Right angle turns

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Many, many years ago I was privileged to study American regional dialects with one of the leading dialectologists of that era, Raven I. McDavid. It was a career-changing experience for me because he taught me the sheer joy of gathering and analyzing the actual language spoken by everyday people in everyday settings. The focus of the Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada was on older people, mostly in rural settings, so he sent me out to interview and tape-record a large sample of such Americans, first in the northern half of Illinois and later in the rest of that state. My experience of listening to 70-80 year-olds talk about farming and other topics was new and exhilarating to this city boy, making the arduous task of doing the phonetic transcriptions of their speech rather exciting.

Only a few years after that I met Bill Labov, who provided me with another career-changing experience, for his focus on urban language with a range of informants of different ages, race, and socio-econonmic status opened the door to sociolinguistics for me. Bill's model led me to create the sociolinguistics program at Georgetown that continues to flourish after almost four decades.

Another right angle turn happened to me on a flight from Washington DC to Dallas in 1969. I was assigned a middle seat, where I couldn't help peeking at a manuscript being read by the man sitting next to me. It looked like a sermon, so I asked the man if he was a minister. He laughed and said, "No, I'm a lawyer," and went to on tell me  that the manuscript was indeed a sermon that was evidence in a case he was working on.

Probably out of politeness for my interruption, the lawyer asked me what I did for a living. I  told him that I was a linguist and that I studied the way people talk and that I traveled around the country tape-recording their speech. His response wasn't the usual, "Uh-oh, I guess I'd better watch my grammar." Linguists hear this all the time.

Instead, he was fascinated, and I soon found out why. He had a lawyer colleague who was in the midst of a long solicitation to murder case in which the prosecution's main evidence was a bunch of tape-recorded conversations between his client and an undercover agent. My seat-mate asked me if I might be interested in helping his colleague. I gulped, because I had never heard anyone solicit murder before. But I took a deep breath and agreed to listen to the tapes to see if there was anything I could contribute. This chance event turned out to offer me still another right angle turn in my career.

My analysis and subsequent testimony at that trial was credited with helping get an acquittal for the client and it opened the door to some three decades of my applying linguistics to criminal and civil lawsuits, which I'm still doing now that I'm in my late seventies. My earlier work in dialectology, sociolinguistics, and discourse analysis continues to play an important role in my forensic linguistics work. It feels very good when things come together like this.

If you're aware of such opportunities and have the courage to leap right in, they can provide exciting right angle turns in your career. It's likely that most of us get invitations to make right angle turns at some point in our lives, probably more than once. The key seems to be to take the best ones when they're offered and to avoid the ones that don't look like they'll take us anywhere we might want to go.

Most of my linguistics friends had little idea they'd end up doing what they're doing today. I suspect that if someone would collect their personal stories, it could make a fascinating book. 

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