Of the 23 recipients of the 2010 MacArthur Fellowships (the so-called "genius grants"), two are linguists: Jessie Little Doe Baird, program director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, and Carol Padden, a professor in the Communications Department at the University of California San Diego who specializes in sign languages. Congratulations to them both!
Descriptions of their work from the MacArthur Foundation after the jump.
Jessie Little Doe Baird is a linguist who is reviving a long-silent language and restoring to her Native American community a vital sense of its cultural heritage. Wampanoag (or Wôpanâak), the Algonquian language of her ancestors, was spoken by tens of thousands of people in southeastern New England when seventeenth-century Puritan missionaries learned the language, rendered it phonetically in the Roman alphabet, and used it to translate the King James Bible and other religious texts for the purposes of conversion and literacy promotion. As a result of the subsequent fragmentation of Wampanoag communities in a land dominated by English speakers, Wampanoag ceased to be spoken by the middle of the nineteenth century and was preserved only in written records. Determined to breathe life back into the language, Baird founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, an intertribal effort that aims to return fluency to the Wampanoag Nation. She undertook graduate training in linguistics and language pedagogy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked with the late Kenneth Hale, a scholar of indigenous languages, to decipher grammatical patterns and compile vocabulary lists from archival Wampanoag documents. By turning to related Algonquian languages for guidance with pronunciation and grammar, this collaboration produced a 10,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary, which Baird continues to develop into an essential resource for students, historians, and linguists alike. In addition to achieving fluency herself, she has adapted her scholarly work into accessible teaching materials for adults and children and leads a range of educational programs—after-school classes for youth, beginning and advanced courses for adults, and summer immersion camps for all ages—with the goal of establishing a broad base of Wampanoag speakers. Through painstaking research, dedicated teaching, and contributions to other groups struggling with language preservation, Baird is reclaiming the rich linguistic traditions of indigenous peoples and preserving precious links to our nation’s complex past.
Jessie Little Doe Baird received an M.Sc. (2000) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has served as the co-founder and director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project in Mashpee, Massachusetts, since 1993.
Carol Padden is a linguist whose research focuses on the unique structure and evolution of sign languages—how they differ from spoken language and from each other—and on the specific social implications of signed communication. Sign languages, with rare exceptions, are not transliterations of a voiced language but rather have internal structure with their own vocabulary, syntax, and grammar (e.g., using placeholders in visual space and movement of signs to convey subject, object, and verb). In her early research on American Sign Language, Padden clarified misconceptions about the grammatical use of visual space, showing, for example, how signers use points in space to refer to different subjects. More recently, Padden and colleagues determined that Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), a new sign language, makes greater use of the signer’s own body to show the subject of the verb, as opposed to using space in front of the signer. Although the various sign languages in use around the world are relatively young and rapidly developing, Padden and her colleagues have demonstrated that emerging languages, even if not yet mature, can nonetheless quickly adopt complex grammatical structures such as grammatical subject and word order, calling into question long-held beliefs about natural language progressing from simple to complex. Much of Padden’s work also focuses on the social context of signed languages, such as language acquisition and evolution in culturally and geographically diverse populations (e.g., Israeli Sign Language) versus isolated, tight-knit communities (e.g., ABSL). She also writes extensively about historical factors impacting the development and use of sign language, contemporary obstacles to interaction and integration of deaf culture within larger society, and the underappreciated heterogeneity within deaf cultures (such as the different ways in which deaf people learn sign language and interact with other deaf people). Through her fundamental linguistics research and her reflections on the relationship between language and culture, Padden demystifies sign language and opens windows of understanding regarding how languages evolve over time and the role of language in building and maintaining communities.
Carol Padden received a B.S. (1978) from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. (1983) from the University of California, San Diego, where she is currently a professor in the Department of Communication and associate dean for the Division of Social Sciences. Her publications include the co-authored volumes Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988), Inside Deaf Culture (2005), two textbooks on American Sign Language, and scholarly articles in such journals as PNAS, the Journal of Linguistics, and the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.