Get to Know Your Instructors: Mark Richard Lauersdorf

We are excited to have Mark Richard Lauerdorf from the University of Kentucky back for another round of Historical Sociolinguistics at the 2019 LSA Institute at UC Davis. The first offering of this course was at the 2017 Institute. In this interview, we learn more about Professor Lauerdorf’s course, his message to young linguists, and his interest in horticulture (which is simply perfect for Davis).

Can you please tell us about your linguistic background?

I’ve always been interested in language. I have a strong memory of the July 1975 space mission where a NASA Apollo capsule and the (then) Soviet Union’s Soyuz 19 docked in space, and one of the major news magazines at the time included a brief guide to Russian phrases that one could expect to hear during the television broadcasts of the mission. As a 12-year-old kid I poured over those phrases (my first scientific linguistic analysis of a dataset!) trying to parse the Russian structures on the basis of the English translations and to work out the letter-to-sound correspondences on the basis of the layman’s pronunciation guide for the Cyrillic characters.

My formal study of linguistics started during my undergraduate work in German and Spanish, followed by graduate work in Slavic linguistics at the University of Kansas, and multiple years overseas at the universities of Münster and Mainz, Germany, and at various universities and institutes in Warsaw, Prague, and Bratislava. My early research orientation was comparative-historical, but changed to historical sociolinguistics for my PhD dissertation. From the start, my work has been driven (no pun intended…ever…) by data-driven approaches; and I work primarily with the languages of Western and Central Europe. The current “elevator version” of my research approach can be stated as “data-driven corpus-based sociolinguistic investigation of historical contexts of high language variation and strong language contact with complex socio-political and socio-cultural borders, using statistical and visualization methods of data analysis to identify salient patterns in the language data.”

I have held a series of different positions from the University of Kansas, to Western Oregon University, to Luther College, and now the University of Kentucky, where I teach and research in the areas of historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, language contact, and corpus linguistics, and I direct the Collaboratory for Research in Computing for Humanities.

When did you first join the LSA?

I first joined the LSA in 1991 as a graduate student and immediately began writing “Book Notices” (a now expired category of short descriptive book reviews) for the LSA’s journal Language, as a way to work my way into a professional writing and publishing regimen, and as a way of acquiring interesting new books that otherwise would have fallen beyond the reach of my graduate student book budget.

Can you tell us about the course you are teaching at the Institute?

I’ll be teaching the Historical Sociolinguistics course. This course was new to the line-up at the Summer Institute in 2017 and is back again for the UC Davis 2019 Institute; and I am hopeful that it will become a part of the standard offerings for the Summer Institute for years to come! Historical Sociolinguistics is a young field (generally considered to have started in the 1980s) that is vibrant and growing, and has recently acquired a North-American-based organization, the North American Research Network in Historical Sociolinguistics (NARNiHS), to help nurture and promote work in the field.

Historical sociolinguistics is the application/development of sociolinguistic theories, methods, and models for the study of historical language variation and change, or more broadly, the study of the interaction of language and society in historical periods and from historical perspectives. In our eight sessions at the Institute, we will attempt to:
– arrive at a baseline understanding of the scope of the field;
– consider some of the theories and methods deployed in historical sociolinguistic research;
– examine datasets assembled for historical sociolinguistic investigations;
– review select examples of the application of the theories and methods to datasets;
– experiment with some of the digital tools of the field in our own hands-on investigations.

What research are you currently working on?

In search of bigger, better digital datasets for data-driven corpus-based historical sociolinguistic research, I have several corpus construction projects underway involving North American English and experimentation with corpus research environments that couple rich linguistic and socio-historical annotation with quantitative and visualization methods of data analysis.

What is your favorite hobby or pastime?

We live in a neighborhood with a park, and my wife and I serve as amateur horticulturists for the neighborhood—everything from tree selection, care, and maintenance, to restoration of native environments, to soil management, to decorative landscaping design, construction, and maintenance.

We also enjoy traveling, splitting our time between Europe and North America and enjoying the good music, food, culture, and friends (and, of course, languages) of many countries.

In a parallel universe in which you are not an academic/linguist, what would you be?

In a parallel universe, I would likely be a field-based environmental scientist. As an undergraduate, I had a brief flirtation with the natural sciences, heading in my first two years of college toward a degree in physics, before turning onto the path toward linguistics. With my amateur interest in horticulture and a penchant for travel and the outdoors, environmental science seems like somewhere I might have ended up in an alternate reality.

What are you most looking forward to about Davis?

I’ve never really been to the Davis corner of California, so I am looking forward to everything the area and the Institute and the colleagues and students at UC Davis have to offer!

Ice cream or Cake? Cats or Dogs? Quarter system or Semester system?

In the choice between ice cream and cake, there is only one real winner: frosting!

Cats beat dogs every time, although the dogs will always be there at your side.

I’ve taught at both quarter- and semester-based institutions and find that both systems have their advantages and disadvantages.

What advice would you give to graduate students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

The field of linguistics is continually taking on exciting and important new dimensions and directions. Today’s graduate students should maximize their exposure to computational methods and quantitative data processing and analysis – the ability to understand what the “black boxes” of data-analytics engines are actually doing as they process the textual linguistic data that profiles us as consumers and voters and job candidates is an invaluable skill in a world that increasingly values algorithmically-drived knowledge. Untrained analysis of big data is begging for linguistically informed assistance. Grad students in linguistics should also become versed in socially-focused applications of their linguistics skills, from language documentation/revitalization to forensic linguistics to linguistics in the service of societal change. There is a growing need for highly trained language specialists to deploy their skills outside the academy, in addition to the need for the next generation of highly qualified teachers to continue the academic training that we have all benefited from.

Learn more about Professor Lauersdorf here: