UCSB Professor Marianne Mithun Elected President of the Linguistic Society of America

Illustration by Esther Liu

Jade Martinez-Pogue
National Beat Reporter

Marianne Mithun, professor in the linguistics department at U.C. Santa Barbara, was just elected 94th president of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA).

The LSA was founded in 1924 as a scholarly organization for linguistics. While it is based in North America, LSA has members from all over the world — 1,100 of which gathered at this year’s annual meeting. 

At the LSA’s annual meetings, graduates, professors, and undergraduates gather to listen to lectures, read papers, and hear from linguist groups. It is inclusive to non-academic linguist groups that work in industry. “Someone has to tell Alexa how to talk,” Mithun said in an interview with The Bottom Line (TBL).

Mithun serves on the executive committee of the association, which includes the president, vice president, past president, secretary, and treasurer. Mithun explained that being on the executive committee is similar to a three-year term, because you are on the committee before, during, and after serving as president. 

As president, Mithun and her committee oversee all the smaller subcommittees that make up the organization. Some of those subcommittees include diversity in linguistics, endangered languages and their preservation, and language in the school curriculum. 

“It’s a very lively, vibrant organization,” Mithun told TBL. In addition to their annual meetings, a big project that LSA undertakes every other summer is their Linguistic Institute. The Linguistic Institute is a six-week intensive program that different colleges host every year. 

“It’s like a summer camp for linguists,” Mithun said. “Faculty on the cutting edge of research in different fields come and give these intensive courses in the latest in what they’re doing.”

The institute allows linguists from all over to learn about the forefront of their career, meet other linguists, and establish long-lasting relationships.

Mithun’s specialty in linguistics is North-American Indian languages. Within her studies, she travels around to teach, preserve, and revitalize indigenous languages that are slowly deteriorating. Mithun first began studying this in addition to her other work, but became aware of how important it is to speak with good speakers while they are still around now that more languages are beginning to go extinct.

“Something that a lot of people have said to me is that my being president is a nice thing because it gives that aspect of linguistics the attention it deserves,” Mithun said. “It makes me quite happy.”

Mithun works with speakers who will become teachers by showing them the generalizations of the rules of the language so the speakers will know how best to teach their language to someone else. Mithun reflects on the communities in which she interacted, and could not choose a favorite. 

“I’ve been really lucky because all the people I’ve worked with have been fantastic people. I have been so fortunate to be able to work with them,” she said.

Mithun related the fact that by gaining a deeper understanding of how languages are the same and how they are different, you get a totally different view of what language is like. “When you’re documenting a language you kind of have to do it all,” she said. “And I love it all!”