Welcome to Tom Payne's web pages
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403
Here you will find information on my professional activities, and some of my personal interests. Students may also use this page as a portal to class materials and notes, both for current courses, and courses I have taught in the recent past. The links to the right should be self explanetory. The Curriculum Vitae is a .pdf file that can be viewed, downloaded and printed. Some links may be under construction.
My central professional interest is in facilitating the preparation of descriptive materials (grammars, dictionaries and text collections) of the many underdescribed languages of the world. My main job currently is International Linguistics Consultant for SIL International.
Current estimates are that about 3,000 of the 6,000 or so natural human languages now spoken will become extinct during the present century, unless some positive action is taken. When a language dies without written records, all potential for enriching human experience embodied in the oral tradition and wisdom of that culture is lost forever. Many have argued that the loss of diversity that language extinction represents is a scientific and human tragedy.
Though no language will survive unless speakers themselves want it to, descriptive linguistics is an essential component of any program of language documentation and preservation. The mere existence of a good dictionary and grammatical description confers a certain status on a language that may have previously been considered to be of little importance, by speakers and non speakers alike. Furthermore, the products of descriptive linguistic research constitute part of the reference material necessary to develop indigenous educational materials and written literature. Good linguistic research communicates to minority language speakers and to surrounding groups that the minority language is worthy of respect.
Finally, from a scientific perspective, good linguistic descriptions constitute the raw data for much research into the organization of the human mind. The tension between universality and diversity of language constitutes the subject matter for the science of linguistics. The central questions are: "How are all languages alike?" and "What are the limits to their variation?" Needless to say, from this perspective, a corpus of reliable and usable data from as many languages as possible is essential. With every language that becomes extinct, the potential data source for this enterprise becomes narrower.
Linguistics is a technical field with a very human face -- it appeals both to "techies" and "fuzzies." While languages exhibit a great deal of regularity and predictability, they are always subject to the idiosyncracy and originality that accompany any human social phenonenon. If you are a student looking for an undergraduate major, I would encourage you to take an introductory linguistics class. But don't stop there. Be sure to take at least a couple of more advanced courses. Even as learning a second language can be difficult at first, so linguistics can seem overwhelming -- until you get in "deep enough for the fun"!