March 8th marks International Women’s Day around the world. Though the holiday was first celebrated in New York in 1909, today it is an official holiday in many countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Zambia. International Women’s Day has been observed on the 8th of March since 1977, when the United Nations General Assembly invited its member states to declare the day as the UN day for both women’s rights and world peace, though the UN began sponsoring the holiday in 1975.
The holiday is observed with traditions such as hosting women-only parties and giving gifts and flowers to women. In some countries, such as Poland and Pakistan, the day is marked by feminist demonstrations and protests for the furthering of women’s rights.
Every year, the United Nations assigns an official theme to each International Women’s Day. 2016’s theme is “Make It Happen,” and a hashtag dedicated to the motto is featured on social media.
There are prominent female figures in just about every field imaginable, and the language field is no different. To commemorate International Women’s Day, here is a list of eight women who made their mark in linguistics, translating, interpreting, and language access.
- Sacagawea – With a name that is extremely well-known among graduates of the American public school system, Sacagawea remains one of the most famous interpreters in U. S. history. Sacagawea’s Shoshone interpreting skills earned her and husband Touissaint Charbonneau a place in the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition. Sacagawea’s importance was not just limited to her excellent skills with interpreting and negotiating with the Shoshone. Sacagawea also had an extensive knowledge of plants, which came in handy when the travelers needed to know which plants were edible.
- Lydia Callis – Just because sign language interpreters are seen and not heard doesn’t mean they can’t become famous. Lydia Callis received an outpouring of positive attention when she signed alongside New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during his discussion of Hurricane Sandy in a 2012 press conference. Despite the grave subject matter at hand, Callis’s emotive interpreting was praised as being a beacon of positivity for struggling citizens. By the end of the press conference, Callis’s lively, animated signing drew more attention than Bloomberg’s own speech, and she quickly gained a fan base overnight. Callis used her newfound exposure to bring greater awareness to the Deaf community and continues to encourage businesses to become more “deaf friendly” for hearing-impaired customers.
- Carol Chomsky – Noam Chomsky is known both in the academic community and among laypeople as the father of modern linguistics, but his wife, Carol, made a name for herself in the field as well. Whereas her husband’s brand of linguistics was abstract, Carol’s was hands-on and practical. She studied the acquisition of syntax amongst children, and determined that earlier researchers were underestimating the complexities of the acquisition. This allowed for a greater understanding of the linguistic development of children. Carol also researched the acquisition of the written word among children, and developed the technique of repeated reading to help struggling readers achieve greater fluency. Additionally, Carol found success in educational technology, and she created software designed to cultivate reading-comprehension skills.
- Sarah Winnemucca – Another famous female interpreter and advocate for Native American rights is Sarah Winnemucca, born Thoc-me-tony to the Paiute tribe in Nevada. Having developed language skills in her youth in a Roman Catholic school, Winnemucca acted as an intermediary between the American military and the Paiutes for years. After the end of the Bannock war, she began to advocate against the mistreatment of Native Americans, and eventually became one of the most significant activists for Native American rights in the 19th Winnemucca also published an autobiography regarding her personal accounts of relations between whites and Paiutes. Later in her life, she worked at a school in Nevada, teaching children to balance their Native American heritage along with assimilating into the language and culture of the whites, until her death in 1891.
- Donna Jo Napoli – It may be difficult for laypeople to name many famous linguists, but some might recognize Napoli from her work in a different field: children’s literature. Napoli has written a number of fantasy novels for children and young adults, including “Zel” and “Sirena,” and her award-winning books have been translated into over a dozen languages. Speaking of dozens, she’s also worked in over a dozen linguistic fields, from morphology to Romance studies to linguistic analysis of folk dance. To round out her substantial career with language, Napoli is also a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.
- La Malinche – Even older than the famed Sacagawea is a woman many consider to be one of the first interpreters: La Malinche, also known as doña Marina. Malinche worked alongside Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés from 1519 to 1526 as Cortés traveled across Mexico. Though hundreds of languages were spoken in Mesoamerica at this time, Cortés understood only Spanish. Malinche, offered as a slave to Cortés by a Mayan lord, quickly became one of his most important allies; she could translate, negotiate, and mediate between the conquistadors and the indigenous peoples. Sadly, Malinche died around 1527, but numerous descriptions of her great skill and beauty appear in accounts of various conquistadors. However, Cortés, who was the most indebted to her, mentioned her only twice in his letters to the King of Spain.
- Larissa Volokhonsky – If you’ve ever browsed English translations of famous Russian works, chances are you’ve seen the name Volokhonsky in conjunction with her husband, Richard Pevear. The couple has translated a number of Russian classics, with Volokhonsky translating the original Russian into English and Pevear (who speaks no Russian) stylizing the text. Though the quality of their translations is subject to controversy among literature fans, Volokhonsky’s renditions remain bestsellers, and her translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina earned a coveted selection for Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
- Mary Haas – Though most language learners prefer to learn popular languages for practical purposes, there is a certain allure to dead languages. Mary Haas, an American linguist, dedicated years to the study of North American Indian languages, some of which died shortly after her work with its last few native speakers. Haas’s research centered on the American southeast, and she studied such languages as Tunica, Natchez, Creek, and Alabama. Her field notes on the Natchez language, though unpublished, were a critical source of information on the language, which is now considered extinct. Haas’s talents for linguistics were not limited to studying historical linguistics; she was also an important figure in teaching linguistics, and trained a number of important American linguists, such as William Shipley, Karl Teeter, and Margaret Langdon, who would all go on to work in the field of study of California Indian languages.