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UC San Diego Sign-Language
Scholar Wins 2010 MacArthur 'Genius' Award

September 28, 2010

By Inga Kiderra

Photo of DrEricson
UC San Diego researcher Carol Padden received a MacArthur 'genius' award.

Carol Padden, a scholar of sign languages at the University of California, San Diego, has been named a 2010 MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She will receive $500,000 in “no strings attached” support over the next five years.

Padden is the 16th UC San Diego scholar to receive a MacArthur Fellowship and the seventh so honored from the university’s Division of Social Sciences.

A professor in the Department of Communication, Padden is also associate dean in the Division of Social Sciences, an affiliate of the Center for Research in Language and doctoral graduate of the Linguistics Department at UCSD. Padden is a linguist whose research focuses on the unique structure and evolution of sign languages – how they differ from spoken language and from each other –and on the specific social implications of signed communication. 

“This is outstanding news for UC San Diego and our Division of Social Sciences,” said UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox.  “The selection of Professor Padden for this award clearly demonstrates the extraordinary caliber of our faculty and alumni as we celebrate 50 years of innovative, interdisciplinary research and teaching.”

Popularly known as a “genius” grant, the MacArthur award recognizes “talented individuals in a variety of fields who have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits.” Padden, who was born deaf, is cited for work that “demystifies sign language and opens windows of understanding regarding how languages evolve over time and the role of language in building and maintaining communities.”

Recipients of the award are nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields and learn that they have won by a phone call “out of the blue” a few days before the public announcement.

Asked about her reaction and what she plans to do with the award, Padden said she’s still getting used to the news and will need a few days or weeks to think about how to apply the money to the many ideas she’s currently nurturing.

“I was completely caught off-guard and I’m dumbfounded,” Padden said. “I have been working on sign languages for 30 years – my entire career. It’s very rewarding to feel that after all these years people recognize what you’ve done.”

Padden noted that when she was first starting out she had a hard time getting funding for her work, which was “not exactly mainstream at the time.”

“Either my ideas are now more widely accepted or I’ve gotten better at talking about them,” she laughed.

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. 

More recently, Padden and colleagues determined that Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) – a new sign language that arose about 75 years ago in a small village in Israel's Negev Desert – makes greater use of the signer’s own body to show the subject of the verb, as opposed to using space in front of the signer.  Although the various sign languages in use around the world are relatively young and rapidly developing, Padden and her colleagues have demonstrated that emerging languages, even if not yet mature, can nonetheless quickly adopt complex grammatical structures such as grammatical subject and word order, calling into question long-held beliefs about natural language progressing from simple to complex. News of ABSL made headlines worldwide.

Much of Padden’s work also focuses on the social context of signed languages and on the historical factors impacting the development and use of sign language, contemporary obstacles to interaction and integration of deaf culture within larger society, and the underappreciated variety within deaf cultures (such as the different ways in which deaf people learn sign language and interact with other deaf people). 

Padden was born in Washington, D.C., the second deaf child of deaf parents who were both on the faculty at Gallaudet University. She first attended a school for deaf children but transferred to the public school system in third grade and remained there until high school. It was a long adjustment for her and one she describes as being “akin to being educated abroad.” Her interest in linguistics and culture, she writes, “is strongly rooted” in those formative experiences of “moving between different worlds and languages,” between the hearing world and the familiarity of signed language at home. 

Padden earned a B.S. from Georgetown University in 1978 and a Ph.D. from UC San Diego in 1983, at which point she joined the faculty.

She is co-author, with husband and fellow UCSD faculty member Tom Humphries, of “Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture” (Harvard University Press, 1988), “Inside Deaf Culture” (Harvard University Press, 2005) and two sign language textbooks.

Padden’s other publications include scholarly articles in such journals as PNAS, the Journal of Linguistics, and the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Her dissertation on interaction of morphology and syntax in American Sign Language was named an Outstanding Dissertation in Linguistics (Garland Press, 1988). She has been the recipient of various awards including the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a UCSD Chancellor’s Associates Outstanding Faculty award and a Laurent Clerc Cultural Award for distinguished contributions to the field of deafness. Her research has been funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education and the Spencer Foundation.

On learning of the award, Jeff Elman, dean of the Division of Social Sciences and a longtime colleague of Padden’s, wrote in an email to Padden:  “I only now saw this, minutes after bidding you good-bye at the elevator. If I’d known I would have danced you around the roof!  I’m delighted and pleased and proud and…what else can I say?! Very happy for you (and for us). This is fantastic news.”

 

Media Contact: Inga Kiderra, 858-822-0661 or ikiderra@ucsd.edu


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