Women in the History of Linguistics.

Oxford University Press is publishing a book that’s way overdue, Women in the History of Linguistics, edited by Wendy Ayres-Bennett and Helena Sanson:

• Brings together ground-breaking work on the role of women in the history of linguistics
• Explores the contributions of women in a wide range of spheres, from the production of dictionaries and grammars to language teaching methods and language policy
• Looks beyond the European context, examining such diverse topics as women’s roles in the codification of Arabic, and the regulation and exploitation of women’s speech in Japan.

It has nineteen chapters, ranging from “Visible and invisible women in ancient linguistic culture” by Anneli Luhtala to “European women and the description and teaching of African languages” by Helma Pasch; I hope it makes an impact. When I was studying linguistics, we only learned about Great Men.

And for readers of Russian, Lev Oborin has a stimulating interview with Evgeniya Nekrasova and Oksana Vasyakina of the Школа литературных практик [School of Literary Practices] (associated with the Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences, known as “Shaninka” after its founder Teodor Shanin). Among the school’s aims, according to its website, is “способствовать появлению авторов, которые смогут рассказать о реальности настоящего, прошлого или будущего оригинальным и адекватным современности языком” [to contribute to the emergence of authors who can describe the reality of the present, past or future in original language adequate to the modern world]; Nekrasova says on this topic that Russian poetry is doing well today, but:

The language of the mainstream prose which has existed until recently doesn’t even come to us from the nineties but, I don’t know, from the seventies. That has always greatly surprised me; I never understood why it was like that. And we’re trying to somehow deal with it.

Мейнстримная проза, которая до последнего времени существовала, — она даже не из девяностых к нам приходит по языку, а, я не знаю, из семидесятых. Меня это очень сильно всегда удивляло, я никогда не понимала, почему это происходит. И мы, в частности, пытаемся с этим как-то справиться.

And Vasyakina says:

For me, one negative tendency is our fascination with the idea of ​​a “great Russian novel,” even though Vladimir Sorokin many years ago wrote his Roman [‘Novel,’ but also Roman, the name of the protagonist; among other things, it’s a catalogue of the clichés of the 19th-century Russian novel], which already ate, and slept, and died. Barthes killed everybody off a long time ago, but we still dream of writing the great Russian novel, and we’re all eternally waiting for it. It has to be narrative, it’s definitely about a new hero, it definitely has a large collection of minor characters. And as soon as we start writing a great novel, that framework begins to drag us [into itself]. But how can we create a different text, which will not be that “great novel,” but will tell us how life works [or ‘is constructed’ or ‘is arranged’]? And does it absolutely have to be great? Maybe it will be thirty pages long and nonlinear.

Для меня негативная тенденция — это заворожённость идеей «большого русского романа», хотя Владимир Сорокин сколько лет назад написал своего «Романа», который уже и поел, и поспал, и умер. Уже и Барт давно всех поубивал, а у нас до сих пор все мечтают написать большой русский роман, и мы все вечно его ждём. Он обязательно нарративный, он обязательно про нового героя, обязательно с большой системой второстепенных героев. И как только мы начинаем писать большой роман, эта рамка нас начинает тащить [в себя]. Но как создать другой текст, который не будет этим «великим романом», но расскажет, как устроена жизнь? И обязательно ли писать его большим? Может быть, он будет тридцатистраничным и нелинейным.

And to tie it in with the first part of the post, Oborin asks about the largely female staff; after naming a couple of male teachers, Vasyakina says:

But we’re trying to make female names and female practices as visible as possible. Feminist enthusiasm [or ‘ardor’ or ‘fervor’ or ‘spirit’] comes first with us, let’s say.

Но мы стараемся делать максимально видимыми женские имена и женские практики. Феминистский задор у нас на первом месте, скажем так.

Music to my ears, and as with the linguistics book, I hope it makes an impact.


  1. When I was studying linguistics, we only learned about Great Men

    But what’s the current situation?

  2. Obviously, women in the history of linguistics is a poorly covered topic.

    By the way: Mohammad Akram Nadwi (the author of a biographical dictionary of women scholars in Islam in 53 (40) volumes).

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    But what’s the current situation?

    Women are very well represented among the authors of high-quality modern descriptive grammars, at any rate (like the Mouton Grammar Library series, for example.)

    I don’t know how many women, proportionately, have drunk the Chomsky Kool-Aid. My impression is that they are underrepresented, but (a) I don’t really know anything about it and (b) I suspect my impression may be due to a simple preconception that women are in general more sensible than men. My evidence for this is anecdotal, but extensive. (I would not at all deny the existence of outliers in both directions.)

  4. Today, as it happens, Nawatl Scholar published an interview with Frances Karttunen, a famed scholar of Classical Nahuatl. It’s quite a good read.

  5. Another interview, with Alexandra Aikhenvald.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    Mary Haas, who was president of the LSA in 1963, long before scholarly associations felt any need for “diversity picks” in their leadership, got her Ph.D. at the same university where hat labored four decades later. But by the ’70’s perhaps the emphasis in New Haven had rather shifted away from the desirability of doing fieldwork on indigenous languages of North America, meaning her name might not have come up much. She wasn’t even the first female LSA president: that turns out to have been (in 1946) E. Adelaide Hahn, who I will admit to having never previously heard of. (She was a classicist who chaired the Classics Dep’t at Hunter College back when it was a females-only school, but had developed a side interest in PIE and Hittite and whatnot.)

  7. David Eddyshaw says:


    Thanks for both!
    Alexandra Aikhenvald is the Wonder Woman of modern linguistics.

  8. I tried to remember who among my Russian freinds is doing something theoretical. It is a man, indeed. But he is a student of Barbara Partee:/

  9. David Marjanović says:

    more sensible than men

    I can believe it – Western culture has certainly been more tolerant of eccentricity in men than in women.

    Hahn […] PIE

    Promisingly monosyllabic.

  10. jack morava says:

    I have been trying to raise my wife’s colleagues’ consciousnesses about the shameful state of Wikipedia re female linguists, but they have better things to do. A mathematical colleague suggests that, at institutions that permit or require something like an undergraduate senior thesis, students have the option of creating a Wikipedia page on some topic (under supervision etc); such policies might be good for other disciplines.

    Virginia Hymes’s work on North American languages (eg Sahaptin) was lost in the shadow of her husband. Erica Garcia (Leiden) was a fiery unmerged Argentine semanticist, E.O. Ashton worked on Swahili in an earlier generation, Robin Lakoff… What do I know, my knowledge is purely personal and incidental, but my impression is that dogma wars have made much of the recent history of the subject inaccessible. The field deserves better.

  11. “Women are very well represented among the authors of high-quality modern descriptive grammars, at any rate”

    @David, thank you. This means rather recent influx of women, I suppose. Here I think, most linguists are female.

  12. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I remember my surprise as a maths undergraduate that the eponymous Noether was a woman — of course it didn’t help that only surnames were used, but the first 50 samples from Pythagoras forward had been male. I suppose it is actually a sign of advanced thinking that nobody felt the need to point out her gender, unlike authors and similar where until recently the female ones got their first names spelled out to save innocent men from trusting them too much.

  13. @Lars Mathiesen: It’s not directly related, but I have developed an intense pet peeve about people “correcting” Noether’s name to “Nöther.”

  14. I would like to mention a woman who was not a linguist, but she certainly contributed to it.

    Dr. Luella Cole Lowie was one of the founders of the field of educational psychoanalysis and she had no training in linguistics whatsoever.

    But she married anthropologist Robert H. Lowie (1883-1957) who left unpublished work on Crow language and folklore.

    She collected everything she could find in his papers, carefully edited and proofread, used help of graduate linguistics student to create interlinear translation and had the manuscript read by professor of linguistics and finally published

    Crow Texts; Collected, Translated and Edited by Robert H. Lowie. University of California Press, 1960.

    It would be nice if they mentioned her name in a book like that.

  15. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @Brett, that is dire indeed. Reminds me of the Danish romantic author Adam Oehlenschläger, you just have to remember which umlaut is spelled how (and where the extra h goes). (Some descendents (presumably) now spell it Oehlenschlæger). Also Fraenkel thus spelt.

  16. Alice Kober, whose work contributed greatly to the translation of Linear B, also went to Hunter College.

  17. Re Chomsky Kool-Aid:

    Try this one:


    Read through the acknowledgements and cringe.

    Julie Anne Legate is now Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.

  18. The final take home exam lead us to “discover” that Chinese covert movement of wh-phrases was constrained by Subjacency–a thrilling discovery for me, convincing me that syntax was really and truly right. (I was terribly di[s]appointed years later when this discovery was brought into question, but by that time I was hooked on syntax.)

    No comment.

  19. Having made fun of the professor for her youthful enthusiasm, I hasten to add that she is likely to outlast many of the commenters at this blog.

    As Planck noted, “A great scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.

    Indeed, as this article (from which I took the quote) notes:

    Now a new study co-authored by MIT economist Pierre Azoulay, an expert on the dynamics of scientific research, concludes that Planck was right. In many areas of the life sciences, at least, the deaths of prominent researchers are often followed by a surge in highly cited research by newcomers to those fields.

    Indeed, when star scientists die, their subfields see a subsequent 8.6 percent increase, on average, of articles by researchers who have not previously collaborated with those star scientists. Moreover, those papers published by the newcomers to these fields are much more likely to be influential and highly cited than other pieces of research.

    “The conclusion of this paper is not that stars are bad,” says Azoulay, who has co-authored a new paper detailing the study’s findings. “It’s just that, once safely ensconsed at the top of their fields, maybe they tend to overstay their welcome.”

    To balance out my disdainful remark about Professor Legate, which was occasioned not by personal antipathy but by my dislike of Chomskyanism, I would like to put in a plug for Ksenia Shagal, who is working in the much more congenial field (for me) of typology. Her doctoral dissertation was entitled Towards a typology of participles.

  20. Ксения Андреевна Шагал. She was on What? Where? When? (Что? Где? Когда?)! I wonder if she’s any relation to Marc?

  21. Woops, I see her maiden name was Krapivina, so no, no relation.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Above all, Noam took me seriously, which I consider a great gift.”

    I cannot imagine a male PhD candidate saying this.
    Discuss …

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I remember my surprise as a maths undergraduate that the eponymous Noether was a woman

    One of the best known names in biochemistry, Maud Leonora Menten, she of the Michaelis–Menten equation, was a woman. Nowadays more people know that than did when I first learned of the equation more than 50 years ago, in part because people like me have lost no opportunity to pass on the information. When I first saw the paper I was puzzled as to what the “German” word Miß meant for the author listed as Miß Maud Menten. It took me a moment to realize that it was an ordinary English word written as if it were German. (I had also assumed that she was German, but actually she was Canadian.) She was not only a woman, she was also beautiful, and I like to show her picture from time so that young women in the audience can see that being beautiful doesn’t mean they can’t be taken seriously as scientists. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before in this group that she could speak Halkomelem (as well as English, German and French).

  24. From WP:

    Rebecca Skloot portrays Menten as a petite dynamo of a woman who wore “Paris hats, blue dresses with stained-glass hues, and Buster Brown shoes.” She drove a Model T Ford through the University of Pittsburgh area for some 32 years and enjoyed many adventurous and artistic hobbies. She played the clarinet, painted paintings worthy of art exhibitions, climbed mountains, went on an Arctic expedition, and enjoyed astronomy. By the time of her death, she mastered several languages, including Russian, French, German, Italian, and at least one Native-American language, Halkomelem. Although Menten did most of her research in the United States, she retained her Canadian citizenship throughout her life.

  25. To balance out my disdainful remark about Professor Legate, which was occasioned not by personal antipathy but by my dislike of Chomskyanism

    Aha! The text is humourous (and the part quoted by LH is obvious self-irony) and quite appealing, much unlike everything else I read about the topic. And it is a truly challenging task, writing interesting acknolegements. Many tried.
    I could not be sure what side do you take here, you ironized as well

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    Miß Maud Menten

    The indefatigable writer of grammars* and dictionaries of West African languages, André Prost, turns up quite often in bibliographies as “R P A Prost.” (He was a White Father**: R P = Révérend Père.)

    * Including one of Toende Kusaal, unfortunately not one of his best, but interestingly showing that a definite sound change has occurred since 1979, with loss of /ɣ/ as a distinct phoneme.

    ** So named from clothing. There are a good many black White Fathers. I have some affection for the White Fathers, as I was regularly taken for one when travelling by myself in Burkina Faso. Fortunately for me, they seem to have a good rep locally …

  27. Speaking of typology: Joseph Greenberg can be said to have laid its foundations, but Johanna Nichols is the one that built it.

    Lucy Lloyd and her niece Dorothea Bleek were pioneers in Khoisan studies: Lloyd as a documenter, Bleek as a comparativist. Bleek’s classification was the basis for Greenberg’s.

    Luise Hercus, who by profession specialized in Sanskrit and Prakrits, documented, in her spare time, more of the languages of southern Australia than anyone, at a time when they’d largely been given up for dead.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    Dorothea Bleek’s father Wilhelm is the “Bleek” of the standard Bleek-Meinhof numbering of Bantu noun classes; he has the advantage over Meinhof not only of (considerable) priority but also of not being an early-adopter Nazi.

  29. I’ve always wondered, when a professional linguist says they’ve “mastered” a language (like the numerous typologically different languages Alexandra Aikhenvald mentions in her interview), what is it that they most often mean? Perhaps I am too constrained by the shackles of capitalism (or my own ineffectual language organ) to understand what one could accomplish if they could devote their “work week” to learning languages rather than office drudgery.

  30. I think usually it means a reasonably complete grasp of how the language operates in terms of phonology, morphology, etc., along with a good working vocabulary; obviously it couldn’t possibly mean complete mastery in the sense of being able to carry on conversations about anything and understand even the most recondite vocabulary (religious, poetic, slang, etc.).

  31. David Marjanović says:
  32. January First-of-May says:

    Here I think, most linguists are female.

    Both of the linguistics teachers I had at university were female, as it happens, but I doubt that this is particularly representative. I just checked and it turns out that my department’s current linguistics teacher is male.

  33. The text is humourous (and the part quoted by LH is obvious self-irony) and quite appealing, much unlike everything else I read about the topic.

    She was casting aside the serious demeanour of the academic and taking on her natural chatty persona as a young woman smitten with her subject. I don’t think she was being ironic at all (unless you are talking about a certain deliberate conversational irony adopted by some young females); she seemed quite serious.

    Chomsky Kool-Aid should tell you the attitude of at least some posters here.

    As for the quality of her work, I find it difficult to judge as my eyes glaze over when she starts talking about the “left periphery”. My hope is that this very model-specific, very peculiar approach to describing how languages work will disappear in time, but I suspect that will be well after my time and I won’t live to see it.

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    Yet Meinhof’s name sounds more familiar than Bleek’s, perhaps because his great-niece Ulrike’s non-linguistic work attracted more general attention than Dorothea B.’s linguistic work?

  35. David Eddyshaw says:

    Indeed. There is no justice in these matters.

  36. Yeah, I would probably not remember the name of Meinhof the linguist without the additional existence of Meinhof the terrorist.

  37. I thought about Marianne Mithun too.

    P.S., there are many more: Joanna Nichols etc.

  38. “Both of the linguistics teachers I had at university were female, as it happens, but I doubt that this is particularly representative. I just checked and it turns out that my department’s current linguistics teacher is male.”

    January First-of-May, it is easy to test. We can take our main universities. Or Topics in the Study of Language (this is how the journal translates its tittle:/), said to be our “main” linguistics journal:

    The latest issue has 4-4 ratio in research articles., and 4-0 in reviews: here. I mean, 8 women, 4 men. Oops. It is said to be the latest on the main page. But since then there is one more. And here 4-5, even if we exclude Haspelmath.

    But this journal simply does not give the objective picture. Try more issues – I think you will still find more girls. But this journal is going to give you a much higher than average concentration of men, I think. I picked it, because if even there women are majoity, then they are majority.

    Research institutions:
    Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

    Staff. I am lazy to count them all. I counted to 40 – 18.
    In “In memoriam” it is 20-37. But improtantly they have a list for departments. Men dig comparativistics.

    I also tried Russian Language Institute.
    Staff. 40-12. Again, I just counted to 40, there are too many of them.

  39. [here was a copy of a part of the above]

  40. [I deleted it because once I freed the one with the links from moderation it seemed pointless to leave the truncated version.]

  41. Auli Talvikki Hakulinen (born 10 March 1941 in Helsinki) is a Finnish researcher and professor emerita. She worked as professor of Finnish at the University of Helsinki from 1991 to 2006. From 2001 to 2004, she was an Academy Professor.


  42. [Languagehat, no, I refer to another comment. I sent a comment with the links and then I saw that you restored the original and deleted the comment without the links. Then I deleted the links with an edit. If this conversation in brackets is disruptive, it can be deleted too – or left for history.]

  43. [Oh! No, this is fun. Let the brackets run free.]

  44. jack morava says:

    Natalia v Okhotina, Some Structural Changes in Bantu Languages Due to Their Specific Communicative Functions ,


    My impression is that (at least in the US) there is considerable overlap between women who are linguists and women who are anthropologists, ie that among female academics, linguistic anthropology is A THING.

    I hope I can be indulged a surely apocryphal anecdote about the American Society of Primatology, whose membership (according to the story) is about 95% female. Sometime in the late 90s the Society decided against having any more male-gendered speakers at their annual meeting, that all they ever did was dominance and mansplain while scratching their areas.

  45. John Cowan says:

    Oh! No, this is fun. Let the brackets run free.]

    I think you mean [lɛtðəˈbɻækətsɻʌnˈfri], or sounds to that effect.

  46. About Russia again. The above ratio still is strongly biased towards men.

    The καθέδρα of Germanic and Celtic philology, philological faculty of Moscow University, the list of teachers. Fifteen teachers, only the first two are male: one Germanicus and one young Celt. What is remarlable: 4 “professors”, 1 “distinguished professor”, 6 are Dr. Lett., all female.

    If the astral projection of a job has a large penis, men accumulate there. Or: if men compete for a position, it defines a large penis. What is penis-size depends on culure, but wages correlate positively. Girls in turn are more interested in education. Penis-size is not everything, of course.

    But lack of female dominance in the journal above can be explained with this. Wikipedia said it is the “main” journal:)

    Then if we want to find men, the section of lanuage and literature of Russian Academy of Science. Out of 12 members 11 are virilia, and out of 21 correspondent members 15 are (and 2 women out of 9 foreign members)

  47. David Marjanović says:


  48. Why did I hyphenate it?:/

  49. “Не знаю, как на факульте­те экономическом, но при приеме на новую специальность филологическо­го факультета первоначально было объявлено об ограничении приема для женщин — что свидетельствовало о серьезном отношении властей (правда, после протеста отца одной из абитуриенток, а именно О. Ф. Крутиковой, это ограничение было отменено и среди среди первых девяти зачисленных оказались две студентки).”

    From memories of Uspensky. Second redaction, pdf, first redaction, html.

    It seems, there is something I do not know about relations between the administration of then USSR and women.

  50. For those who are not into history of Russian linguistics: In 50s “mathematical linguistics” became fashionable and received support from Soviet authorities. Moscow University decided to teach it. Access to the new specialization (it was not called “mathematical lingusitics” though) was restricted for female students, but then father of one of girls protested and the restriction was lifted: among the first 9 enrolled students 2 were female.

  51. January First-of-May says:

    From memo[ir]s of Uspensky

    Vladimir Andreyevich Uspensky, that is; no direct relation to either Lev or Eduard (both of which I had quoted on LH before).

  52. I wanted to preserve some of the ambiguity of Russian “memories”, because this article is not “memoirs”. Yes.

    – a mathematical seminar at the philological facultry in 50s.
    – the course of mathematics at the newly created department.
    – its name.

    Because of this he single-handedly created some of the division between the notions of “philologists” and “linguists” in Moscow.

    And he has several cute popular books about mathematics.

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