Today we are traveLING to Eastern Europe and Russia. So let’s welcome our new Featured Linguist Irina Nevskaya who comes from Mountainous Shoriya in the heart of southwest Siberia. Read below what led her to the path of linguistics and what research she is currently undertaking.
How I Became a Linguist
by Irina Nevskaya
I was born in 1958 in Mountainous Shoriya, named so after the Turkic indigenous people – the Shors. I learned that fact in the Museum of Natural History of the Region when I was a school-girl. However, I had never suspected that the Shors had still survived in these mountains until I started to work as a University teacher at the Chair of Foreign Languages of the Novokuzneck State Pedagogical Institute, today it is the Kuzbass State Pedagogical Academy, Russia. At that time, the head of the Chair was Ėlektron Čispijakov, a Shor person himself. He organized a Circle of the Shor language for young University teachers of the Chair, graduates of the Faculty of Foreign Languages of this University. He taught us Turcology and the Shor language in 1980-1986. There were no Shor textbooks, no Shor dictionary at that time. He wrote textbook and taught us using the written lessons. I learnt that the Shors still spoke their language which had survived in spite of the absence of any official support and persecutions. I also learnt that the language had had a written form, but could not preserve it. At that time, it was neither written, nor taught at school. I studied the language and the people and went on field work among the Shors during my summer vacations – by train, by bus, by boat, on foot, or by a helicopter which was and still is the only way to get to some Shor villages. The more I learnt about the Shor language and the people, the more I wanted to help the people to preserve (or even to revive) their language. I also got interested in Turkic languages and in their language structure, different from that of the Indo-European languages I had been familiar with until that time.
You might be interested in the question why teachers of foreign languages were engaged in language research on indigenous languages. You see, there were no chairs of indigenous languages of Siberia, where specialists in these languages could be trained at that time. Foreign language teachers were the only language specialists available in Siberia. And this is kind of a tradition in Siberia that foreign language teachers were the first linguists doing research on indigenous languages of Siberia, starting from Wilhelm Radloff, a German language teacher in Barnaul in the nineteenth century (who later became the first Russian Academician – Turcologist and is considered to be the father of Russian Turcology), followed in the middle of the twentieth century by Andrey Dulzon in Tomsk and his apprentices, one of which was Ėlektron Čispijakov.
As a student of the Department of Germanic Languages I was already interested in various linguistic issues. In my first year at the University, I chose to write a course paper to the topic “Language as a System of Systems”. A very ambitious topic for a first-year student! However, the work on the topic showed me that Language is a well-structured phenomenon, even if one might not see that at a first glance. I was actually very good at Mathematics and other Natural Sciences at school and even won various competitions of school children in Mathematics. But I chose to study Linguistics, partially following a family tradition – my mother was a teacher of Russian at school, an excellent one, by the way, and many of my relatives were, – and partially because I thought that Mathematics would be too easy to deal with for me. To try to understand language structures and how they reflect reality was much more exciting. I remember my being absorbed in thoughts on the functions of the Infinitive in English once to such degree, that I even did not answer when my fellow-students applied to me. They asked me what I was thinking about, and I honestly answered that I was thinking about the infinitive functions. You realize that that became a running gag when they spoke about me after that. Nevertheless, exactly the functions of gerunds in Shor became the topic of my Doctoral thesis I wrote in 1986-1989 at the Institute of Philology of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
It was already the time of “perestrojka” in the Soviet Union and that of the rise of national sentiments of all its nations which was not always peaceful. It was a very difficult, but also a fascinating time! Students and teachers were starving. In order to survive I had to do five different jobs at a time – from teaching at the University to translating cartoons for the local TV. However, I also wanted to help the Shor people to revive their language. Together with some colleagues of the Chair of Foreign Languages I organized Shor language courses, started a Shor electronic database and organized and headed the club of Shor young people named after a national epic hero Ölgüdek for a few years. One of the activities of the Club was publishing a Shor Youth Journal in the Shor language which was the first published book in Shor after a break of more than half a century. In 1988, the Chair of the Shor Language and Literature was created at my University; the language got its new orthography and became to be taught at the University and at schools in Shoriya, first by the graduates of the Shor language courses, and then by graduates of the Shor Department. An Association of the Shor people was created; the Shor language was included into the list of indigenous languages of Russia to be supported by the Government.
Because of the lack of financing we had to freeze the program of creating a Shor electronic database. I concentrated on the individual research and wrote my second Doctorate (called Habilitation in German) on spatial constructions in Shor and other Siberian Turkic languages. I applied for and got a Humboldt stipend in Germany. From that time, I have been in Germany teaching in Frankfurt and Berlin and participating in various projects, most of which I have conceptualized myself. They are mostly connected with Siberia in some way. In particular, we have resumed our project on Shor electronic database thanks to the support of German and Russian Foundations. Another project was on documenting Chalkan, another endangered South Siberian Turkic variety.
For the last ten years I have been documenting Old Turkic Runic inscriptions in Mountainous Altai doing field research in the Altai Mountains during my University vacations. Together with colleagues from the Republic Altai I have published a “Catalogue of Altai Runic inscriptions” (2012), and created a database of the collected materials on the Internet. Now I hold a replacement professorship in Turcology at the Frankfurt University and I am engaged in deciphering archive materials on Siberian Turkic, in documenting various Turkic varieties and Old Turkic inscriptions, in investigating various language categories (Prospective, Depictive, Clusivity, etc.) among other things. I am very happy that I have an opportunity to do what I really like. The only problem is that there is so much work to do and so little time to do all I would love to.