Ball State University professors Mai Kuha, Mary Lou Vercellotti, Megumi Hamada, and Elizabeth M. Riddle share what role linguistics has played in their life and what it has grown to mean to them.
Languages have always had a central role in my life. Three languages were used regularly in my family when I was a child. In my teens, I tried to teach myself Arabic, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Old Norse, and Russian. I managed to get my hands on some books on linguistics somehow, even though no one I knew had ever heard of it.
I read about Washoe, the signing chimpanzee, who was about my age, and I came to regard her as a cousin I had never met. I read about the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” which is obviously very pleasing but was not presented for its aesthetic value, but for the purpose of showing that meaning and structure can be considered separately: the sentence is structurally fine but odd meaningwise. I began to learn that observing the precise details of how people say what they say can allow us to reach startling insights, to shed light on the inner workings of the human mind. Having always been introspective, I found it satisfying and intriguing to see a path towards understanding cognition more deeply, in a rational, systematic, evidence-based way.
For many years, I communicated with no one about most of these ideas. As an undergraduate, I tried to do the responsible thing and got a degree in computer science. Ultimately, I had the courage to come to my senses, and one day found myself in Bloomington, meeting with Dr. Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig to kick off my graduate work in linguistics at Indiana University. I remember nothing of that meeting, except that my gaze kept straying to a hanging on her office wall. There was text on it, a poem. The last line was shockingly familiar: colorless green ideas sleep furiously.