in her office standing in front of a window smiling

Keren Rice, University Professor and Chair
Department of Linguistics

Answering the eternal questions at the crossroads of the disciplines

Linguistics is a discipline at the cross-roads of the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, having an important role in each area. From a public perception, perhaps the biggest single story of 2016 was the movie Arrival; however, throughout the year language behaviour was highlighted in the American presidential election and the debates over the gendered pronoun ‘they’, among other places.

Looking ahead, we expect that this increasing media coverage of language, much of which deals with the language of politics, sexuality, and aliens, will translate into students interested in studying linguistics. What are the questions that will attract them?

Many questions of linguistics are eternal. What is language? How much of language is specific to language and innate? How much of language follows from general cognition, and is learned through exposure? The tension between these perspectives continues, and newer methods allow questions about innateness to be looked at with fresh eyes. Other perpetual questions of linguistics are endemic to human interactions. Probably almost everyone notices that other people sound different than they do. Such linguistic choices garner considerable attention by linguists as well as by the public in understanding just what leads to different choices.

Big thinking with not (just) big data

The big data revolution affects linguistics, as it does many fields. Big data in linguistics is leading to advances in understanding topics such as how language changes and the importance of random probability distributions in language. Broad scale comparison of a type that has not been possible until recent years yields deeper insight into areas such as language acquisition, language use, and language variation and change. At the same time, the role of ‘small data’ continues to be strong, allowing for the study of complex problems in language that require in-depth analysis of a type that is often not available even with a large corpus.

Methodologies continue to evolve. We are developing new methods to learn about languages that are understudied, and languages where there are not many speakers, partly with the goal of documenting and describing them and partly with the goal of revitalizing them if this is desired by a community. We are developing methods for working between disciplines within linguistics sociolinguistics and formal grammar, sentence structure and prosody, meaning and processing, language change and cognition.

The language of reconciliation: Valuing and revitalizing Indigenous languages and engendering respect

Finding an appropriate balance between areas is a challenge that needs continuing attention if we are to come to an understanding of the complexities of linguistic systems and communication. We are also increasingly concerned with the interface between linguistics and communities. Linguists are involved in language revitalization and in language and justice, working to help the public understand how judgments about language can lead to discrimination. This important role of linguistics is in the Canadian eye at the moment as we celebrate the sesquicentennial with linguistic events, and as we look at the important role that language plays in reconciliation, both in terms of valuing and working to revitalize Indigenous languages and in seeking ways to respect people no matter how they speak.

Important to understand how people communicate both within nations and across the world and how language is important to identity

Perhaps at the core of most of the research done in linguistics at U of T is the attention to and analysis of variation in language. This includes variation in structures between language, variation across dialects and ways of speaking in Canada, variation in the speech of heritage language speakers and speakers of Indigenous languages, variation in what is happening in language change due to global communication, variation in how people process language, and much more.

To return to Arrival as a metaphor, one of its main messages involves understanding how to communicate with an alien race. A critical role that linguistics increasingly plays in our multilingual and multicultural country is to help to understand the kinds of variation that can create barriers to communication. As globalization advances, it is all the more important to understand how human populations communicate both within nations, no matter what their size, and across the world, and how language is important to identity.

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