It must have happened pretty fast., because in 1972, when the Spring Quarter of my first year at the University of Chicago rolled around, I found myself in Eric Hamp's course Introduction to Indo-European Linguistics, along with one intrepid friend and a bunch of graduate students. I noticed that at the bookstore, Eric had ordered as our main textbook Meillet's Introduction à l'étude comparative des langues indo-européennes, which was fine, I'd had French and come to love it from backpacking in Europe the previous summer. But then, when I decided to do my paper on the development of Old Norse--I was taking a Danish course that quarter because I thought Denmark would be a good place to go if I got drafted-Eric said here, use this! And handed me Adolf Noreen's Altisländische und altnorwegische Grammatik (Laut-und Flexionslehre) unter Berücksichtigung des Urnordischen. Gosh, thanks! It never occurred to me to mention I'd never studied German; I just got out a dictionary and said to myself, well, you're a linguist...
So if by then I was already a linguist, it must have started even earlier. I remember when I was in fourth or fifth grade, on a Monday, we were told: This week you'll learn grammar. We'll diagram sentences. So they told us that nouns were persons, places, or things; that verbs were actions; adjectives described nouns; adverbs verbs; and these here are the pronouns and prepositions. By Tuesday, we were all making those sentence diagrams and doing pretty well; I was having fun. Then suddenly it struck me: This stuff is at least as complicated as the math we're doing, yet we learned it in less than a day. It must be that we really knew grammar all along, and only needed the names. Nice trick!
But here's a the biggest part: I actually knew what linguistics was by the time I entered high school, because my mom, Hanni Woodbury, had just enrolled as a graduate student in anthropology at Yale. She was studying linguistics with Floyd Lounsbury and soon began visiting Nedrow, New York for linguistic field work with the Onondagas there. She related about phonemes, kinship terms, glasses half-empty and half-full; she played a tape of Oneida where the last syllables of phrases were all whispered. I could see that languages could be really different, just as cultures could; but she made it clear that linguistics was a science which allowed you to approach a language on its own terms and discover those differences.
I decided to be a linguistics major in my second year of college because I loved what I knew of it; and each new part I came to know. I studied with Jerry Sadock, Jim McCawley and Michael Silverstein, and wanted to be a syntactician. I studied Greenlandic with Jerry Sadock and realized I wanted to find out about grammar that was out of the "ordinary," and what it all meant. Jack Du Bois and the late Thom Smith Stark, more senior students, helped me learn. Watching them all, and perhaps especially Paul Friedrich, I began to see linguists as intellectual auteurs, moving freely over a huge, open intellectual landscape, treading as needed from formal models, to the physics of sound, to social organization, literature, music, and history; and needing to be, often or always, writers, artful travelers and listeners, good thinkers and hearers, good sleuths and solvers, and very, very good teachers. And I wanted to be all those things.
I still see it like this. What's best is that there's always been room to roam. I went to the Linguistics Institute at U Mass in 1974 and saw a wider world of linguistic theory. I went to graduate school at Berkeley in 1975, where Mary Haas, my Ph.D. advisor, taught us how to discover grammar through texts, and where we as American linguists had come from; Jim Matisoff taught us how in language, history mattered; John Gumperz taught us how to think about conversation; Johanna Nichols taught us ways of conceptualizing the diversity we saw as grammarians. And again, as it always is in linguistics, my fellow students opened new horizons: Bill Foley and Van Van Valin in comparative syntax and semantics, John Kingston in phonetics and phonology, and Ken Whistler in language and history. I went to Alaska in 1978 and learned from Mike Krauss that training native speakers of little-studied, endangered languages is the best path toward studying the languages yourself. And I learned from Joe Friday and Leo Moses, in Chevak, Alaska, how to think about what individuals know of their language and what it means to try to pass that knowledge and ability on to a very small community of children and grandchildren.
I started teaching at Texas in 1980, and I'm still learning to be a linguist, from my colleagues here and elsewhere, my students, and people in communities where I work.