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“Happy Birthday” to the Linguistic Society of America

This January, the Linguistic Society of America will celebrate its 100th anniversary. The effort to create a Linguistic Society, one dedicated to “the advancement of the scientific study of language,” took root in 1924. The first meeting was held in December of that year and its flagship journal Language began publication in March of 1925.   

Among other things, much of the Linguistic Society’s history is presented in Frederick J. Newmeyer’s excellent American Linguistics in Transition: From Post-Bloomfieldian Structuralism to Generative Grammar, which documents issues, events, and personalities from the 1920s through the 1980s. Today, the Linguistic Society draws up to 1,300 attendees at its early January meetings, which alternate between convention-ready cities in the eastern, central, and western US. 

The LSA, as it is known, shares a lot of interests with the American Dialect Society (founded in in 1889) and the North American Association for the History of the Language Sciences (founded in 1987), which meet at the same time and place. Over the years (and before the pandemic), the Society also met together with American Name Society (founded in 1951), the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics (founded in 1989), and the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas (founded in 1981).

With over 3,000 members, the Linguistic Society also sponsors minicourses, student fellowships, awards, and a number of special interest sections. And since 1928 it has facilitated biennial Summer Institutes where scholars and students gather for a month-long program of courses, special lectures, and social events.

Like all organizations, the Linguistic Society has had its ups and downs, but many linguists are planning to gather in the city where it all began—New York and to celebrate the last century and think about the next hundred years of the scientific study of language. And one thing you can be sure will happen is that “Happy Birthday” will be sung.

Not just because it is the Society’s birthday, but because the song has a special connection to the Linguistic Society. “Happy Birthday” was written in 1893 by two sisters, Mildred Jane Hill and Patty Smith Hill, teachers in Louisville, Kentucky. After considerable legal wrangling with a publisher who claimed to hold the copyright, the Hill family set up a trust and a charitable foundation which had a share of the royalties.

You can read about the copyright history in Robert Brauneis’s 2009 article “Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song” in the Journal of the Copyright Society of the U.S.A. Mildred Hill, a musicologist, died in 1916; Patty passed away in 1946, and a third sister, Jessica Mateer Hill (who together with Patty managed the foundation and family trust) died in 1951. At that point, the trust revenue went to the nephew of the sisters, a University of Texas linguistics professor named Archibald A. Hill. Hill joined the Linguistic Society in 1928, served as Secretary-Treasurer from 1950-1968 and as the Society’s president in 1969.

And when Archibald Hill died in 1992, the assets of the trust became the property of the Association for Childhood Education, as per the instructions in Jessica Hill’s will. The remainder of his estate went to a family friend. While he did not leave the rights to “Happy Birthday” to the LSA, as some have wondered, Hill was a savvy steward of the LSA funds as Secretary-Treasurer. Today the Society’s Washington, DC, headquarters are in the Archibald A. Hill Suite at the Monroe House.  

As for “Happy Birthday,” a legal settlement in 2016 placed the song in the public domain, so I’m pretty sure linguists will be singing it in January.

Featured image by Luca Bravo via Unsplash

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