Using Gary Larson cartoons, exotic language examples and a demonstration of a secret childhood language she and a friend invented in 1953, linguistics Prof. Sarah Thomason analyzed how one factor – individual choice – can determine human language.

Thomason’s speech, titled “Can You Change Your Language? The Limits of Historical Determination in Linguistic Change,” installed Thomason as the William J. Gedney collegiate professor of Linguistics. She is the first holder of the position. “Any feature a speaker can become conscious of, the speaker can change,” she said. Going against the traditional view that individuals cannot make choices regarding changes in one’s own language, Thomason illustrated that people can and do deliberately influence their speech.

In the Ma’a language spoken in a small village in Tanzania, a certain sound is inserted into words, though it has no meaning. Because the word is hard to pronounce for outsiders, these Tanzanians can retain their unique accent. Thomason said other examples supporting deliberate change include synonyms from slang for the word “crazy” and the Piraha language spoken in Amazonia and Brazil.

Enough of these deliberate changes can create a secret language, she added. For example, speakers of the Uisai language spoken on Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea switched the male and female gender systems in Uisai. Thomason suggested they were attempting to preserve their language when nearby villages began borrowing certain word structures from it.

The topic of language contact is relevant to students, Thomason said. “The examples were very exotic but this is something that happens on campus as well. We get students at the University who don’t speak English, who want to sound more like Americans,” she said.

She also noted that some students did not speak standard English at home, or come a variety of places from across the United States. “This is a deliberate language change – when students undergo training or coaching to level out or fix their dialects,” she said.

Although Thomason’s principal focus is Native American language studies, she is also interested in language contact, or how languages evolved. She co-authored a book called “Language Contact, Creolization and Genetic Linguistics.”

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