History of Linguistics at Memorial

The Department of Linguistics at Memorial celebrated its 50th anniversary in Fall 2018, holding a speaker series and conference.

The Department was established in 1968 by John Hewson (Professor Emeritus), in what was then Memorial University College, founded in 1925 as a teacher training institution.

Memorial gained university status in 1949, immediately following Confederation. The original campus on Parade Street was moved to the Elizabeth Avenue location in 1961 to accommodate growing enrolment. John had been hired as a member of the French Department in 1960, and soon saw the need for a department of Linguistics. By 1967 the Harris Report had recommended establishment of the Departments of Linguistics and of Folklore.

Faculty members through the years

In early 1968 Larry Smith joined John Hewson as the second linguist, with offices located in the ‘Temporary Buildings’, now the site of the QEII Library. The tradition of joint courses with the departments of French and English dates from this time. John, the first Head, taught general and French phonetics among other courses; Larry taught phonology and syntax. They were joined by Rev. William Peacock, retired pastor of the Moravian church in Labrador, who taught Inuttut, thus beginning the long history of study of Indigenous languages within the department. Sandra Clarke joined the department as a lecturer from 1969-1971, teaching Introductory Linguistics and French, then left to complete her doctorate at Laval University. During this period John went on sabbatical leave, replaced as Head by Larry Smith.

John had begun work on Algonquian languages of the province, Newfoundland Mi’kmaq, Innu-aimun (then Montagnais) and the reconstruction of Proto-Algonquian (PA). Vit Bubenik, a specialist in historical linguistics who had left troubled Czechoslovakia, was hired as a research assistant for the PA dictionary in 1971 and in 1973 was taken on as a faculty member. By this time as well, Larry had begun field work with speakers of Labrador Inuktitut living in St. John’s.

In 1972 a departmental office with the Head, a secretary and Rev. Peacock, was opened on the third floor of the north wing of the Science Building, with a large room for Larry Smith in the current seminar room. Harold Paddock joined the faculty in 1972, specializing in phonetics and dialects of Newfoundland English and the department expanded along the current hall.

Sandra Clarke returned as an Assistant Professor in 1975 and began work on sociolinguistic aspects of Newfoundland English and Labrador Innu-aimun. Rev. Peacock retired in 1978 and was later granted an honorary doctorate; in 1979 Jim Black was hired jointly by French and Linguistics to teach syntax. The department continued to grow as Leslie Saxon, a syntactician working with speakers of Tlicho (formerly Dogrib), a Dene language, in the Northwest Territories, was hired in 1982. Aleksandra Steinbergs, a phonologist who worked with Baltic languages, arrived in 1984, the year that Sandra Clarke became Head of the department and Larry Smith left the province. Additional regular faculty were Derek Nurse, historical linguistics and African languages from 1987-2004, Irene Mazurkewich, joint with English and working on Inuktitut, from 1988-2001, and Alana Johns, syntax and Inuktitut, from 1989-1997.

Sandra Clarke and Harold Paddock add a specialization in language variation to the traditional sub-disciplines of phonology, morphology syntax and historical linguistics. Sandra began research on Labrador Innu-aimun, then referred to as Montagnais, continuing the focus on Indigenous languages. Historical linguistic research was carried out by John, Vit, Harold, Derek and Aleks Steinbergs.

Between 1974 and 1985, Harold Paddock pioneered research on geographical variation in the English spoken in Newfoundland and Labrador. This research was continued by Sandra Clarke, Robert Hollett, and Philip Hiscock; and eventually culminated in a digitized dialect atlas of the province.

Harold Paddock taught a course in acoustic phonetics that attracted a small steady stream of excellent students, many of whom went on to successful graduate work and careers in speech therapy or audiology.

In the eighties and nineties Dr. Vit Bubenik supported by the research grants of SSHRC, Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (Pune), and Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung (Heidelberg, Munich) worked on several projects dealing with morpho-syntax of Indo-Aryan, Hellenic and Slavic languages.

Between 1995 – 2002, supported by a major SSHRC research grant, Vit Bubenik worked with Dr. John Hewson on a joint project dealing with adpositions and case systems of Germanic, Romance, Indo-Iranian, Hellenic, Baltic and Slavic languages.

In addition to tenured professors, our department benefitted greatly from a series of young contract professors from outside the province. Marguerite MacKenzie, living in the province, worked as a sessional between 1979-94, as a post-doc 1981-83 and on a SSHRC Canada Research Fellowship 1990-93 researching Cree, Naskapi and Innu-aimun. Lyle Campbell was a visiting professor 1986-87, as was Margot French. Between 1991 and 1993 Amanda Pounder, Patricia Balcom, Cynthia Grover, Elan Dresher, Christine Kamprath, and Kumiko Murasugi all came for one year, and Janet Benger for two.

In 1992 Phil Branigan, a syntactician and the current Head, was hired, in 1995 Marguerite MacKenzie took a permanent position until her retirement in 2014, serving as Head for four terms. Carrie Dyck, a phonologist who worked with Cayuga (an Iroquoian language), came on contract 1995-96 and returned to stay in 1997.

In 2001, Douglas Wharram, specialist in semantics, became the mainstay of contract teaching personnel, covering a wide range of courses on campus and often teaching introductory courses and Inuktitut in Labrador. Carolyn Smallwood visited for 2001-02. A new focus was added with the arrival of Yvan Rose in 2003, a phonologist specializing in language acquisition. In 2005 Julie Brittain, a morpho-syntactician working on Naskapi and East Cree, joined the department and began combined work on language acquisition in an Indigenous language.

The sociolinguistics stream expanded in 2006 when Becky Childs came for two years (2006-2008). In 2006, Gerard Van Herk also joined the department as our Canada Research Chair in Regional Language and Oral Text. He was joined by the sociolinguist Paul DeDecker in 2010. Sara Mackenzie, a phonologist, joined in 2013, as did Maureen Scheidnes, appointed jointly to French and Linguistics and with a specialization in Second Language teaching. The department continued to need replacement personnel and Christophe dos Santos, a former student of Yvan’s, taught acquisition in 2008-09, while Degif Petros Banksira taught phonology in 2010-11.

Nicholas Welch, Canada Research Chair in Change, Adaptation and Revitalization of Aboriginal Languages, joined Linguistics in August 2018. He augments our Indigenous languages and documentary linguistics stream, working with the Tlicho people in the Northwest Territories, and with the Innu and Inuit of Labrador. 

In July 2020, Douglas Wharram was converted to tenure-track, and was jointly appointed to the Departments of Linguistics and MLLC (Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures). He continues to contribute his expertise in semantics and in Labrador Inuktitut.