By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, May 20, 2019 — “In linguistics, you delve into the fine structures that define nuances of grammar and the sound system, making you realize just how complicated language is,” says Harold Torrence, associate professor of linguistics at UCLA.
“It's interesting how such complex knowledge could be so below the surface of consciousness,” he reflects. As a linguist, “what you really study are products of the human mind. Language is almost always a proxy for things like ethnicity, race, social class, etc.,” says the scholar. “So you can learn a lot by studying language because it stands at the crossroads of many things. It's fascinating.”
Torrence, who became the chair of the African Studies M.A. Program of the UCLA International Institute in summer 2018, is a specialist in the West African language of Wolof (spoken mostly in Sénégal and The Gambia), as well as the Mesoamerican languages of Mixtec and Kaqchikel.
The UCLA professor is looking forward to helping build up the M.A. program. “The students whom I have met are very enthusiastic about the program and very enthusiastic about learning and doing research on Africa,” he says. “This is a great place for African Studies,” continues Torrence. “It has a number of excellent resources and a lot of people who do Africa-related research.”
Diving into language structure
Growing up, Torrence was drawn to languages, but became enamored of linguistics as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia. “I actually started off being interested in literature, but then I had professors who would say things that would sound crazy to me, such as, ‘Oh, this word in Spanish is related to this Russian word,’” he explains.
“I had no concept of languages being related like that,” he says. “Over time, I became more interested in the structure of language itself, rather than studying the literature side of things.”
One of his first forays into African languages was taking a class in Yoruba, a language spoken in Nigeria, as a graduate student. “It was a lot a fun — very hard, but a lot of fun,” he says. It was when he came to UCLA to do a Ph.D. that he began studying Wolof, thanks to a Title VI Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship. The language remains one of his principal research interests. (Torrence taught at the University of Kansas after completing his doctorate, returning to teach at UCLA ten years later in 2015.)
“Wolof is very different from English in a number of ways. It has noun classes. In French and Spanish, for example, you have masculine and feminine. But Wolof has 15 noun classes,” he notes.
“Noun classes affect how you do singulars and plurals, as well as how you do agreements with adjectives,” he remarks, “I work on syntax, which is sentence structure, and morphology, which is word structure. And the sentence structures that you find in languages like Wolof look very different from English.
“It's interesting from a linguistic perspective because it gives you a clear idea of how languages vary,” he continues. “Wolof is like English in that it is a subject-verb-object language, but things that we would use prepositions for in English are encoded in the verb in Wolof. So you get very, very complex verb forms.”
If you have begun to suspect that linguistic analysis is technical, you would be correct. “Linguists tend to be more interested in abstract analysis,” explains Torrence. “Many study computational modeling and the mathematical aspects of language.” Luckily for his students, this warm and engaging professor belies the image of a researcher absorbed in the abstract.
How to study a new language — every year
Fieldwork is the basis of Torrence’s linguistics research and the subject of an annual class taught by him at UCLA. In a tradition that he began at the University of Kansas, the scholar uses his class on field methods as an opportunity for both him and his students to learn about a new language. In the process, students learn how to analyze a language from the ground up: they conduct interviews with native speakers, transcribe their speech using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and ask them about usage.
Torrence’s interest in Mesoamerican languages can be traced to one iteration of the class, when a former student who worked at a restaurant where everyone spoke Mixtec recommended that he choose the language for his course that year.
Los Angeles, and California in general, is rich in native speakers of languages from around the globe. This past winter quarter, for example, Torrence and his class studied Dschang (pronounced “chang”), a language spoken in Cameroon. (“With this particular language I cheated,” he shares. “I did Dschang last year, but the class was so small and the language was so fascinating, I decided we had to do Dschang again.”)
Whether in Africa, Central America or Los Angeles, native speakers are often puzzled by linguistics researchers. The small community of Dschang speakers in LA were no different.
“I explain what we are doing and why we care, and why we're interested in how languages vary, so the people we work with are definitely curious,” says the UCLA professor. “Especially if you are a speaker of a minority language, or a language that does not have many speakers, no one has most likely ever been interested in your language,” he points out.
“Almost to a ‘t,’ people think that their own language is not complicated because for them, it comes naturally, they don't even think about it,” he reiterates. “But I find that once speakers are around a group that know nothing about their language, they oftentimes start to realize that their language is really complicated.”
Research and teaching
Given the nature of his research, Torrence’s publications are highly specialized. The titles of some recent works will give the reader an idea of his interests. An upcoming book, “Headless Relative Clauses in Mesoamerican Languages,” co-edited with Ivano Caponigro and Roberto Zavala (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2019), will feature a chapter by Torrence and Philip Duncan, “Headless Relative Clauses in Meꞌphaa from Iliatenco.”
One of the scholar's more recent journal articles is “Wh-Question Formation in Krachi,” co-authored with Jason Kandybowicz, in the Journal of African Languages and Linguistics (Vol. 36, No. 2). At present, he is working on a number of future articles, including “Left Edge Agreeing Elements in Wolof,” “Negation in Cocuilotlatzala Mixtec” and “Verbal Complementizers in Ibibio.”
Torrence has also co-edited two key books on African languages: “Africa’s Endangered Languages: Documentary and Theoretical Approaches” (Oxford, 2017), co-edited with Jason Kandybowicz, and “African Linguistics on the Prairie: Selected Papers from the 45th Annual Conference on African Linguistics” (Language Science Press, 2018), co-edited with Philip Duncan, Jason Kandybowicz and Travis Major.
The scholar’s fascination with researching the structure of languages is closely paired with his work training young linguists. In addition to his teaching at UCLA, Torrence is involved in efforts to train students how to study languages — particularly endangered and relatively unstudied languages — in the countries where they are spoken.
As the principal investigator (PI) on a project on Mesoamerican languages, Torrence currently works with an international team of 23 graduate students and scholars from Mexico, the U.S., Canada and France to conduct research on more than 15 Mesoamerican languages. Another of his projects focuses on training U.S. undergraduates how to conduct fieldwork on endangered languages in Ghana. The aim is to help students gain international field experience and forge community connections early in their careers, helping lay the foundation for future research.
In summer 2018, the project took U.S. students to eastern Ghana to conduct fieldwork on two Ghana-Togo Mountain languages, Avatime and Logba. All of the participants return to Ghana this summer to continue their research. Torrence and his co-PI on the project, Jason Kandybowicz of the CUNY Graduate Center, also hope to reach out to local linguistics students in Ghana and encourage them to join the project.
“We really want to train students to work on their own languages,” says Torrence. Africa has a particular need for local linguists, given the number of languages spoken on the continent and the number that are in dangebr of disappearing. Torrence’s book, “Africa's Endangered Languages” — the product of a workshop associated with an African languages conference — addresses all of these issues.
“What was emphasized by everyone at the conference is that you must build up the linguistics capacity in African countries themselves,” he says — if for no other reason than that Africa has so many languages. “You need people who are native-language linguists because they really know their own language and are already set up to work in their own communities,” he concludes.
All photos at the top of the page provided by Professor Torrence.
See Professor Torrence speak about his interest in Mesoamerican languages in this YouTube video.