WWU Linguistics Student Presents Research at LSA Conference

Ilsa O'Rollins (left) stands with other students she met at the LSA Institute in Boston, MA, summer of 2023.

Ilsa O'Rollins, far left, poses with peers from the LSA Institute in downtown Boston, summer 2023.

by WWU CSD major Jackie Benson

In the past year, WWU undergraduate Ilsa O’Rollins from Seattle has kept busy between her involvement with the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) and Western’s Linguistics Department. The LSA is the largest professional organization for linguists, and it acts as a hub for linguistic scholars to share their research and to network. The LSA holds an annual meeting every January and sponsors a summer institute every other year. Thanks to generous support by Western's Department of Linguistics, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and the AS Student Enhancement Fund, Ilsa was able to attend both the annual meeting and the institute. 

In the first week of January 2024, Ilsa and Dr. Virginia (Ginny) Dawson, Associate Professor of Linguistics at WWU, presented their research on a semantic phenomenon in Ket, a Siberian language, at the 2024 LSA Annual Meeting in New York City. Last summer, Ilsa spent a few weeks at the LSA Summer Institute, held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The chosen focus of the 2023 Summer Institute was on Linguistics as Cognitive Science.  

We asked Ilsa about her presentation, her time at the LSA Summer Institute, and her research.  

What did you present at the LSA Annual Meeting and how did the Summer Institute tie into it?  

Ginny and I presented our paper “Disjunction in Ket” based on data collected by WWU Professor of Linguistics, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, Dr. Edward Vajda in collaboration with Ket consultant, Valentina Andreevna Romanenkova.  

My time at the LSA Summer Institute certainly impacted my time at the LSA conference. It taught me the importance of gaining knowledge from all possible areas. At the institute, I learned about all sorts of fields, not necessarily directly tied to my research but nonetheless relevant to broadening my linguistic awareness and literacy. At the conference, this meant I was able to understand aspects of presentations that would have initially gone completely over my head (as well as a joke someone made about Jespersen’s Cycle--which is a fascinating phenomenon to look up!). Additionally, both the institute and the conference taught me how to meet people and introduce myself.  

What do you want to achieve through your research? 

We found that Ket has multiple methods of disjunction, where English, for example, has only ‘or’. This was a semantic distinction that had not been analyzed in the Ket literature. It's important because it's a potentially widespread system in the world's languages that is understudied. Ideally, the research we presented will excite other linguists to examine any languages they know of with multiple disjunctions.  

Was faculty mentoring important in this process? If yes, why so?  

Faculty mentoring was absolutely important in this process. We first came upon this phenomenon in Ket in Ginny's cross-linguistic semantic variation seminar course in winter of 2023 (LING 431.) I kind of randomly came upon a dissertation on clause linkage in Ket, and we noticed that nobody seemed to have looked at the environments that each particle could or could not be used in. Ginny was really excited about the semantic distinctions, which she had seen in her own work with the Tiwa language and hence knew much more about it than I did. She always answered my questions and coached me through creating a presentation, using LaTeX (a program used in academia akin to Microsoft Word), etc. Ginny has made a massive impact on my college career, and I am so thankful to her for that! Really, the entire Linguistics faculty here has been so encouraging, helpful, and has guided me through this whole process and I cannot thank them enough.  

What did you find most interesting about the information you presented?  

Ket is a Na-Dene (Dene-Yeniseian) language spoken in Siberia, Tiwa is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Northeast India, and Sinhala is an Indic language spoken in Sri Lanka. While we know these languages are not related, the overlap in the semantics of their respective strategies for disjunction is nonetheless jarring! The whole project was really fascinating, though, so it's hard to choose one thing.  

What advice do you have for undergraduate students interested in sharing their research? 

I would advise any undergraduates in the Linguistics major to take advantage of the upper-level topics courses! Being able to use Western's resources has been a big part of this project for me (conferring with Prof. Vajda's Ket consultant, as well as acquiring funding to present research and to attend the LSA Institute). I suppose any advice I have would be to put your all into those classes and use them as an opportunity to further your own academic gains while you have the chance. Professors will put as much effort into helping you along in your research as they can.