Linguistic Research and Why It Matters: An Example and Some Personal Reflections

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ABSTRACT. In this presidential address, I first focus narrowly on quantitative research on the semantic interpretation of noun-noun Spanish compound words in early and late Spanish-English bilinguals. Later, I reexamine this case study to show that even theoretical linguistic research reflects its circumstances, is responsive to its immediate community, and connects with society at large. I focus on the role played by our graduate students, the newest members of our scholarly COMMUNITY, in the development of our own research, as well as by undergraduate students, who by collecting data become participants in our scientific CULTURE. Additionally, I show that our research leads to COLLABORATION with specialists in other fields and to increased COMMUNICATION with departmental colleagues. Finally, the value added by linguistics research like this one to our academic units becomes apparent in COMPARISONS of placement opportunities for graduate students with and without expertise in language.


1. INTRODUCTION. Allow me to begin this Presidential address with some personal reflections. The year 2010 was a watershed in my own life in many ways. I became, in this order, a tenured associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Texas A&M University, the President of LASSO, and a naturalized citizen of the United States. So I am fully aware of the honor of addressing a captive audience of some of the best linguists in the Southwest (and beyond) without having to vie for their attention with other presenters in concurrent sessions. Moreover, after many years of pretending that linguistics is a neutral field, I have my first opportunity to tackle the big issues of our time head-on without fear of unemployment or deportation. In the present social and economic climate, those circumstances make me very lucky indeed, and I am grateful for all of them, but most especially for my readers.

In going over past Presidential addresses, I found that a common thread of my predecessors was to go beyond the details of their own academic work, and to paint the big picture, taking advantage of the larger canvas and aiming to please an audience with eclectic tastes. I hope to achieve similar results, but I will proceed by first focusing quite narrowly on data and results from my own recent quantitative research. Later, I will reexamine these apparently disembodied and cold experimental data and show that they are in fact vivid reflections of the world in which they were created. Using this paper-within-a-paper approach, I hope to underscore the fact that all of our research reflects its circumstances, regardless of our best efforts at timeless objectivity. But this is not a cautionary tale about our failings at scientificity, but a celebration of our strength as academics who are responsive to their communities. As linguists we benefit from making these connections more explicit to our scholarly colleagues, to our university administrations, to our students, and to society at large, including the taxpayers who fund our salaries and the legislators who are forever tempted to chop them.

So let me begin by giving an overview of the paper and of the background to this work. For the past ten years or so, I have been involved in the study of compound words in Spanish. For some early examples see Moyna (2000, 2004). Compounds are lexemes that are constructed by combining preexisting lexemes or lexical stems. An example in Spanish would be sacapuntas 'pencil sharpener,' lit. 'remove-tips,' which is made up of a verbal stem saca 'to remove' and its nominal direct object puntas 'tips.' Compounding in Spanish is not nearly as frequent as in the Germanic languages, such as English. The study of compound history, in particular, had been greatly neglected until I undertook what I think is the first comprehensive account of their evolution. Soon after I embarked on this enterprise as part of my doctoral dissertation, I realized why angels had feared to tread where I was rushing in. …