Author: Anna White

Featured Linguist: Laura Janda

Featured Linguist: Laura Janda

Featured Linguist: Laura Janda

I became a linguist because I was rather obnoxious and rebellious.

I grew up in a little town in upstate New York where no languages were taught before high school. In ninth grade I enrolled in my first language class: French. But after about two weeks, the teacher was clearly fed up with having one student wave her hand in response to every single question. I was handed a pile of books and cassette tapes, pointed in the direction of the janitor’s closet, and told to go work on my own. By June when I emerged from that closet, I had completed all the assignments and tests from all four years of high school French. I was told: “Ok, you’re done with language for high school.” But I didn’t listen. The following fall I signed up for Spanish. And the same thing happened. At the end of tenth grade I was told: “Now that’s really enough, we don’t have any more languages to offer, go do something else.”

Two years later I was signing up for courses as a Princeton freshman, selecting biology, calculus, and the like, since my parents had told me that there was no way they were paying for a university education unless I became a doctor. There was a language requirement, and that made me unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to go back to French and Spanish, since my “closet studies” were but a distant memory by then and probably inadequate to get me beyond a beginner course. I could try something different. Chinese? No, that conflicted with the pre-med courses my parents demanded. An advisor solved my dilemma by enrolling me in Russian.

I did fine in the pre-med courses, but various factors led me to opt out of med school. At Princeton in the mid-seventies there were mighty few female students in the science and math courses, both the students and the professors made me feel unwelcome, and there weren’t even any women’s bathrooms in those buildings. Worst of all, the attitude toward learning in the pre-med courses wasn’t as important as grades. I remember a calculus mid-term that was 14 pages long. I took the test and left the room, noting that it was odd that almost everyone else was still sitting there. I had a nearly perfect score on the test – all I missed was a single minus sign – but I got a B- because it was graded on a curve and all those Princeton pre-meds had recognized that the test was too easy, so they all sat there and checked their tests over and over to make sure they got As. I said to myself: “I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life with these people.”

Russian was exotic and challenging and there were even some female instructors and (fellow?) students. But the biggest attraction for me was Professor Charles E. Townsend, a pupil of Roman Jakobson and a legendary figure in the classroom. The high expectations he set for his classes were only surpassed by the demands he made on himself and his unflagging devotion to his students. Charlie Townsend volunteered to teach me Czech in my senior year and also stood up to my father, defending my right to pursue linguistics. After that I went on to graduate school at UCLA and various adventures behind the Iron Curtain that no reasonable parents would have allowed their daughter to undertake in those days. In the course of my career I have had lots of fun with lots of languages and language students. But I can still be rather obnoxious and rebellious at times.

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Christian Di Canio

Featured Linguist: Christian DiCanio

Featured Linguist: Christian DiCanio

I was brought to linguistics partly by accident, though it has ended up being the perfect match to my strengths and interests. As a child growing up in Buffalo, NY, I was mainly interested in the natural sciences and did not have much of any experience with foreign languages. Yet, when I had the chance to study Spanish in primary school and high school, I discovered that I excelled at it and had a knack for quickly memorizing new words and the idiosyncrasies of grammar. Moreover, in high school, I do recall coming up with a new alphabetic system for English which had different symbols for syllabic consonants (you know, just for fun).

Nevertheless, at that age, it certainly seemed more practical for me to devote my attention to the sciences, which I also loved. So, as an undergraduate, I went away to Brandeis University where I planned to pursue a degree in Chemistry with a minor in Spanish. As a freshman needing guidance in which courses to take, I was assigned a random faculty advisor. That person just so happened to be a linguist named Joan Maling. She nudgingly mentioned to me “Many students who are interested in the sciences and in languages like linguistics.” So, I enrolled in my first linguistics class with Ray Jackendoff. Ray’s enthusiasm for the topic and interest in engaging with students’ ideas proved contagious. Rather simultaneously, Chemistry became rather dull to me. Yet, could one actually study language with scientific rigor and make a career out of it? I didn’t really know if this was true at the time, but I took the plunge and switched majors.

Due to financial circumstances, I transferred to the University at Buffalo where I continued my studies in Linguistics and Spanish. I excelled there and gradually became convinced that linguistics was a useful discipline that might make me employable some day. During my penultimate year, I decided that I wanted to study abroad for a semester in a Spanish-speaking country. Yet, studying abroad in Spain seemed boring to me. As luck would have it, there was a very affordable (and interesting) program for studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico. I inquired about this program, but was disheartened to find out that they did not offer many advanced courses in Spanish. My undergraduate advisor, Jeri Jaeger, suggested that perhaps I could study Zapotec there instead. I had never even considered this a possibility. As luck would have it, when I asked if this was possible, the program seemed keen on finding a speaker to teach me Zapotec. My time in Oaxaca was magical and I fell in love with how different Zapotec was from everything else I had learned beforehand. As my semester project abroad, I wrote a paper about Zapotec syllable structure and sent it along with my applications for graduate school.

I started graduate school at UC Berkeley in 2002. When I got to Berkeley, I knew I wanted to study phonetics, but felt a bit overwhelmed by all the possibilities that I could pursue. I dabbled a bit in syntax and morphology (which remains a “secret” interest of mine), but was finally convinced to focus on phonetics and phonology through a combination of Keith Johnson’s move to the department and Larry Hyman’s addictive energy for all things phonological. During my second year, I was contacted by Seth Holmes, an anthropologist working with a Triqui [ˈtɾiki] community in Oaxaca, Mexico. He was interested in finding a linguist who wanted to help the community develop a dictionary. I wanted to return to Oaxaca and this was a good chance to do so.

I dove into fieldwork with the Triquis and, in doing so, I learned a gigantic amount about linguistic analysis, phonology, and phonetics. Like many other Otomanguean languages, Triqui has a complex tonal system (9 contrastive tones on a single syllable) and a complex morphophonological system involving tonal mutation and spreading. I have been endlessly interested in figuring out the details of the language over the years and investigating different aspects of tone production and perception. Though, as a graduate student, I was certainly concerned that I couldn’t both focus on big picture issues in phonetics (what I imagined to be marketable) and do phonetic fieldwork (what I was most passionate about). Two of my dissertation committee members, Larry Hyman and Ian Maddieson, convinced me that I could do both. I also learned an incredible amount about phonetic theory and methods from my advisor, Keith Johnson, who supported my endeavors even when they didn’t seem to jibe so much with his own research interests. So, I wrote my thesis on the phonetics and phonology of Itunyoso Triqui.

After graduation, I accepted a postdoctoral position in Lyon, France at Le Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage, where I stayed for 2.5 years. I spent my time in France exploring the perception the suprasegmental contrasts in Triqui and gastronomie lyonnaise. I benefitted greatly from meetings with François Pellegrino, who helped me with issues related to experimental design and data processing. It was during this time that I also began to expand my interests in the phonetics of endangered languages. I was recruited to do fieldwork on Ixcatec, a moribund Otomanguean language in Oaxaca, Mexico and, then, to start work on Yoloxóchitl Mixtec (also Otomanguean). I embraced both of these new opportunities and, in doing so, really began to see myself as a Mesoamericanist in addition to being a phonetician.

After France, I took another postdoctoral position at Haskins Laboratories working with Doug Whalen on extracting phonetic data from endangered language documentation corpora. As luck would have it, one of the languages on the project was Yoloxóchitl Mixtec. As someone working on this language, I was well-qualified for the position. At Haskins, I began to focus on the efficacy of computational methods for extracting phonetic data and from endangered language corpora. In the process of exploring these new methods and examining vowel production data, I gained much greater confidence in my abilities as a phonetician. At Haskins, Doug Whalen instilled in me the outspoken belief that phonetic research on endangered languages is, a priori, of no lesser scientific value than phonetic research on non-endangered languages. His special knack for putting phonetic research from endangered languages on the same playing field as research on more commonly-spoken languages was a strong influence on how I began to think of the larger ramifications of my work. With Doug’s encouragement, I applied for my own grant to apply computational methods to the corpus analysis of tone in Triqui and Mixtec and to examine the prosody-tone interface in these languages. I was thrilled to receive a National Science Foundation grant to do this work and pursue my research on tone.

In 2015, I was also thrilled to join the Linguistics Department at the University at Buffalo where I continue my research on the phonetics of endangered languages and speech production. Though I’m now an assistant professor and professional linguist, much of what drew me into linguistics many years ago lingers still – an interest in applying a scientific approach to examining the atoms of speech and discovering how this most human of all systems works. At Buffalo, I hope to instill in budding linguists a sense of how much of the world is still wide open to be explored and give them the skills to grasp the endless possibilities in linguistics.

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

swahili diplomaMy interest in linguistics began at the age of 12 when my father, a high school band director, signed up for a two-year contract with a branch of AID called Teacher Education in East Africa. During a six-week summer orientation program at Columbia University, adults and children alike took Swahili classes. I still have a whimsical diploma from completing that course, signed by the youthful Sharifa Zawawi, who went on to write a number of books on the language including what was for many years the most widely used Swahili text in the US.

 

My dad was assigned to work at a teacher training college near the town of Nyeri, about 100 miles from Nairobi. We loved the time we spent there for many reasons. It led to lasting friendships with Kenyans and expatriates from far-flung countries. During the holidays we traveled all over East Africa, tenting in the vast park systems surrounded by teeming wildlife, and snorkeling the gorgeous coral reefs.

Carstens Safari

elephant

My brother and I experienced the novelty of British style schools with their uniforms and prefects. Swahili was an option alongside of French and Latin at Kenya High School. I had fallen in love with it so I was glad I could continue to study. African writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo and Chinua Achebe opened new worlds to me. Because this was soon after independence, there was a wonderfully optimistic vibe in the country. On the other hand, lingering inequities and prejudices of the colonial period were a vivid part of daily life; this gave me an awareness and interest in world affairs and social justice that animated my experiences and perceptions forever after.

Our Long Island home seemed very dull to me when we got back. I was a bit lost through junior high, high school, and especially early college. At last I took a year off and returned to Kenya to teach English and other subjects as a volunteer in rural schools. Though initially apprehensive about whether I would connect with the place again, I had an immensely gratifying and stimulating experience. My interest in Swahili rekindled. While settlers and expatriates spoke a pidgin sometimes called kitchen Swahili, I resolved to learn Kiswahili Sanifu, the grammatically exacting variety of native speakers. I traveled around with a group of Swahili vacationers my own age on the island of Lamu, sleeping on rooftops, attending the Maulid festival, studying the noun class system in my grammar book, enjoying and trying to learn to make the wonderful coastal curries of fresh seafood and coconut milk.

me on Lamu streetlamu roofs

When the year was over I realized that if I didn’t find a way to pursue my arcane interests I would never make it through a college degree. After some research I became one of three undergraduates in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of African Languages and Literature. What a relief to do college coursework in Swahili, Kikuyu, African literature, and in African oral narratives with the great Harold Schoeb! But right at the end, I also took a course in English transformational grammar that blew my mind completely. Could this really be how language worked, and I had been oblivious all this time? Could you write a transformational syntax for Swahili?

I left for Kenya after completing my BA and found a job teaching in an international school near Nakuru, overlooking the great Rift Valley. During this three-year stint I kept working at my Swahili. I also learned to scuba dive and worked as a volunteer counter of the waterbuck population in beautiful Lake Nakuru game park. Our school had an abundance of snakes and other reptiles which my partner and I took to collecting and housing. I loved the children I taught, who came from all over the world. It was exactly the experience I wanted at the time, but I knew that my next big step would be a graduate program in theoretical linguistics.

me with kids I taught

In 1983 I began my MA/PhD study at UCLA. After my first graduate level syntax courses with the incomparable Tim Stowell, I took a summer intensive Yoruba language course. The combination yielded a near-psychedelic summer learning experience. So much syntactic movement! Special pronouns for coreference! Why the funny particles near Infl in adjunct wh-questions? Didn’t this connect with work of Lasnik & Saito and Jim Huang on the ECP? I was hooked completely and wrote an MA thesis on Yoruba adjunct ECP effects. But after a few years I returned to my Bantuist roots, doing my 1991 dissertation on Swahili noun phrases and embarking on a series of attempts to give agreement theory the right combination of flexibility and constraints to accommodate Bantu, Romance, and English-type patterns. It was a goal which I didn’t feel I met until two publications in 2010 and 2011 freed me of it at last.

In recent years I have shifted into researching the syntax of Nguni languages. While at the University of Missouri I made a connection with Loyiso Mletshe of University of the Western Cape under the auspices of a wonderful sister school program between those two institutions, and this led me to connect with Jochen Zeller of University of Kwa Zulu Natal. My trips to Cape Town and Durban for field work have been highly rewarding, productive, and scenic, introducing me to a different part of the wonderful African continent.

Me on Table Mt Cape Town

East Africa is pulling me back now, through a collaborative NSF grant for Luyia documentation spearheaded by Michael Marlo, and through a Maasai word order project that grew out of a Field Methods course at MU. Here I am with my undergraduate research group in Lawrence Kansas to give talks at the 2014 Annual Conference on African Linguistics:

ACALphoto

At Southern Illinois University Carbondale where I am currently chair of the Linguistics Department, I am working on a Senufo variety called Nafara with another group of Field Methods students.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BReOhxfpEe4

SIU Lx Picnic PhotoI hope to continue this Nafara project in summer 2016 while teaching at the African Linguistics Summer School in Abidjan.

https://sites.google.com/site/africanlingschool/

I feel very fortunate to have a professional life that I love so much.

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Michael Gamon

A job ad on LINGUIST List.

Featured Linguist: Michael Gamon

Featured Linguist: Michael Gamon

Language? Or Science?

I grew up in Bad Soden, a small town on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany. My parents always encouraged any interest of mine. Whether it was science (the chemistry lab in the basement, even the rockets and explosive experiments in the yard) or language and literature. My dad had a fairly extensive collection of world literature. He was in his 20s when WWII ended and could not get enough of the books and the modern art that became available after the barbarism of the Third Reich. The interest in reading rubbed off on me, allegedly I could read fluently by the time I entered first grade, having taught myself reading by asking adults (sometimes total strangers) to spell out letters and labels aloud, starting with the signs in the elevator of our apartment building. Once I had outgrown children’s books, I was allowed to pick any book I wanted from my dad’s shelves, as long as I would put it back after reading it – and I took full advantage of that. There was no notion of “age-appropriate” books in our house: if I could read it and enjoy it, it was considered appropriate. From those beginnings, language, literature and science never lost their appeal for me. In high school I focused on physics, math and English, and when the time came to decide on what to study, I narrowed down the choice to geophysics or German studies and it was my choice to make. My rationale at the time was: Go for the big and risky dream first (study literature to become a writer), and if that does not work out, science and engineering are still another interesting option.

Language and Science!

I did not know about Linguistics until I signed up for German studies at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. It was one of the academic minors “Nebenfächer” offered in German studies –an interesting application of formal methods to the subject of language. All it took was an introductory generative syntax course (taught by the unforgettable Wolfgang Sternefeld) to get hooked; I studied under Helen Leuninger and Günther Grewendorf. Language and the mind/brain, the mathematics of language, and the distant prospect of computers analyzing language – this was incredibly exciting! A few years into the program, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study generative linguistics in the US. To my surprise I made it through round after round of the selection process until I was placed in the University of Washington’s linguistics program. When I received the happy news, I tried to find the university on a map – poring unsuccessfully over a DC area map — the only “Washington” I recognized.

I arrived in Seattle in the autumn of 1990 and fell in love with the beauty of the city, the lakes, the sea, the mountains, and the campus. Resources at the school were a world apart from what I had known in Frankfurt. There, the university library still had card catalogues. In order to get your materials you had to fill out a request form, return after two days to stand in line and find out if the book was available and hope the librarian had processed the request form properly. At the UW, you would go to a library computer terminal, find the library code, and pick up what you needed from the open shelves within minutes. UW faculty were accessible for questions or discussions at all times, the student body was very international, the place was vibrant.

A Degree and a Job.

I finished my MA at the UW by adding one more academic quarter to the three-quarter scholarship. By then I knew I wanted to continue as a linguist, inspired by wonderful teachers (Karen Zagona, Heles Contreras, Fritz Newmeyer, Ellen Kaisse, Sharon Hargus) and fellow grad students. I returned to Germany, only to find that the dusty educational bureaucracy there made it near impossible to have my brand new MA recognized. Fortunately, I got two nearly simultaneous offers to join a PhD program — one from the UW, the other from Nijmegen. I decided to return to the UW, for the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty and for the UW’s academic program.

I was about to finish my PhD in 1996 when a job ad in the Linguist List caught my eye: Microsoft Research (MSR) was looking for a German grammarian (the archives still have the posting https://linguistlist.org/issues/7/7-33.html). At the time, the UW did not have a computational linguistics program; and while I had done a little bit of Prolog programming back in Germany, I could not possibly consider myself a computational linguist. But I figured that applying would help me practice resumé writing and cost me only a few hours and a stamp, so I sent off the application, with little hope of success. That application led to an internship in the Natural Language Processing group at MSR, and then to a job offer. In September 1996 I had both a PhD and a great job. And I could stay in the place I loved.

My early years at Microsoft Research were focused on writing a computational grammar for German in a grammar-authoring environment that was far ahead of its time. The grammar was written in a declarative language (called “G”, loosely based on LISP) and processed by a very efficient parsing engine. Authoring tools made it possible to test a grammar change over thousands of sentences within minutes and to highlight and aggregate each change in the analyses. At the time, other parsers would brood over moderately complex sentences for seconds, sometimes minutes, at a time.), For someone passionate about understanding the structure of language and tinkering with grammatical details this was the best playground one could imagine!

By the time the German computational grammar became part of Microsoft’s German grammar checker (every sentence that is grammar-checked in a German word document is parsed into a full syntactic tree!), the field moved in a new direction, away from grammar engineering and into the world of probabilities. It was time to discover the potential of machine learning. With some colleagues we found some interesting problems in natural language generation where we could combine knowledge engineering (no need to learn from data what we can code in a few hours) with machine-learned models for data-driven decisions. Soon, however, even the idea of a partially knowledge-engineered system fell out of favor, and the search was on for some new research areas. For me, the “fringe” areas (some of which have become mainstream now) held the most fascination: sentiment detection, the notion of “style”, using machine learning to detect and correct non-native writing, and language in social media. More recently, I made another little leap into a new branch of Microsoft Research where we work closer with product teams to bring language technology to market.

And Now?

So here I am, a few months shy of 20 years at MSR after having applied for that job on Linguist List in 1996. Along the way there have been some 60 papers, 30 patent applications, and many collaborations with wonderful colleagues, friends, and incredibly fun and talented research summer interns.

After high school, I had wanted to become a writer or a geophysicist. Instead, I became a linguist. I studied generative linguistics and landed a job as a computational linguist. I have never taken a computer science or programming class, but now work in a computer science research lab.

Along the way I have also became something of a contrarian, to the bemusement of enthusiastic up-and-coming researchers. So, by way of example, I feel I should conclude with at least a few potentially career-limiting remarks.

I believe that, over its long history, the term “Artificial Intelligence” has become intellectually useless –a term that has utility only as a grant-magnet or as a topic for the media circus and their insatiable appetite for the shiny and meaningless. There is “Apparent Intelligence,” which is a real and remarkable achievement: software that is so cleverly designed that a machine can appear intelligent within a well-defined and limited domain. But the notion that machines “understand” language in any meaningful sense of the word, for example, is preposterous at the current stage of our knowledge. Although the mantra “in five years, computers will be able to do xyz,” has been repeated for at least 60 years now, it has not come any closer to the truth. And while deep learning is truly a qualitative breakthrough, all of those “brain” metaphors we see bandied about, well they’re just metaphors, and pretty bad ones at that.

So, what’s next? Your guess is as good as mine!

IMG_4628-1

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Artemis Alexiadou

Featured Linguist: Artemis Alexiadou

Featured Linguist: Artemis Alexiadou

I was born in Volos, a medium sized city in Greece, by the sea, more or less half way between Athens and Thessaloniki.

My parents thought it would be good for me to learn foreign languages very young, (sometimes I wonder whether they had heard about the critical period hypothesis), so next to normal school I had French and English classes. That was fun but did not trigger any interest in linguistics. I loved to read books, the longer the better.  Maybe I secretly wanted to become a writer.

What I did want to become, however, was an archaeologist, and go on expeditions.

During my final year of high school, we were told about the Indo-European language family and how e.g. French, English, German, and Greek all belong to the same family but to different sub-branches. I entered university to learn more about these issues, but soon changed my mind. It all happened during our first session of introduction to linguistics in Athens; our Professor, Dimitra Theophanopoulou-Kontou, mentioned Noam Chomsky, and the idea of Universal Grammar.  I felt that this all makes perfect sense. It has to be right. I then wanted to read everything that Chomsky had written; of course, I could hardly understand most of the things I was reading.

After graduating from Athens, I went to Reading, UK to do an MA in Linguistics. I wanted to go to England, because of the English league and Charles Dickens. I also wanted to learn more about syntax. It turned out that the English I had learned back home had nothing to do with the English spoken there. I realized then what it means to speak a standard as opposed to a dialect.

My year in England was very exciting. Towards its end I started thinking about pursuing a PhD, but I was not quite sure about that yet.

I moved to Berlin at the end of 1991, mainly for personal reasons, but hoping to seriously pursue a PhD there. I thought it could be on the syntax of adverbs, as my MA thesis was on case and adverbial nouns. Berlin was a whole new world for me. I spoke no word of German, I knew nobody, and nobody knew me. I spent my first months going to German school. It was hard, and ask Tibor Kiss and Gereon Müller, they will tell you that my nominal inflections are still all over the place, and we should better not mention my use or rather non/mis-use of the German verbal particle system.

In 1992, I applied for a PhD position at the center that is now called ZAS (Center for General Linguistics). I was ecstatic when Ewald Lang asked to meet me, and when I was invited for an interview. I believe it all had to do with the topic I wanted to write my dissertation on, namely adverbs, a topic several people at this institute have been thinking about. I got the position and started working there in the summer of 1992; soon after other PhDs joined and we had a fun group, for instance my office mate André Meinunger and my dear friend Ursula Kleinhenz.

The two years of my scholarship were very important for my development. I am thankful for numerous things: the intellectual environment at the institute, the cooperation with Manfred Bierwisch’s group Structural Grammar, the possibility to travel to conferences and summer/winter schools, where I met both peers as well as more senior linguists and was taught by many renowned linguists. This is how I met Elena Anagnostopoulou in Holland; we kept supporting each other during final stages of our dissertations and later started working together. Several workshops were organized in Berlin and many people came to visit, so there was always something happening and there were so many people to talk to.

During the 1994 GLOW in Vienna, I met Gisbert Fanselow, who had recently been appointed as Professor in Potsdam, and asked him if he would be interested in supervising my thesis. He was, so I became the first person to get a linguistics PhD from Potsdam. Some years later, in 1999, I had my Habilitationskolloquium in Potsdam; my Habilitation (or second book as they say here) was on nominalization and ergativity, and owes a lot to discussions with Alec Marantz and Melita Stavrou. I have been trying to understand nominal structure ever since. In 1999 I spent a semester teaching in Tübingen, and am thankful to Arnim von Stechow and Wolfgang Sternefeld for this opportunity. That year I also joined the GLOW Board, and profited enormously from interactions with Henk van Riemsdijk, Ian Roberts and later Anders Holmberg.

Between 2000 and 2002 I spent some time abroad, visiting MIT, Princeton and UPenn and then returned to Potsdam, all on a Heisenberg fellowship from the German Research Foundation (DFG). In 2002 I was offered a Professorship in English Linguistics in Stuttgart, so I moved from Berlin to the south of Germany, looking forward to working together with Greg Dogil, Hans Kamp and Christian Rohrer. Many collaborative initiatives took place between linguistics and computational linguistics in Stuttgart, a graduate school, and later a collaborative research center (SFB), whose director I had the privilege to be till September 2015. Interdisciplinary work is really exciting, and I am very happy that I was part of this enterprise.

Perhaps the greatest moment of my linguistic career was when I received a call from the DFG that I was awarded the Leibniz-Prize 2014. People call this the German Nobel Prize, and all the money goes to research, which is fantastic! First I was speechless, then I was screaming. It was, and still feels, simply amazing.

While I am clearly a syntactician, interested in the interfaces between syntax and morphology and syntax and the lexicon, more recently, I got interested in multilingualism for a very simple reason. I noticed that I started transferring all sorts of features from English to German to Greek and back, ending up often thinking that I really do not have a native language anymore. Understanding this mixing will help us understand how the human brain deals with the multi-tasking of handling multiple languages. I also got interested in the properties of grammars of heritage speakers, as these have been argued to deviate from native grammars, so I would like to find out more about thess issues. Some of this work is in collaboration with Terje Lonhdal and his group in Trondheim. In this and other recent research we are applying psycholinguistic methods and I am very happy I can use my award money to do research in these areas.

In October 2015 I moved back to Berlin (Humboldt University), and, thanks to Manfred Krifka, back to ZAS. Quite a journey!

I consider myself very fortunate for all the support I have received in my career. I am grateful that I have made great friends in linguistics, collaborating with them is inspiring and entertaining. Most of all, I am extremely proud to have had and still have great students. I am thankful to each and every one of them.

 

 

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Featured Linguist: David Adger

Featured Linguist: David Adger

Featured Linguist: David Adger

A few months ago, I was asked by a TV programme to make up a language for their monsters to speak, and with that, my linguistics life completed a cycle. When I was about 11 or so, I grew fascinated with language, mainly from reading Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, a book I still completely love. Le Guin envisaged a world where the words actually created the reality, and every single piece of existence had its own particular name. Fascinated by this idea, and already developing my inner language geek, I started making up languages to explore whether they could work like that. To do this, I had to learn how real languages actually worked. At school, they just taught French and German (and later some Latin), but my local library (sadly closed this year because of government cuts) was full of teach-yourself books on weird and wonderful languages, as well as some pretty impenetrable linguistics books. I think the librarians were a bit perplexed by a twelve year old taking home tomes on philology and grammar he couldn’t possibly understand. They were right, I didn’t understand them at all, but I was so hooked by that point, that I read them anyway, and I guess some stuff sunk in. I remember winning a competition for local schools at St Andrews University, when I was about 16, and buying, with my £20 prize, second hand copies of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (which I still have). Again, I wasn’t really able to understand these books in much depth, but the idea that you could use rigorous, mathematical, means to try to get under the skin of language was, and still is, just endlessly fascinating to me.

I went to Edinburgh University to do Linguistics with Artificial Intelligence, a course that, in classical UK university style, didn’t really exist (they were borrowing the final year of the course from a Master’s programme). There Mark Steedman took us, in ten short weeks, on a whirlwind tour of syntax: from Syntactic Structures, through the context-free debates, to the Dutch Infinitival Complement construction, Combinatory Categorial Grammar and Winograd’s Eliza program. It was, intellectually, one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, and I remember a couple of cases where the security guards had to come throw us out because we were all still pestering Mark with questions an hour after the lecture was meant to have finished.

From then I was really a budding categorial grammarian, and, given that it was Edinburgh, and unification-based frameworks were de rigeur, my undergrad theses (we had to do two) were a Unification Categorial Grammar analysis of purpose clauses and an analysis of fluid-ergativity in Eastern Pomo that suggested unification graphs should be allowed to be cyclic—both of these now lost in the fire that destroyed the old Artificial Intelligence department library in Edinburgh. A natural progression, as I moved to doing a Masters in Cognitive Science, was to HPSG (I was really a bit overly dismissive of the GB research program, thinking it relied too much on filters, and not really realizing that HPSG was really a giant set of filters!) At the same time, though, the power of unification based approaches began to make me feel very unsatisfied as to how good a job they were doing of explaining why languages seemed to be cut from very similar cloths.

My undergrad thesis!

My undergrad thesis!

Just about then, Chomsky’s Minimalist work began to appear, and I thought to myself: hey, this is like categorial grammar with movement, that’s very cool. I’d already begun a PhD in Edinburgh working with Elisabet Engdahl on whether it was possible to graft a Discourse Representation Theory type semantics to a minimalist syntax in order to try to understand the semantic effects (or lack of them) of various object movement operations in Scottish Gaelic as well as other languages. Elisabet suggested I spend some time at UMass Amherst, where I got a taste of what a North American graduate programme was like (way more intensive than the British one!), and there I really learned how to think like a syntactician in Hagit Borer’s syntax course. My thesis ended up arguing that Agr nodes (all the rage then) were associated with a Heimian style semantics (constraining the elements in their specifiers to be discourse familiar). Cross linguistic variation emerged from conditions on which bit of a movement chain was fed to the semantic mechanisms, so in some languages Agr’s semantic effect was masked by other aspects of the syntax. Then Chomsky decreed Agr dead the following year!

Agr or no Agr, I was very lucky and got a job at the University of York, where I slightly neglected syntax for a short period as I panicked about teaching and found myself dangerously capable at administration. York was strong in syntax, and I had great fun working on all sorts of problems with George Tsoulas and Bernadette Plunkett; but York also had a growing sociolinguistics group, and one of Sali Tagliamonte’s students, Jen Smith, and I ended up sharing a spooky old 15th Century townhouse, with George, in York. I began to get interested in thinking about how to understand the morphosyntax of the sociolinguistic variation Jen was documenting for the Buckie dialect of Scots.

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15th Century Sociosyntax Laboratory

It was frustrating, but ultimately massively rewarding, to try, with Jen, to bring together two quite distinct parts of linguistics, and, this collaboration was crucial in leading to my next job, at Queen Mary University of London. My partner had been working in London since I moved to York, so, in classic junior academic fashion (he was a post-doc at UCL in environmental science) we were living long-distance lives. Then a job came up at QMUL for a sociolinguist. With my newly found credentials from working with Jen, I went down to QMUL and told them all about the syntax of negative concord in Buckie (I even had some chi-squared test results, in amongst the uninterpretable features and movement chains!). Although QMUL really wanted a sociolinguist, they ended up appointing a dyed-in-the-wool minimalist syntactician. QMUL also appointed Colleen Cotter at the same time, and together with Jenny Cheshire, we began to build the department at Queen Mary.

A lot of the next dozen years involved trying to cram in some syntax in between Chairing the Department, developing new degree programmes, trying to raise funding for PhDs and postdocs, and becoming Head of School (which involved trying to understand what colleagues in Film, Comparative Literature or Mediaeval French wanted). I wrote a textbook I’d never intended to, and Daniel Harbour and I began to work on Kiowa, a language he’d been investigating for his PhD, which led to a slightly impenetrable book, and to me being convinced that our theories of phrase structure were both too complex and too lax (echoes of my earlier worries about unification, I think). I also spent a quiet few months on the Isle of Skye working on Gaelic Noun Phrases (thank you, the Leverhulme Trust!), with further fieldwork trips over the Scottish Hebrides to Barra and Lewis, where I pestered the local populations with what they obviously thought were bizarre questions about their language, and discovered many a fine whiskey.

Linguist with Highland Cows

Linguist with Highland Cows

London is an amazing place to do linguistics. There are hundreds of languages to work on, fantastic colleagues, both at Queen Mary and in the larger linguistics community here, and it’s probably because I’m in London that that TV company called me to ask me to make up a language for them, completing this cycle of my linguistic life.

 

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

I suppose that there are some linguists familiar with the fact that I began my fieldwork as a missionary. When I decided to become a Bible translator with Wycliffe Bible Translators/The Summer Institute of Linguistics (legally distinct entities with the same membership and doctrinal allegiance required to be a member of the former), I had no idea what linguistics in fact was. I quickly got an idea, though, as my path took me to the University of Oklahoma SIL summer courses, where I took my first-ever linguistics course with Kenneth L. Pike.

Pike was a huge influence on me at the time. I watched him do monolingual demonstrations in front of large audiences and make the case through personal example that linguistics was a holistic enterprise, engaging the full mind, personality and body of the linguist. I learned from him at the time what I have only recently begun to think of as the most important insight of 20th century linguistics, the etic-emic distinction.

But I was not thinking about linguistics any more than I had to at the time. I realized that my courses in Koiné Greek and my experience with Spanish, growing up on the California-Mexico border had first revealed to me my love for languages and had prepared me to also enjoy linguistics. But my primary objective was to build a church among an indigenous community somewhere in the world.

I did not even have a bachelor’s degree. I had a Diploma in Foreign Missions from the Moody Bible Institute. Though I had done more than would have been necessary for a bachelor’s degree, supplementing my Moody education with general education courses at Grossmont Community College in La Mesa, California, I had never thought about graduate school, aside from seminary. But SIL required graduate-level courses in linguistics to become a Bible translator so I took them, becoming more and more interested in linguistics as a discipline, though giving no thought to linguistics as a career.

As my family and I finished our linguistics training, we went with SIL to Chiapas, Mexico, for “jungle camp” – training in survival skills, first-aid, butchering meat, canning and other forms of food preservation, and “survival hike,” the final examination. In survival hike I was required to spend a week alone in the jungle, after a fifty mile hike, called out at random from among the “jungle campers” with SIL, and allowed to carry no food, no weapons, and only what I had on my person at the time (I walked around with fifty feet of rope, matches, two canteens, and a nylon poncho) all hanging from a military surplus gun belt.

After this, my three children, my wife, and I were assigned to a Tzeltal village, where we were expected to participate in village life, help in daily tasks, learn the language as well as we could in six weeks, write up a “phonemic analysis,” a morphological analysis, and a syntactic analysis of the language, as well as compiling as much of a dictionary as we could manage. We were also given a conversation exam, to test our ability in the language. I worked with men in the fields. But my work was cut short by my first field illness – typhoid fever, gotten honestly by drinking a fermented corn drink with the men. After a night of unpleasantness in the outhouse in our village, my blood pressure had dropped to 60/40 and the local SIL nurses had me carried out by mule to catch a flight to a hospital in the small town of Alta Mira.

dan2

After a few days, when I returned to my family in the village, a letter was waiting for me from Steve Sheldon, the new director of SIL in Brazil. He said that because he was now director he could no longer continue his work among a particular tribal group, the Mura-Pirahã, confessing to me that though he spoke the language, he had not been able to “crack its grammar.” Because my grades in linguistics had been high, he wondered if my wife and I might be interested in being assigned by SIL to translate the Bible for these people, whom I had never heard of. He said that three other teams had turned him down before he got to me. I received with this letter an assessment by an SIL anthropologist of the living situation among the Pirahãs. He said it was the most psychologically difficult he had ever seen and that the people had no colorful culture, spoke no Portuguese, and were speakers of a language unrelated to any other living language. I said yes immediately.

JP-LANGUAGE-2-popup

When we arrived in Brazil, October 24, 1977, I went as soon as I could for an initial visit with the Pirahãs. While there, I received a radio message that all SIL teams had been ordered out of their villages and that Brazil was trying to label all SIL members as “persona non grata” in Brazil.

As SIL thought of responses to this, I was asked if I would be interested in applying to the graduate program at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) as a potential way of being authorized, as a graduate student at a Brazilian institution, to continue work among the Pirahãs. I said yes immediately again, even though I still did not speak a word of Portuguese. My family and I boarded a bus in Belém, Brazil and took the 60+ hour trip to Campinas, where I went straight to the home of the linguist SIL had told me to contact, Prof. Dr. Aryon Dall’Igna Rodrigues. Aryon, who was to become one of the closest friends and most admired mentors of my life, presented my GRE scores and grades from SIL-affiliated schools (UT Arlington, U of Oklahoma) to the faculty of UNICAMP’s Institute for the Study of Language, and they accepted me into their Mestrado em Linguística program.

Then a transmogrification began to occur, one that I have recounted in various places, especially in my book, Don’t sleep there are snakes: life and language in the Amazonian jungle. Because of my admiration for and friendship with Brazilian linguists and other intellectuals and because of my growing understanding and admiration of the Pirahãs, I began to question my belief in God, my commitment to converting others to Christianity, and just about every value that had led me from Southern California to the Amazon, from the time I was 17.

There was one big catch to my loss of faith, though. An unbelieving missionary is an unemployed missionary. So I began to think that perhaps I might be able to become a professional linguist.

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I did my ScD at UNICAMP, the first doctorate in linguistics the university ever awarded. I began to try to publish. Although almost 100% of my first submissions were rejected, I was successful at winning an award from the American Council of Learned Societies for Recent Recipients of the PhD and a grant from the National Science Foundation. And with the backing of Professor Kenneth L. Hale, I was accepted as a Visiting Scholar in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I met to discuss my ideas with Chomsky, Thomas Kuhn (just down the hall then from Chomsky), Morris Halle, Jay Keyser, Luigi Rizzi, and others, including my office mates Pino Longobardi, Adriana Belletti, and Shigeru Miyagawa. I began to get work accepted in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, IJAL, Linguistic Inquiry, and numerous conferences. But still, my educational background was weird – a diploma from a Bible school and graduate work at a then obscure, third-world university (far from that now!). I applied for jobs and made a couple of short lists, at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and UCSD.

At Berkeley I was met at the airport by Chuck Fillmore and taken to his house to stay with him and his wife Lily. It was a surreal experience to be so well treated by one of the most famous linguists in the world. I was walking on air. Interviewed by the graduate students they asked me “We specialize in Californian languages here. Why would we want to hire an Amazonianist? No one works on Amazonian languages in the US.” And as I entered the packed room to give my job talk, the professor walking me in commented “I hope you aren’t going to talk about any of that generative s*&t. We don’t do that here.” My talk was on a generative analysis of Inflectional Phrases and clitics in Pirahã. I didn’t get the job.

Then I received an offer from the University of Pittsburgh and began my ten-year working relationship with Sally Thomason and Terry Kaufman, still two of my best friends and most admired linguists. Chomsky helped me all along, by writing letters of recommendation for my job applications and my tenure application. Rich Thomason told me after I received tenure that “There probably aren’t that many people who get letters from both Chomsky and Geoff Pullum.” Perhaps not.

From this unlikely path, I have worked at UNICAMP, at Pitt, at the University of Manchester, at Illinois State University, and now at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where I serve as Dean of Arts and Sciences. Along the way my students have included Iris Berent, Ted Gibson, Rick Kazman, Eric Nyberg, and many others. I have seen how hard it is to get a job. And I have lamented the lack of good tenure-track positions for the brilliant new linguists, smarter than I, who have gone into this field.

My son, Caleb Everett, quit his job as a stockbroker and commodities dealer with Morgan-Stanley, just after they had assigned him to the World Trade Center, about a month before 9/11. He said he was going to become a professor of linguistics. I asked him to reconsider. “The job market sucks,” I put it eloquently. He responded “Dad, if you can get a job, I can get a job.” And so I learned that pessimism is not all that useful as career advice. One should simply say “If it doesn’t work out, you have at least followed your passion. If it does, the life of a professional thinker, the career of an academic is the best I know of.” Caleb applied to four jobs and received four offers, eclipsing me pretty handily.

So my advice to linguists today is similar to what one of my dearest friends, Peter Ladefoged, told me more than 35 years ago – “There may be 300 PhDs chasing 15 jobs and everyone will think that they are the ones who will get the jobs. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But perhaps the best linguistics of the future will come from plumbers, carpenters, and others.” I publish, teach, and spend my life in linguistics because I am passionate about knowing more about this strange species of primate to which I belong. I love people and their languages. And there are few better ways I can imagine to spend one’s life.

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Featured Linguist: Jaklin Kornfilt

Featured Linguist: Jaklin Kornfilt

Featured Linguist: Jaklin Kornfilt

The Istanbul of my childhood was so multilingual that not to become a linguist would have been impossible for anyone with an ear for language and an interest in figuring out puzzles posed by all those languages and dialects. In my own case, it was German, French, Russian and Yiddish that I was exposed to at home, in addition to the Greek of my nanny and of many neighbors. My cousins had an Armenian nanny. Many acquaintances spoke Ladino at home. It was wonderful to be taken along to my mother’s shopping expeditions, because, depending on the merchant, she would speak a different language: Turkish, Greek, Ladino—and with some, even Russian. It was fun to listen to the two rather different-sounding Yiddish dialects of my grandmothers, one of whom lived with us and the other used to come for a day-long visit once a week. They didn’t like each other very much and so they used to sit and have very polite but very poisonous conversations for hours. Once I learned to write, I devised an alphabet for transcribing those conversations, and when I ran out of topics for my letters to my father, who used to be away a lot on business, I would include some of those transcriptions; they amused him very much, or so he claimed.

That transcribing languages and dialects can actually be part of a real profession is something I discovered in Germany, where I studied German and English literature on an academic exchange scholarship. I had to take an introductory linguistics course where we were told about a new approach to study and understand languages, called Generative Grammar. We read parts of Syntactic Structures and of Aspects, and I now feel inclined to say “… and the rest is history”, only that it still took me some time to find my way to formal linguistics. In Germany, our lecturers in linguistics were sympathetic towards Generative Grammar, but they didn’t understand it very well and thus couldn’t really teach it. I was attracted to it, but there was nobody to explain it all to me in clear terms. It was about then that I visited my aunt in Israel and met, by a chain of coincidences, Bob Lees, who had founded a Department of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and invited me to stay and study formal linguistics, although it was the middle of the semester. This involved driving to the university at least twice a week through heavy morning traffic, to catch Lees’ introductory linguistics course which met at 8 a.m.—a real sacrifice, but one worth making, because the course was an absolutely wonderful introduction to linguistics and got me totally hooked. I took the exams of the course and did well on them, upon which Lees suggested that I should continue towards a PhD in linguistics, and that I should do so in the US. This is how I ended up at Harvard, as a doctoral student in theoretical linguistics. (By a funny coincidence, there, too, I had to go to class to attend an introductory course which met twice a week at 8 a.m.—Jay Jasanoff’s introduction to historical linguistics, and likewise a course well worth getting up early for. At least this time around, campus was in easy walking distance!)

The LinguistList did not exist yet while I was a student. But I envy my own students who make heavy and constant use of it. I was a relatively new Assistant Professor when the LinguistList came into existence, and it was wonderful to find all this great news about conferences, summer schools, books and jobs in one’s mailbox every day. It made me feel connected to the world outside, and I relied on it a lot for news which I used constantly, in various ways; I still do and can’t imagine doing without it.

By the way—the picture that you see was taken recently, a couple of months ago, at a conference in Beijing, on the syntax of information structure in the minority languages of China; when the picture was taken, I was speaking about post-verbal structures in Turkish. This was one of the very few conferences I had not learned about via the LinguistList!

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Hana Filip

Featured Linguist: Hana Filip

Featured Linguist: Hana Filip

My first memories are tied to the awareness that beyond our small Czech speaking world there was an exciting multiplicity of languages out there, and along with it an exciting variety of very different attitudes and life styles. My mother spoke fluently Czech, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish due to her heritage and childhood in West Volhynia (West Ukraine today). And then there were mail deliveries of paperbacks from another exotic place called “West Germany”. They came each wrapped up in a transparent shrink wrap, a whole bunch of them stacked in a brown cardboard box, which, once opened, wafted the enticing fragrance of freshly printed books and a foreign world. They were printed by the DTV Press (German Paperback Press) in Munich, where one of my dad’s friends worked and regularly supplied him with its most recent publications. I did not know any German, but I heard it on an Austrian radio station (“Autofahrer Unterwegs”) that my dad listened to, and I must have been impressed by the pop songs in German it played. As soon as I learned how to read, one of my favorite childhood pastimes, when I was home alone, was to stand in front of the book shelves with the German DTV paperbacks, imagining being a pop singer singing songs with the lyrics like “Heinrich Böll, Irisches Tagebuch, Christian Morgenstern, Palmström Palma Kunkel, Siegfried Lenz, Der Mann im Strom …”, making up the tunes on the spot. I had no idea what the correct pronunciation was, but I was just mesmerized by the idea that the letters, each of which I knew individually, collectively had a meaning, which I did not understand, but there were people to whom it meant something and I wondered just what it might be. No less fascinating was the idea that these books came from “capitalist imperialism”, as I learned already in kindergarten, a world to be worried about and even afraid of, but something that seemed to me inconsistent with their pretty, inviting book covers (designed by Celestino Piatti). When I was about six years old, I decided to learn German. So I pored over a German grammar book that I found in my parents’ library, but did not get much further than learning the conjugation of the German verb ‘to be’.

Celestino.Piatti

This early experience with a foreign language and the world it evoked might have also been the reason why I was so fascinated by a psychology book, which I found in my parents’ library a bit later, and whose topics covered the connection between language, culture and human behavior. It was the first scientific book I read, and, of course, I could not have understood much, reading it and thinking about it by myself, but I was in awe at the ideas it opened up for me.

When I was about eleven years old, I began filling all my free time with learning foreign languages and reading, mostly French and English classic novels and poetry (in Czech translation). Interestingly, German literature took a distinct back seat, although I loved Christian Morgenstern and Heinrich Heine (I’ll return to them at the end). What stands out is that I loved thinking about grammar rules. That is, I thought that the grammar rules in my textbooks “could have been formulated better”. So I tried to come up with various ways of improving on them, “putting them in a better order”, according to what, to me at least, were underlying regularities and relationships among them. There was also a practical reason behind this, namely wanting to cut down the amount of memorization to an absolute minimum, reserving it to vocabulary, idioms, irregular verbs and such. When I was fifteen I taught myself Italian by going through a wonderful textbook (for native Czech speakers) from cover to cover. I learned the Italian pronunciation by following ingenious informal descriptions in this textbook, and by listening to the Italian radio station “Milano Rai Radio Due” in the dead of night, which at that time was not jammed. I had a very vague, and an intriguing, idea that there was an underlying system behind language use, which was reinforced by my discovery of structuralism in literary theory, its precursor Russian formalism in particular. This again happened by chance: while reading detailed introductions to Czech translations of foreign classics, there was a mention of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. I read and loved it, which in turn led me to finding out about Roman Jakobson’s Linguistics and Poetics, Viktor Shklovsky, Claude Lévi-Strauss and others.

What also stands out about this time (junior high in US terms) is that one of my heroes was Jean-François Champollion, who as a young boy first learned Latin, Greek, followed by Hebrew and other Semitic languages before deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. So my plan was to learn all kinds of languages in the years to come, perhaps forever, and hoping that eventually, just like Champollion, I might discover and solve some terrific puzzle along the way. My enthusiasm for studying foreign languages was not dampened by knowing that I might never be allowed to travel to the countries where they were spoken, or pursue their study at a university (children of East European dissidents often were prohibited from studying at universities).

But then in an unexpected and a breathtakingly swift turn of events, my dad “got an offer” to leave Czechoslovakia (which could hardly be refused) and three months later we were in Munich, the city from which the DTV paperbacks had been arriving. Now, I suddenly found myself in a German high school, but among the languages I had learned in Czechoslovakia, I had amazingly somehow omitted German. Yet, I managed to convince everybody that the ‘taking-no-prisoners’ immersion method would work the best for me, rather than spending a year in a German language learning camp. After graduating from high school, I enrolled at the Munich Ludwig Maximilian University to study Romance and English languages and literatures. I gravitated towards the few linguistics offerings, mainly in Chomsky’s generative syntax, which is how I finally understood that there is a full-fledged academic field of linguistics. What really caught my attention, while doing research for one of my term papers, were the proceedings of the Chicago Linguistics Society, which contained concise, to the point, highly informative papers full of intellectual energy and excitement. So when I happened to see a poster of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) advertizing an undergraduate study abroad program in the USA, I did not hesitate to apply, and in my application proposal I wrote that I wanted to study at the University of Chicago, in the Department of Linguistics.

My year at the University of Chicago was nothing short of life-changing. I realized that I had wanted to be a linguist all along, but had not known it. There for the first time I followed my interests in language not as an auto-didact, but guided by some of the best linguists, including the amazing Jim McCawley. My German scholarship funding ended after one year, however, and because of this and other practical reasons, I decided to return to Germany with the plan to complete my M.A. degree in linguistics there so that I could apply for another DAAD fellowship, but this time for doctoral studies in the USA.

Back at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, I switched to the Department of Theoretical Linguistics, chaired by Theo Vennemann, and took classes in formal semantics with Roland Hausser and Joachim Jacobs who gave lucid and exciting classes on Montague Grammar, and also on Categorial Grammar, the debates between Bar Hillel and Chomsky, Frege’s theory and the state of the art in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Occasionally I attended Godehard Link’s seminars in the Department of Philosophy, and I started exchanging some ideas on aspect with Manfred Krifka, who was just finishing his Ph.D. thesis. While I was finishing my M.A. degree, I got interested in the intersection of meaning in language, psychology, computational linguistics and philosophy, and so choosing where to do my Ph.D. degree, with my DAAD fellowship, I opted for UC Berkeley, which had just established the Institute of Cognitive Studies (ICS), supported by the Sloan Foundation. At UC Berkeley I felt like a kid in a candy store: apart from the Ph.D. thesis qualifying curriculum, we were free to take classes in all the Departments affiliated with ICS, and I took full advantage of it. I especially enjoyed the ICS colloquia, which featured UC Berkeley faculty, but also great scholars from elsewhere in the USA and abroad. Thanks to my advisors Chuck Fillmore and Paul Kay, we had ties to Stanford University, and to their close friend Ivan Sag in particular, who fabulously organized the 1987 LSA Summer Institute at Stanford. One of my favorite grad school memories is the LSA 1989 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, where I gave one of my first “serious” talks. Barbara Partee was in the audience and after my talk introduced herself to me and excitedly told me that she just got back from Prague where she took part in the Velvet Revolution demonstrations; back in my room, on CNN I saw Václav Havel walking across the courtyard of the Prague Castle, having just taken the presidential oath. While wondering about why he is wearing such short pants at this historically momentous event in Prague, I also wondered by what twists of fate I get to watch him on TV in a hotel room in Washington, DC.

I did not plan to be a linguist, let alone a professor. All I wanted to do was what I thought was worth doing, following my hunches. This also meant that I spent a number of years as an academic gypsy, after completing my Ph.D. degree, which I mostly viewed as continuing in the adventurous tradition of the wandering scholars of the Middle Ages, because it allowed me to spend time at some of the best linguistics departments and research universities. Overall, perhaps my path has something to do with my early fascination with the German DTV paperbacks, who knows. In hindsight, it is somewhat intriguing that as a kid I singled out Heinrich Heine and Christian Morgenstern among the few German authors worth paying attention to. Christian Morgenstern was a German poet from Munich, where the DTV paperbacks were printed, and Munich became my hometown after we were exiled from Czechoslovakia. One Morgenstern’s poem that I never forgot has to do with tense and aspect, which became my main specialty:

Unter Zeiten (Among Tenses)
Das Perfekt und das Imperfekt
tranken Sekt (were drinking sparkling wine).
Sie stießen aufs Futurum an (They toasted to the Future)
(was man wohl gelten lassen kann) (which might be deemed valid).
Plusquamper und Exaktfutur (Past Perfect and Future Perfect)
blinzten nur (only kept blinking).

Translation (“An Approach”) by Max Knight (h/t Manfred Krifka)
Perfect and Past
drank to a friendship to last
They toasted the Future tense
(which makes sense).
Futureperf and Plu
nodded too.

As for Heinrich Heine, he was born in Düsseldorf, which is my current hometown; I live next to his museum, and I’m professor of semantics at the university which carries his name: Heinrich Heine University.

 

 

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

My interest in linguistics arose during a sea kayak trip through Eastern Indonesia. Paddling slowly along the coast I picked up bits and pieces of languages that I heard along the way and became fascinated with the ways the languages changed from village to village. This was my first real exposure to “small” languages—languages with only a few hundred or few thousand speakers. These small languages evolve to meet the needs of communities, binding speakers to their environment. At the same time these small languages are almost everywhere under threat of being replaced by languages of wider communication.

The Linguist List has had a formative influence on my career. When I entered graduate school in the mid 1990’s the field was in a state of upheaval. After a couple decades spent developing theoretical models of language competence, many in the field had only recently (re-)awoken to the problem of language endangerment. However, just as the field began to re-engage with language documentation we were faced with an unprecedented transformation in digital technologies. During this Digital Dark Age technologies evolved so quickly that I was using a different recording device with every field trip. As each of these devices became obsolete the data they recorded risked becoming more endangered than the languages on those recordings. What was the point of doing all this documentation of endangered languages if we weren’t able to preserve that documentation? When I started my first job at the University of Alaska in 1999 I arrived with boxes filled with cassette tapes, DAT tapes, MiniDiscs, CDs, DVDs and other proprietary digital recording technologies. As I continued to do field work this mess only got worse. Clearly I needed to find a better way to deal with digital data. You might say that documentary linguistics as a field needed to get its house in order.

Over the past two decades the Linguist List has been at the forefront of efforts to develop standards and best practices for dealing with linguistic data. For example, many of the field work and archiving practices that we take for granted today trace their origins to the Electronics Meta-structures for Endangered Languages Data (E-MELD) project, a five-year effort led by the Linguist List which brought together leading scholars from across the world to tackle some of the difficult problems in data preservation, curation, and access. These problems are often thought to lie outside the mainstream of linguistics. Indeed, they are by nature interdisciplinary, existing at the intersection of linguistics, computer science, and archiving. Yet solutions to these problems are critical to linguistics, providing the digital infrastructure which serves as the foundation for much of our work.

Over the years I have had many opportunities to interact with Linguist List in various capacities, but perhaps the most rewarding of these was a joint project which I undertook in collaboration with the Linguist List in 2003 to develop a community language portal for Dena’ina, a language spoken in Southcentral Alaska. The project integrated training for both linguistic graduate students and community members and in the process helped to engage students with language communities. Many of those community members have gone on to become leading activists in Alaska Native language conservation efforts. And many of the students who worked with the Dena’ina project have gone on to make significant contributions to documentary linguistics more generally, continuing to push the field forward with an enhanced awareness of and respect for technical standards and documentary best practices. This is one of the truly great contributions of the Linguist List over the years. The students who have worked with Linguist List come away with a respect for the technical underpinnings of linguistics. For these students digital best practices are the norm, not the exception. Use of non-proprietary formats and depositing data in archives are routine. This generation of scholars is slowly changing our field, helping us to better preserve and provide access to endangered language documentation, while at the same time moving us ever closer to a truly data-driven science of language.

Next time you turn off your digital recorder and save a file, or key in an ELAN transcription, or specify a digital language archive in a grant proposal—that is, next time you do just about any task having to do with language documentation—think about Linguist List. Chances are that Linguist List had some role in helping to make that technology work, helping scholars to agree on standards, making it possible for you to do linguistics. Infrastructure is not the sexiest part of science, but it is arguably the most critical. We owe a lot to Linguist List for helping to develop the technical infrastructure of our field.

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