No one wants to grow up to be a linguist. At least not in my working-class, ethnic neighborhood of North Philadelphia. In fact, I never even knew a college graduate in my neighborhood, let alone a linguist. Ironically, decades later I found out that sociolinguist Joshua Fishman attended the same high school I did (Olney High School) and that Noam Chomsky and Greg Guy attended the neighboring high school a few miles away (Central High School). So there really was something about the North Philadelphia air that gave breath to linguists-perhaps the linguistic diversity of the different ethnic and social communities or the intrigue of the marked Philadelphia speech community.
Most linguists have taken circuitous paths into the profession but mine was perhaps a little more unusual. I attended Wheaton College (IL) primarily to mix my career as football and basketball player with my religious fervor at the time. It was natural for an aspiring missionary to study Linguistics as a tool for translation so I enrolled in an introductory Linguistics course taught by Roger Shuy. The material was intriguing, and my newly found mentor was inspiring. But the rest wasn't history. It still didn't seem like a profession one could do for a living. Or, in the words of my immigrant father, a skilled tool and die maker, "Why would anyone pay you to do that kind of job for a living?" I took a series of small, seemingly unconscious steps following my peculiar intellectual passion and regained consciousness a few years later in an academic world that at times still seems slightly alien. To be minimalist, I needed a job, the job was fun, and no one told me to leave. I honestly feel that I became a linguist by accident, following the "oops principle" of career development.
In the early 1960s, there were no sociolinguistics courses. The few sociolinguists doing research in this emerging field simply learned from each other and by doing. I followed Roger Shuy and a college classmate, Ralph Fasold, to the Center for Applied Linguistics after receiving a PhD in Linguistics under H.A. Gleason and Bill Samarin at the Hartford Seminary Foundation in the late 1960s. I then started teaching at Georgetown University where we instituted the first Sociolinguistics Program, thanks to NSF funding. But it was almost too comfortable for me there, so I accepted the challenge to give back to the community we had mined in our studies of African American English. For 20 years, along with my research at the Center for Applied Linguistics, I taught at the University of the District of Columbia, a historically black college, and learned firsthand about combining research with engagement-now called the "principle of linguistic gratuity."
My final academic destination, North Carolina State University, came as another challenge to my entrepreneurial sociolinguistic spirit-to build a unique, community-based sociolinguistic program from the clay and sand of the Tar Heel State. Of course, that's easy to do if the research context is arguably the most dialectally diverse region in the United States, the students are talented and highly motivated, and the institution is proactively supportive and appreciative.
The trajectory of my sociolinguistic career honestly makes more sense in hindsight than it did in process. My working-class background and athletic interests were a comfortable fit for doing community-based research in vernacular-speaking communities, accounting for the fact I have always felt more comfortable in the field or in the hood than in the classroom. Furthermore, the notion of giving back to communities that supply data for our linguistic description and theory seems only natural in terms of social interaction and human responsibility. Though the shoes are somewhat worn now, the walk is still a novel, everyday adventure that leaves me anxiously coming back for more and searching for new avenues for sociolinguistic inquiry and engagement. The journey couldn't have been charted-or even imagined-but the sociolinguistic life has been an unregretable, exhilarating trip. And it ain't over yet. I think I've noticed a few more unexplored paths.