Sarah Thomason

Sarah Grey Thomason
Sarah (Sally) Thomason.jpg
Sarah Thomason in JUly 2012
Alma materStanford Yale
EmployerUniversity of Michigan
AwardsWilbur Cross Medal

Sarah Grey Thomason (known as "Sally") is an American scholar of linguistics. She is a prolific contributor to academic journals and publications specializing in the field of linguistics, as well as a guest lecturer at different universities around the world and a speaker at international conferences.[1] She was named the William J. Gedney Collegiate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Michigan in 1999, and received the highest honor granted by the University of Michigan to its faculty by being named the Bernard Bloch Distinguished University Professor of Linguistics in 2016. She was also Chair of the Department of Linguistics from 2010 to 2013.[2] She is currently an associate editor for the Journal of Historical Linguistics,[3] as well as part of the advisory board of the Journal of Language Contact.[4]

Sarah Thomason is best known for her work on language contact, historical linguistics, pidgins and creoles, Slavic Linguistics and typological universals. Thomason has worked since 1981 documenting Montana Salish, as well as with the Salish and Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee, compiling a dictionary and materials for the Salish-Pend d'Oreille language program.[5]

She is one of the Language Log bloggers.[6]

Sarah Thomason also has an interest in debunking linguistic pseudoscience, and has collaborated with publications such as the Skeptical Inquirer, The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal and American Speech, in regard to claims of xenoglossy.[5]


Early career

Sarah Thomason received a B.A. in German from Stanford University in 1961.[5] While studying this B.A., she had the opportunity to study a course in linguistics. This course would eventually lead her to do her application for graduation work in linguistics, when she was nominated for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation program. She would later turn down this fellowship. Thomason decided to dedicate herself to linguistics and, after spending a year in Germany mastering the language, she was re-awarded the Fellowship and was admitted into Yale University, where she completed both an M.A. in 1965 and a Ph.D. in 1968 in linguistics.[5][7]

Thomason had a great interest on learning how to do fieldwork about Indo-European languages. She decided that Indo-European languages from Eastern Europe would be best suited for research as Western European languages had been already thoroughly studied and the literature was vast. She traveled to the former Yugoslavia and started preparing her project on Serbo-Croatian, with the intention of focusing her career on Slavic studies. Thomason would spend a year in this region writing her dissertation project on noun suffixation in Serbo-Croatian dialectology. Thomason would not, however, continue focusing neither on Slavic nor on Indo-European languages.[7]

Instead, Thomason's career's focus shifted in 1974, when she encountered literature about pidgins and creoles. She realized that language contact was crucial for an understanding of language change. Since then, Thomason has dedicated the vast majority of her work to language contact phenomena.[7]

Sarah Thomason has also held different positions as a professor, editor or adviser in different institutions. She taught Slavic Linguistics at Yale from 1968 to 1971, before moving to the University of Pittsburgh in 1972.[5] From 1988 to 1994 she was the editor of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America. In 1999 she was the Collitz Professor at the Linguistic Society of America summer institute. In 2000 she was President of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas.[5] She was also Chair of the Linguistics and Language Sciences section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1996, and Secretary of the section from 2001 to 2005.[5]

Current Work

Sarah Thomason is also known for her contributions to the study of Native American languages. Thomason's interest in these languages started with her studies on pidgin languages, specifically pidgin Delaware, derived from Delaware languages, and Chinook jargon. She would later become very interested on Salishan languages, a field that she has been studying for over thirty years. She has spent every summer since 1980 studying Montana Salish, or Salish-Pend d'Oreille language, talking with its last fluent speakers with the objective of documenting the language, as well as creating a dictionary for the Salish and Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee language program.[5][7]

Sarah Thomason believes language change could be a product of deliberate action driven by its speakers, who may consciously create dramatic changes in their language, if strong motivation is present.[7] This view challenges the current assumption in historical linguistics that, on one hand, deliberate language change can only produce minor changes to a language, and, on the other, that an individual on his or her own is not able to produce language change. While she admits that the permanence of the change is dependent on social and linguistic probability, she emphasizes these factors do not invalidate the possibility of permanent change occurring. Thomason argues that under a situation of language contact bilingual speakers can adapt loanwords to their language structure, and that speakers are also capable of rejecting changes to the structure of their language. Both of these cases show conscious and deliberate actions from the part of the speakers to change their language.[8]

Sarah Thomason has also criticized alleged cases of xenoglossy from a professional point of view as a linguist. Her article Past tongues remembered? has been reprinted in different publications and translated into French and German.[1] Thomason has examined, among others, the cases presented by author Ian Stevenson. In Stevenson's works Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of A Case, and Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy, he presents the case studies of subjects who claimed to remember having lived past lives and to be able to speak in a foreign language when they were under hypnosis. In Stevenson's opinion, their ability to speak a foreign language without having been exposed to it could be proof of reincarnation. Sarah Thomason, however, analyzed those cases and concluded that the subjects did not show real knowledge of the foreign language they said they were able to speak. Thomason pointed out that the performance of the individuals was by far not to the standards of that of a native speaker, as they showed very limited vocabulary and poor grammar in the foreign language. Thomason also noticed that the speech produced was many times limited to a repetition of some phrases or short answers, and it sometimes included words in a different language than the one subjects claimed to be able to speak. Thomason argues that the structure of the experiment allowed for the subjects to be able to guess the meaning of some of the questions by the hypnotists. She concludes that none of the individuals studied by Stevenson could prove xenoglossy, and that their knowledge of the foreign language could be explained by a combination of natural means such as exposure to the language, use of cognates, and guesses, amongst other resources.[9]


She is married to philosopher/computer scientist Richmond Thomason and is the mother of linguist Lucy Thomason. Her mother was the ichthyologist Marion Griswold Grey.


  • Thomason, Sarah G. and Terrence Kaufman (1988). Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07893-4.
  • Thomason, Sarah G. (2001). Language contact: an introduction. Georgetown University Press, 2001.[10]
  • Thomason, Sarah G. (2015). Endangered Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2015.[11]
  • Thomason,Sarah G. (1987) Past tongues remembered? The Skeptical Inquirer. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. 11:367-75
  • Thomason,Sarah G. (1984) Do you remember your previous life's language in your present incarnation?. American Speech. Duke University Press. 59:340-350.


  1. ^ a b "Curriculum Vitae of Sarah G. Thomason" (PDF). Retrieved 13 October 2014.
  2. ^ University of Michigan faculty directory
  3. ^ "Journal of Historical Linguistics". John Benjamins Publishing Company. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  4. ^ "Journal of Language Contact". Brill. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h "Sarah Thomason's Brief CV" (PDF). Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  6. ^ "About". Language Log. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Sarah Thomason, University of Michigan". The Linguist List. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  8. ^ "Language Contact and Deliberate Change" (PDF). Retrieved 12 October 2014.
  9. ^ "Xenoglossy" (PDF). Retrieved 12 October 2014.
  10. ^ Thomason, Sarah, Language Contact: An Introduction", Georgetown University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-87840-854-1
  11. ^ Thomason, Sarah and Veronica Grondona, Endangered Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2015. ISBN 9780521865739

External links

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