February 5, 2016

A conversation with Elaine Gold

[Interview by Sali A. Tagliamonte.]

Elaine Gold is retiring at the end of 2015-2016, marking the end of a long journey at the University of Toronto from undergraduate student to Ph.D. candidate to teacher, researcher, undergraduate coordinator and active outreach organizer. Although Elaine is retiring from the Department of Linguistics, she is actually just changing jobs. Her plan is to devote herself full time to being the Director of the Canadian Language Museum at its new home at Glendon College of York University. I spoke to Elaine on February 1st about this important milestone in her life.

How did you become a linguist?

I always loved languages but I knew nothing about linguistics. I did not do linguistics as an undergraduate. I started at U of T in math, physics and chemistry, and ended up with an undergraduate and a master's degree in art history. For many years I worked with museums and arts administration and eventually with the Ontario Arts Council. I started thinking about going back to school and by then I had heard about linguistics, so I thought, "Why don't I try it?" I was 39 when I took first-year linguistics and I really liked it. I eventually applied to the grad program. The graduate coordinator at the time was Elan Dresher. He called me into his office and said, "We can't accept you into the Master's program." (Side note: the University of Toronto does not allow a student to do more than one master's degree.) I was on the verge of deep disappointment when Elan continued, "But we can accept you into the Ph.D. program." So, in 1991, I started my Ph.D. with little more than second-year linguistics under my belt and four kids on the home-front.

What was the Department of Linguistics like then?

Everyone was so welcoming. There was such a lovely atmosphere in the department! Ed Burstynsky was teaching the Intro to Linguistics at the time. He would throw questions out to the big class and encourage everyone to come and see him. So, I went to see him.  Eventually, I modeled my own teaching of the intro class on Ed's methods.

I got involved in the Syntax Research Group. We were all working on different things and we were all very excited about what we were working on and we would get to together and talk about it. It was so much fun.

Looking back at your career, what were the pivotal moments? 

An important moment was when Queen's University invited me to teach Canadian English. That changed the direction of my research. I thought if I was going to teach Canadian English I should do some research on Canadian English. I started working on Canadian 'eh'. I discovered that it was not that easy to do research on 'eh'. So, I did a survey. I discovered that the same results as what had been reported 20 years earlier, so despite the fact that people think Canadian 'eh' is gone, it's not. And also, I discovered that there are so many different ways of using 'eh'.

I had done my Ph.D. dissertation on aspect and language contact in Yiddish. So, I decided I would pull together that research topic into my research on Canadian English. I examined Yiddish words that have come into English, like 'schlep' and 'schmooze'. Interestingly, while  'schlep' is used in English just like it is used in Yiddish, 'schmooze' has taken on a more negative meaning that it doesn't have in Yiddish. In Yiddish it just means 'small talk', 'have a little conversation'. But in English it also means 'sucking up to someone', perhaps being influenced by negative words like 'ooze', or its associations with the entertainment industry.

Another thing that came out of teaching Canadian English was my work on the variety called Bungi. Bungi was a Scottish-English dialect spoken in Manitoba by First Nations people in the late 1800s. If you listen to tapes, the people have a Scottish lilt, just as though they were born in Scotland.

During my time in the Department of Linguistics, I've done many administrative jobs, including Undergraduate Coordinator, member of the Curriculum Committee, Arts and Science Council representative, and many others. I'm sitting on the Council even now. I've enjoyed that larger view of the university I gained in these positions. 

Looking back at your career, what gives you the most satisfaction?

I've had an enormous amount of satisfaction from teaching and exciting students about the field of linguistics, but I think the most important thing I've done in my career is to establish the Canadian Language Museum. I got the idea from Linguist List. Somebody had posted that they wanted to create a language museum and were looking for input. And I thought, "What an interesting idea!" I had worked in museums before, so the idea had a lot of intrinsic interest to me.  I hired a Work Study student to research language museums around the world and I found out everything I could about language museums. The idea is to bring information about the languages of Canada to the Canadian public. Nowadays, people write to me from all over the world to ask my advice about creating a language museum!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One thing I think is really important is the outreach aspects of the Department. I've run the FLÉ…UT lectures, which are presentations for people who did linguistics as undergraduates, and although they did not continue in the field, they still want to hear about research and developments. I've also done Fall Campus Days and outreach to high-school students in programs such as the Linguistics Olympiad. I hope that kind of outreach will continue. It's important that linguistics does not get cut off from the wider public.

What will you miss the most?

I will miss my colleagues and the students. However, it's time for me to transition to the Canadian Language Museum because I'm the person to build it up so that it can thrive. I'm not thinking of this transition as retirement. I've got a really big project ahead of me.

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