Sign Language Work Wins Alumna Prestigious MacArthur Award
October 15, 2010 – Carol Padden, an expert in sign language, says she’s been doing the work that recently won her a MacArthur award from the time she studied as an undergraduate at Georgetown.
“I wanted a solid education in linguistics and I got it,” Padden says of her Georgetown experience. “My [Georgetown] professors taught me a great deal about doing science and doing good work.”
She says her undergraduate education became a foundation for earning a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California, San Diego, where she’s now a faculty member in the department of communication.
Padden, who also serves as UCSD’s dean of social sciences, is among 23 individuals selected as 2010 MacArthur
Fellows by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Also known as a “Genius” grant, the award is given for creativity, originality and the potential to make important contributions in the future.
“It’s a tremendous honor, and I’m very grateful for the recognition,” says Padden, who graduated from Georgetown in 1978. “…To have gotten such surprising validation for the years of work I’ve done – it’s the best thing that [could have happened] to me.”
Padden’s research focuses on the structure and evolution of sign languages and how they differ from spoken language and from each other. Recently, she’s been researching the emerging Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) in Israel.
She and her colleagues already have demonstrated that new sign languages can quickly adopt complex grammatical structures. With the MacArthur grant, she hopes to expand that research.
“I’m working on some ideas about how languages get assembled over time to create mature grammars,” Padden says. “I have some pretty unusual ideas about how this happens, and I will need time to do the research and writing to get them fleshed out and in publishable form.”
ASL and Grammar
In her early research on American Sign Language, Padden clarified misconceptions about the grammatical use of visual space, showing, for example, how signers use points in space to refer to different subjects.
Her publications include Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988) and Inside Deaf Culture (2005), which she co-authored, two textbooks on American Sign Language and scholarly articles in such journals as PNAS, the Journal of Linguistics and the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
Padden’s parents are both retired faculty from Gallaudet University, where her mother taught English Literature.
“I believe she instilled in me an interest in language from an early age,” Padden notes.