June 23, 2020

Class of 2020: Musicality of languages fascinates graduating linguistics student

Focus on Indigenous languages encourages respect for people and communities, says Quinn Goddard

Taking notes on Navajo grammar to determine how the past tense is encoded in the language isn’t a common junior high school hobby. Google “fun side interests for teens.” It will never appear.

Then again, nothing about Quinn Goddard, BA’20, is ordinary.

An accomplished Linguistics undergrad whose research is focused on the languages of the Blackfoot and Plains Cree, and a woman with widely diverse interests and accomplishments, she was digging beneath the fertile dirt of languages long before she got to UCalgary.

  • Photo above: Quinn Goddard hits the books and does some linguistics research. She is graduating this year with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Photo by Quinn Goddard

“I’ve always been interested in drawing and writing and all the various ways of communication,” says Goddard, who grew up in Calgary and graduates this year with an honours degree in linguistics and a minor in music. “Linguistics is that marriage of science and arts that fits me perfectly.”

Musicality in languages leads to fascination with linguistics

When Goddard was five years old, she was fascinated by her kindergarten teacher, who would whip out a guitar and play a tune whenever the class got out of control.

“I thought the instrument was magical if it could instantly silence insane toddlers,” says Goddard, now an experienced classical guitarist who volunteers her time as vice-president of the Classical Guitar Society of Calgary.

As a child, she discovered a musicality in languages that could yield cultural perspectives and disclose ways of interpreting the world. The stress of a particular note in a musical piece could just as well be a clue in language that would crack open new meanings for her, she says.

Every aspect of linguistics is fascinating to me. We receive all this information in sentence structure and the ways that vowels are articulated. What you are trying to get across when you talk to another person, even what you leave unsaid can carry so much meaning.

Her curiosity in junior high school bloomed into a fully fledged talent for research at UCalgary that has attracted multiple scholarships and awards, including the PURE (Program for Undergraduate Research Experience) Award in 2019.

Excellence of work earns Chancellor's Award 

The award enabled her to study the prosodic system of Plains Cree under the supervision of Dr. Darin Flynn, PhD, and Dr. Angeliki Athanasopoulou, PhD, both of the School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures and Cultures.

Goddard was awarded the Chancellor’s Award for outstanding poster presentation at the Students’ Union Undergraduate Research Symposium last year, which is an opportunity for undergraduate students from all faculties to showcase their exceptional research alongside their peers to the broader campus community.

Working on endangered languages is a passion, but she acknowledges that it can be tricky. As a researcher, the key is to respect the people, community and the language.

Graduating linguistics student Quinn Goddard, centre background, with a presentation at the Linguistics Society of America Conference in New Orleans this year with a poster entitled "The Ambiguity Between Lexical and Phrasal Prosody in Plains Cree.”

Graduating linguistics student Quinn Goddard, centre background, stands at the Linguistics Society of America Conference in New Orleans with a poster titled The Ambiguity Between Lexical and Phrasal Prosody in Plains Cree.

Dennis Storoshenko

Student seeks to prevent extinction of endangered languages

“The current rate of language endangerment and extinction is terrifying,” says Goddard. “Languages are living, breathing things, and to help prevent the loss of further linguistic diversity, research and educational resources need to be directed towards minority languages.”

One of the highlights of her research has been the opportunity to work closely with Akáípiksi (Ramona Low Horn), an elder from Siksiká, she says.  

“You have to be mindful that you are a guest researching a language and that it ultimately belongs to a culture,” says Goddard. “I believe that giving more visibility to cultures and languages fosters greater respect for them.”

Goddard’s university studies have included computer science, which helps to underpin her love of creating digital animation and graphics. This summer, she volunteered to create an animated music video for the Calgary roots act Lucky Sonne and its new song Get Small.

She says the university faculty that she has worked with have been invaluable in helping her to gain experience and develop her research skills.

Flynn, an associate professor in the Faculty of Arts, says Goddard is a remarkably talented researcher.

In two decades of teaching and supervision, I have never encountered a more effective undergraduate researcher. She is an accomplished linguist, musician, computer scientist and photographer — a true Renaissance young woman.

Next step in studies set to begin at McGill University

Dr. Elizabeth Ritter, PhD, graduate program director and a professor of linguistics at UCalgary, says Goddard “is one of the very brightest, most hard working and engaged students I have ever had the pleasure of working with.”

In the fall, Goddard begins her fully funded studies at McGill University in Montreal, but given the restrictions of the pandemic, she expects to stay in Calgary and do her classes online.

“I’m most interested in promoting greater awareness and appreciation of understudied and endangered languages through their research and documentation, and that’s what I’d like to continue working on in the future,” she says.

Meanwhile, she is fine-tuning her research with Akáípiksi (Ramona Low Horn) and “looking at very cool linguistic data.” It’s a project her junior high school self would have applauded.