Photo by Prescott Watson.
Interim humanities dean William Ladusaw (top) and linguistics professor Jim McCloskey (bottom) were recently elected Fellows of the Linguistics Society of America. Ladusaw focuses on semantics, the branch of linguistics that deals with meaning, and McCloskey’s focuses is syntax, which studies the structure of language. During their teaching careers, linguistics has expanded from a small study to a large, well-known field. Photo courtesy of James McCloskey.

Studied through fields such as anthropology and computer science, used in court cases, politics and in practically every field imaginable, linguistics — or the science of language — is incorporated into almost every discipline.

When interim humanities dean William Ladusaw and linguistics professor James McCloskey sat together in their graduate-level historical linguistics class at the University of Texas more than three decades ago, they never imagined that one day they would teach at the same institution, write research papers together and receive acceptance into the Linguistics Society of America.

The LSA was founded in 1924 to advance the scientific study of human language. Its goals are to further research in linguistics and keep the broader linguistics community informed through publications, presentation and discussion. The organization has over 5,000 members, all of whom were nominated and selected to gain membership into the organization.

Ladusaw was born and brought up in Louisville, Ky., where he got his B.A. in linguistics at the University of Kentucky.

Linguistics was a much less widely studied field at this time, Ladusaw said.

“When I started, it was a rather odd thing to be a linguistics major,” he said. “Most people in high school had never heard the word,” he said.

Ladusaw recalls that the majority of people at the time thought of linguistics as grammar.

He obtained his master’s degree in computational linguistics and his doctorate in semantics at the University of Texas.

This branch of linguistics, which studies meaning in relation to structure, was a fairly novel field of study when Ladusaw was in school.

“At the time we were in graduate school, semantics was the relatively newer field in linguistics,” he said. “Traditionally [it had] been part of philosophy.”

Ladusaw said that semantics unmasks how a person understands language.

“The reality is that what you understand the meaning of something to be

is a very complicated interaction between what you know in virtue of knowing your language and what you can infer based on reasoning about the fact that somebody said that to you in that context.”

Ladusaw started teaching linguistics at UCSC in 1984 and says that the major has definitely “matured,” especially after extending the field to a graduate program in the late ’80s.

His colleague McCloskey — who came to UCSC in 1988 — focuses on syntax, which is the study of principles and rules of the structure of sentences. The relationship between syntax and semantics — structure requires meaning, and meaning requires structure — has allowed McCloskey and Ladusaw to work together.

Born in Ireland, McCloskey obtained his first degree in linguistics at University College Dublin and his doctoral degree at the University of Texas. His dissertation and career focus is on the syntax of the Irish language.

McCloskey’s teaching career began at University College Dublin in 1979 while holding visiting appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UC San Diego. He spent a year as a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford before becoming a professor at UCSC.

Currently, McCloskey is in Ireland for sabbatical leave and conducting research in the syntax of the Irish language. He could not be reached for comment.

His webpage outlines his career interests and the slow death of the Irish language.

“I am necessarily and sadly interested in issues of language death, language extinction and language revival,” McCloskey said on his webpage.

Both Ladusaw and McCloskey will be officially recognized as part of the LSA at the annual meeting in Pittsburgh in January 2011.