To all the Women in the World
Happy International Women’s Day!
Today, March 8 is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is Press for Progress (#PressforProgress). We should not forget that many women stepped out of their comfort zone to help speed up progress in different fields.
It is lamentable that when you search for famous linguists, you’ll often get a list of male linguists. It’s as if there are no women who made great contributions in the field of linguistics.
Before that, let’s have a briefer. In 1909, the first celebration of Women’s Day was observed in New York. The United Nations sponsored the day since 1975 but declared it as a day for the observance of world peace and women’s rights on March 8, 1977. Today it is celebrated across the globe.
Different countries observe that day in various ways, from giving flowers and gifts to women, hosting parties for women only, feminist demonstrations and more.
Several women have become prominent in almost all fields, so today, let us honor the outstanding women who claimed their spot in language access, interpreting, translation and linguistics.
Translators and interpreters
American school system graduates would be familiar with Sacagawea, who made great contributions to the success of the Louis and Clarke expedition in 1804. In order to accomplish the Louisiana Territory exploration, the group needed guides and interpreters because they would be traversing lands belonging to Native American tribes.
Sacagawea, although already pregnant, traveled with a trapper from Quebec, Toussaint Charbonneau, her husband, who became the guide and interpreter of the explorers. She was allowed to come along because of her knowledge of the Shoshone language.
She became famous not only for her negotiating and interpreting skills but also for her efforts to save the explorers’ written records and journals that were thrown out of their boat when it capsized. She also made significant contributions to the survival of the group because of her extensive knowledge of edible plants.
American Sign Language interpreter Lydia Callis was put in the limelight when she signed during the press conference regarding Hurricane Sandy with Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York in 2012. Her signing was full of emotions. She was lively and animated. While the press conference dealt with a grave subject, she was praised for imparting feelings of positivity that raised the flagging spirits of the citizens amid the natural calamity.
Callis’ interpreting skills received more attention than the mayor’s speech. She used her newfound fame to bring more awareness to the community of the hearing impaired. She encourages businesses to be ”friendly” to hearing impaired and deaf customers.
Carol Chomsky is the wife of Noam Chomsky, who is considered the scion of modern linguistics. Noam’s approach to the linguistics field was abstract. Carol focused on children’s language acquisition. She established that the earlier researches done on the subject underestimated the complex process of linguistic development among children, such as how they understood syntax. She also studied how children acquired the written word. She created the technique of reading repeatedly to help children who struggled to read become more fluent in reading.
Carol Chomsky helped educational technology as well. She developed a computer program to help improve skills in reading and comprehension. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in French and from Harvard University, she earned her doctoral degree in linguistics. She wrote a book in 1969, “The Acquisition of Syntax in Children From 5 to 10,” which detailed her study on how children understood their native language’s grammatical structure. She said that children used their skills to interpret more complex sentences as they grow older. Her studies determined that children continued to improve their skills in acquisition of syntax beyond age five.
DONNA JO NAPOLI
Born in Miami, Florida, Donna Jo Napoli holds dual citizenship – American and Italian. Now 70 years of age, she is a prominent figure in the field of linguistics. She’s also famous as a children’s book writer and writes young adult fiction as well.
As a linguist, Donna Jo Napoli worked on various topics, including:
- Linguistic analysis of folk dance
- Writing for students of English as a Second Language (ESL)
- Structure of the American Sign Language (ASL)
- Structure of the Japanese language
- Romance studies
- Comparative and historical linguistics
She currently teaches linguistics at Swarthmore College and has taught linguistics in several colleges and universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Georgetown University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Smith College.
Her children’s books have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Persian, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Hebrew, Greek, German, Dutch, Danish and Chinese. They will soon be available in Polish and Thai as well.
The award-winning author has also published books on linguistics. Several scholarly journals published many articles written by Ms. Napoli.
Sarah Winnemucca was a member of Nevada’s Paiute tribe. She was given the name Thocmentony, meaning Shell Flower. Her father, Winnemucca, was a Shoshone. Her family was influential and she was sent to study at a Catholic school in Santa Clara, California where she learned English.
She and her sister became companions to the daughter of European American William Ormsby, which gave Sarah more opportunities to observe the culture of the white Americans. Her English-speaking skills also improved and she was one of the few members of her tribe to write and read in English. All her family members spoke English as well.
At the Malheur Reservation, Indian Agent Samuel B. Parrish requested her to be the interpreter. Mr. Parrish encouraged the Paiute to learn new ways, plant crops and establish an agricultural program to support the community. Parrish also built a school at the Malheur Reservation where Sarah became a teacher.
When the Bannock War broke out in 1878, Sarah acted as the translator for General Oliver O. Howard. He was with the U.S. Army. She also acted as the general’s messenger and scout. Under the general’s leadership the Bannock tribe and the army were in good terms, which minimized the casualties.
She accompanied the Paiute tribesmen who were ordered to move to Yakama Indian Reservation after the Bannock War ended. She acted as their official translator. Because she was allowed to live outside the reservation, she started to give lectures in Nevada and California about the harsh conditions the Paiute tribe had to endure. She later became an activist, advocating the mistreatment Native Americans received from people inside and outside the reservations.
Book translators help people appreciate works that used to be available only in the author’s native language. Leningrad-born Larissa Volokhonsky often works with Richard Pevear, her American husband, to translate books, mainly famous works in Russian, although she’s also able to translate books in Greek, Italian and French.
Larissa works on the translation of Russian classics such as, “For the Life of the World” (Alexander Schmemann) and “Introduction to Patristic Theology” (John Meyendorff), among others. Her husband does not speak Russian and is responsible for styling the translated text.
Together they have translated “The Idiot” and “The Brothers Kamarasov” by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky and “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy. Their translations of the Russian classics are best sellers and were nominated and won PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize, the 1st Efim Etkind Translation Prize and a spot in the Book Club of Oprah Winfrey.
La Malinche or Doña Marina was said to be the mistress of Hernán Cortés, the famous Spanish conquistador. She is considered as one of the first interpreters and she worked with Cortés from 1519 up to 1526. She was one of the slaves that were captured by the Spaniards. She is said to be gracious and beautiful. Cortés gave her as a gift to Alonso Hernandez Puertocarrero but he soon had to return to Spain to be the emissary of Cortés to King Charles V.
The conquistador valued La Malinche as an interpreter because she was able to speak Nahuatl and Mayan. Cortés only spoke Spanish and when dealing with representatives from Moctezuma, Marina would speak with them in Nahuatl then interpret it to Chontal Maya. Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest who spent time with the Mayans would interpret Mayan to Spanish for Cortés.
The Spanish conquistador was indebted to Marina for her part as the mediator, negotiator and translator between the Spaniards and the indigenous peoples across Mexico.
The work of American linguist Mary Haas focused on the languages of the North American Indians. She has been able to keep recordings and written documents about several native languages have become extinct. Her research work focused on Alabama, Creek, Natchez and Tunica languages.
She’s a linguistics professor and taught several American linguists, such as Margaret Langdon, Karl Teeter and William Shipley. Mary Haas is also a specialist in Southeast Asian languages and taught Thai at the University of California at Berkeley’s Army Specialized Training Program.
Honoring Women Linguists
There are many more women linguists who have made their mark in the world and we should honor them for their invaluable contribution to society then and now and the field of linguistic studies.
Language is the means for people to communicate. Since there are over 6,000 languages in the world, it is not possible for people of different cultures to understand others without translation.
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Image: By Nanahuatzin at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons