My contribution to linguistics has been to analyze language in cultural and social contexts. I have used this approach to my study of the language and culture of the Kuna of Panama, the work I am best known for. Many students and scholars who have worked with Latin American indigenous languages and peoples have been influenced by my work.
It all started in Central High School in Philadelphia. Four years of high school Spanish kindled my interest in languages other than English and in grammar. Oberlin College was a decisive experience. I studied French, Spanish, Latin, and Russian, as well as a smattering of linguistics. In the summers I participated in Oberlin programs in France and Mexico. I also took part in a Princeton program in Paris where I sold books in the department store Au Printemps.
After I graduated Oberlin I had a Fulbright fellowship in Mexico that enabled me to study Nahuatl, one of many people who cut their linguistic teeth on this fascinating language. I became part of a group of fascinating anthropologists, linguists, and artists. They worked with Morris Swadesh on Mexican indigenous languages and cultures, including an effort to decipher Mayan hieroglyphs, and volunteered their expertise for the linguistics section of the then new museum of anthropology in Chapultepec park.
With a Woodrow Wilson fellowship I began graduate work in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. There I was fortunate to study and interact with a creative, dynamic, and pioneering group of people in various departments. The work of my Penn teachers has remained with me all of my scholarly life. Along with others, I frequently crossed the street between the anthropology and linguistic departments.
Henry Hoenigswald stressed areal and typological approaches to language change and history.
Dell Hymes trained me in ethnographic approaches to language.
David Sapir, like his father Edward, used texts to reveal grammatical and cultural patterning in his research in Africa.
Erving Goffman focused on structure and pattern in everyday interaction. Bill Labov elaborated fieldwork techniques and studied variation in language use.
My dissertation, which I rewrote as a book, dealt with areal-typological patterns in indigenous languages north of Mexico.
After grad school I was offered a position at the University of Texas in the Anthropology and Linguistics departments. I developed a program in linguistic anthropology, along with wonderful colleagues, Richard Bauman, Greg Urban, and Tony Woodbury. In my first year at Texas I edited Morris Swadesh’s book on the origin and diversification of language. This was a labor of love, as Swadesh had become a good friend before his untimely death. Another person I became close to over the years was William Bright, with whom I shared interests in areal-typological linguistics and verbal art.
While at Texas I began many years of fieldwork among the Kuna of Panama. My Kuna research involved close collaboration with individuals who do not read or write but who shared with me their remarkable linguistic and cultural knowledge, expressed in their conversations, stories, myths, chants, and songs. In addition, I have over the years become friends with and collaborated with many people who study various aspects of Kuna life.
My approach to Kuna language and culture led me to develop, along with colleagues Greg Urban and Tony Woodbury, what has come to be called the discourse centered approach to language and culture. We organized a series of conferences at Texas where people presented their work on different forms of discourse found in indigenous America. The tape recordings were transcribed and translated and stored in published form and/or in libraries. With the availability of the Internet, along with Christine Beier, Heidi Johnson, Lev Michael, and Tony Woodbury, I founded and now direct AILLA, The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America, whose purpose is to preserve indigenous languages by archiving them in digital form. AILLA has been very successful. Up to now over 250 languages have been archived, and AILLA will no doubt continue to grow.
Within linguistics and linguistic anthropology, two foci have come to characterize my work, speech play and verbal art. These foci have taken me to various places in the world, including Panama, Mexico, France, and Bali.