Sunday, May 28th, 2017

People of USM: Dana McDaniel, Head of USM’s Linguistics Department

Posted on February 02, 2017 in Community
By USM Free Press

Jordan Castaldo, Free Press Staff

By: Jordan Castaldo, Free Press Staff

Dana McDaniel is known to most as the head of the USM Linguistics Department. However, having the pleasure of getting to know her a bit further, and to focus more on her linguistics background and not just her job, it becomes apparent just how interesting McDaniel is.

McDaniel was born in New York City, N.Y. She got her undergraduate degree at SUNY Binghamton, where she double majored in linguistics and French. At the CUNY Graduate School, she pursued her Ph.D. in linguistics.

From a young age, McDaniel has been intrigued by the concept of language and how it evolves in the human mind. McDaniel’s mother was from Germany and knew the German language fluently. This, combined with McDaniel’s interest in languages and linguistics, led her, at the age of twelve, to start speaking German at home with her mother.

McDaniel is currently conducting a linguistics study, where participants learn a mini made-up language in an hour. The study explores language variation and why languages tend to use certain structures over others. For example, there are a number of ways that questions are formed in different languages. Some languages shift the order of the subject and verb, whereas others start or end a sentence with a question word, but none form a question by saying the corresponding declarative sentence backward. McDaniel created two different versions of a made-up language for the study to see if participants are more likely to use certain structures over others depending on which version they were given. McDaniel has made sure that the language is clearly different from English, so that participants do not simply impose English structure onto the new language.

Of course, as the head of the department, McDaniel wants to educate the public about general linguistics, since most people know little about it. McDaniel finds that one common misconception is the belief that linguists know many languages when, in fact, they usually don’t. Instead, they know about a lot about different languages. Personally, McDaniel knows about how questions are structured in a large variety of languages, though she is not able to speak those languages. Linguists are interested in studying the linguistic system of the human mind, not necessarily in being polyglots

She pointed out that the goal of high school grammar classes usually has to do with learning to write effectively. This makes it very different from linguistics. A general piece of knowledge on the topic of linguistics that McDaniel felt was important for readers to have was the definition of linguistics.

“Linguistics is the scientific approach to language. It’s a cognitive science,” McDaniel said.

If you are interested in participating in McDaniel’s  linguistics study, you can e-mail McDaniel at dana.mcdaniel@maine.edu. Since the study takes an hour, she is compensating people with $15 gift certificates. She is hoping to have some preliminary results by March.