Featured Linguists

Featured Linguist: Stephen Morey

During the past nine weeks we have been sharing the most inspiring stories from linguists all around the world with our readers and subscribers. Today we are completing our journey with a truly motivating and encouraging story from our Featured Linguist Stephen Morey. Read below how Stephen became a linguist!

Stephen Morey with Jonglem Khilak

Stephen Morey with Jonglem Khilak

I have just returned from my twentieth field trip to North East India, documenting and describing the Tai, Singpho and Tangsa languages spoken in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, in the parts that border Myanmar.

Although I grew up in a monolingual community I’ve always been fascinated by different languages. As a teenager I wrote to the late Dr. Adam Murtonen at Melbourne University asking how I could go about learning ancient languages: Hittite, Assyrian, ancient Egyptian and Sumerian. He advised me to learn German first, because so much literature on these languages was in German. This advice disappointed me, and while I did learn a bit of German subsequently, I have never learned Hittite, well not yet.

Around the same time, feeling that someone who lives in Melbourne should know about this area, I went to the State Library of Victoria and copied out by hand word lists from books about Aboriginal languages, particularly Victorian Languages: A Late Survey by Luise Hercus. I met Luise about 30 years later and have been delighted to work with her on projects to combine her knowledge gained from native speakers of Victorian languages with the 19th century written records .

At age 16, however, I was seduced by music, specifically the mandolin, and for a decade and a half I concentrated on learning, and then performing, teaching and researching this instrument. Some friends and I formed a group to play mediaeval music, joined by Kate Burridge, singer, hurdy-gurdy player and Morris dancer. I used to listen with fascination as she told us in the coffee break at our rehearsal about her day job: linguistics, and her coming book on euphemism. So when in the early 1990s I developed some physical injury in my hand and had to abandon mandolin, I went to Kate to find out what linguistics was.

I had a year before I could start a University degree. I had researched my family history and learned that some of my ancestors were among the last speakers of Cornish; and then I learned that you can study revived Cornish and so with my spare time (not too much of that these days) I learned Cornish by Correspondence and passed the Gorsedh exam after which I was invited to become a Cornish Bard. It is an inspiration to put more effort into language documentation that my own ancestors spoke a language that was lost. But European languages were not really what I was looking for. By chance, one day I was marching in a huge demonstration against the policies of the then government and I met an old friend. “What are you doing, Gareth,” I asked and he answered “Learning Thai”. At once I decided to learn Thai as well.

After several years of a double major in Linguistics and Thai, I got me an overseas study grant for a semester at the Prince of Songkla University in Pattani, Thailand. I took three subjects (all taught in Thai), Principles of Thai Language, Thai Dialectology and Malay language (Introductory).

My dialectology teacher, Dr. Thananan Trongdi, had heard that my wife and I were planning a trip to India. He said, “Why don’t you go to Assam, there are Thai people there.” I thought Assam was closed to foreigners, as indeed it had been, but by October 1996 it was open and we went there, armed with a name: Nabin Shyam. On the day we arrived and met up with him, he said to us that he would be going to his home village in three days, if we wanted, we could come too. So on the night of 21st October 1996 I spent my first night in a village in Assam: Ban Lung Aiton village in Karbi Anglong District. More than 1000 nights in at least 40 villages over 20 field trips have followed that night!

The Tai people in India have their own writing system; it is based on the Shan alphabet which is itself based on Burmese, but it is unique. We had visited a second village, Namphakey in Dibrugarh District, and there I had mentioned to my hosts that I had learned how to make fonts (I called it ‘computer printing block’). Nobody in the village and ever seen a computer at that time, but they gave me a hand-copied book and a request to make the font. Back in Australia I thought it would be a good PhD project to learn about their language. So a year later I returned, with the font made and a laptop to work on. There followed 5 years in which I studied the Tai languages, then two fellowships over 4 years to work on Singpho, and for the last 7 years I’ve concentrated much of my effort on Tangsa.

Recording devices have changed much in that time. At first, with only my own resources to cover costs, I had just a small cassette player of dubious quality. Over the years sound recorders have changed from Cassette through Minidisc and Microtrack to the Zoom H4n and video from those with cassettes to those that use SD cards. I’ve recorded songs and stories and linguistic information in 5 Tai varieties, 4 Singpho varieties and (at latest count), 32 Tangsa varieties. Although the Tai varieties are all mutually intelligible, and the Singpho ones more or less so, the Tangsa varieties are very diverse and it remains a huge task learning enough about each variety to really understand what’s going on. The immense task of transcription, translation, analysis and archiving is ongoing and will go on for a good deal longer!

All along I’ve had two special interests: manuscripts and songs. Of the three groups I’m working with, the Tai have a long written tradition. Tai Phake and Tai Aiton communities still contain people who can read manuscripts, though not too many in the Aiton; but the Tai Ahom language ceased to be spoken 200 years ago, and the manuscripts, which are different from those of the Phake and Aiton, are hard to interpret. The problem is like this: Tai is a tonal language, with perhaps 5 tonal contrasts likely to have been present in Ahom. But tones are not marked and so a single written word can have many meanings.

Song language, in all three language groups, is equally challenging, differing in form from the spoken language to a lesser and greater degree. It has been very exciting to record songs, to learn about the context, and then record an explanation of their meaning and try to translate it all.

In North East India there are usually not places to stay in villages apart from someone’s house. So I’ve got to know many families in all the different communities that I have stayed in. Because I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the languages, it may sometimes seem to my hosts that I’m always working (it certainly seems so to me at times!). I have found that I can only really enjoy sitting and chatting with people when I have got good enough at the language to be able to chat easily. In my more recent work on Tangsa, because of its huge diversity, this hasn’t really happened, and these days the younger people are usually more fluent in English and so we end up using that. I wish I could learn each Tangsa variety to the level I learned Tai Aiton, but that would take several lifetimes.

Stephen Morey

Featured Linguist: Jost Gippert

Please welcome our new Featured Linguist Jost Gippert! Jost was born in Western Germany and is currently working at the University of Frankfurt. Find out below what led him to linguistics and why he chose this path.

Jost Gippert

How I Became a Linguist
by Jost Gippert

“Buenos dias”, “buenas noches” – this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French – there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. The first foreign language I had to learn “officially”, in secondary school, was Latin – fascinating as well, not so much for its sounds (as nobody “spoke” it) but for its structure, with case endings, perfect subjunctives, and the accusativus cum infinitivo. Then, when I was eleven years old, my father gave me a textbook of Russian he had received for evaluation (as a school teacher of German, so it made no sense for him). Yet another fascinating experience: first, I had to deal with a different script here (actually, not for the first time, I had learned the Greek alphabet long before, but not so much the language); and second, the textbook came along with a disc which contained the first five or so lessons, spoken by well articulating native speakers (of course there were no “normal” Russian speaking people around on our side of the Iron Curtain then) – I still have their voices in my ears today after listening to them for many hours in those times. Finally, when I was 15 years old, I had the opportuny to apply what I had learned from the discs, on a one-week trip to Moscow, which turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments in my “early linguistic career”: I had to realize that the “stagy” pronunciation of the speakers on the disc (presumably all elder emigrants from Tzarist St. Petersburg) had barely anything in common with the colloquial Muscovite slang with all its vowel reductions etc. I was confronted with on that trip. Nevertheless, I did not give up – after four days I had accustomed myself to that sufficiently for an intriguing conversation with a young lady of my age (whom I never met again, alas!).

Russian was decisive indeed for my choice to become a linguist, not so much because of the (delayed) success in speaking it but rather because of its stunning similarities with Latin: common words like luna “moon”, common grammatical features as in feminines ending in -a, common preverbs like pro-, etc. Even though I had heard nothing concrete about the parentage and affinity of Indo-European languages at school, it was clear to me that Comparative Linguistics was “my” subject when I took up my university studies at Marburg, and it has remained so down to the present day, in both its senses: as a discipline investigating genetic relations of languages, and as a discipline trying to classify them according to their typological characteristics. After a “career” of more than 40 years, I can tell for sure that the more languages you get acquainted with, the less you will be deterred by strange sound systems (and sound changes), anteablatives, or antipassives, and yet every new language will be fascinating for you, especially if you try not to miss the cultural background behind it.

Jost Gippert

Featured Linguist: Neil Smith

Today we are introducing our next featured linguist Neil Smith from the University College London. If you have ever wondered why you should become a linguist, read Neil’s story where he tells you why this is the best profession in the world!

Neil Smith

How I Became a Linguist
by Neil Smith

It all began at secondary school when I specialised in languages – French, German and Latin – simply because the man teaching French and German (Leonard Priestley) was an inspiration. Reading Voltaire’s Zadig was an excuse to discuss astronomy and the nature of the senses; studying Molière led to ruminations on hypochondria. Syllabus? What syllabus? So I went to Cambridge (UK) and read ‘Modern and Medieval languages’.

In my final year I had to select five optional subjects (out of some 77) to be examined on. I had chosen the History of the French Language, the History of the German Language, German Literature before 1500, Vulgar Latin & Romance Philology, and was about to put down German Literature in the 20th century, when a friend asked if I knew what ‘Linguistics’ was. After we had agreed that neither of us had the slightest idea, he persuaded me to join him in adding it as our final option. So in October 1960 we enrolled on John Trim’s course on “The Principles of Linguistics”, and I have been hooked ever since.

The bulk of the course consisted of phoneme theory, with a healthy admixture of morphemes and even a smattering of syntax in the form of Immediate Constituent analysis. Banal by today’s standards, but Trim was an inspiring teacher and I was soon converted from my desire to be a medievalist to a desire to understand everything about the phoneme. In fact, my understanding even of that was minimal. I still remember with stark clarity at the end of the first term being given a passage and told to transcribe it both phonetically and phonemically. I had no idea what that meant. Similarly, I remember endlessly searching in my dictionary for some insight which would enable me to distinguish ‘syntax’ and ‘semantics’, but again to no avail. These memories have made me tolerant of students today who have problems with a much more rebarbative jargon.

We took finals. I got distinctly mediocre marks, and was told unofficially that my worst paper had been linguistics, which I nearly failed. So I applied for jobs. Fortunately, none of librarianship, school-teaching or the British Council would touch me and, faute de mieux, I started a PhD at UCL. I had a hankering to do field-work and planned to go up the Amazon and find some unwritten language to study. I was advised that Nigeria was more likely to leave me alive at the end of my trip and I finally picked on Nupe. The Central Research Fund of the University of London gave me my air fare, but it seemed more interesting to go overland so I hitch-hiked to Bida in Northern Nigeria… The journey lasted two months, took me through 14 countries, and included every conceivable form of travel – from aeroplane via pilgrim-lorry to dug-out canoe.

A year’s field-work is wonderful training for any linguist. Being confronted with a complex tone language, whose syntax was unlike anything I had ever heard of was chastening, exhilarating, illuminating, educative, and fun. It was also intermittently very lonely and extremely hard work, but it set me up with stories to dine out on for life, and it also brought a PhD. Better still, my new found expertise as an Africanist seemed to have qualified me to become a lecturer in West African Languages in the Department of Africa at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies).

SOAS was strange. My colleagues were mostly a delight, but relations between the Linguistics department and the Africa department were strained, and those between the Linguistics department and the sister department at UCL where I had come from were icy. It was ‘not convenient’ for me to use the library of the Linguistics department or attend seminars there, and some of the students were warned not to talk to me “in case they get confused”. To escape the suffocation of the rivalries at SOAS, I applied for a Harkness Fellowship and went to MIT and UCLA for a couple of years.

MIT was a revelation. There was huge enthusiasm, appallingly hard work, and remarkable talent. I had gone to MIT because of Chomsky, but when I arrived, he was away and, to my great good fortune, Morris Halle took me under his wing. Partly because of this and partly because I am married to a medical doctor I later wrote a book on the acquisition of phonology. How come? As my work wasn’t essential like that of a doctor is, it often fell to me to look after our elder son, Amahl. To stay sane I made endless notes and recordings. Who but a linguist could sit on the floor playing trains and claim it was research? It was such fun that I did it again nearly 40 years later and wrote a book on the acquisition of phonology by his elder son, Zak.

When I had arrived at MIT the place was buzzing with the ideas of Generative Semantics, and the demise of Chomsky’s ‘Standard theory’ was widely assumed to be imminent. Chomsky’s response was electrifying. In the spring semester of 1967 he delivered the lectures which became “Remarks on Nominalization”, widely interpreted as a systematic attack on Generative Semantics. Chomsky’s arguments were illuminating: at once critical, penetrating and innovative (X-bar theory first saw the light of day in these lectures), and ultimately set the scene for much of the linguistic theorising of the next decade. But it was another thirty years before I thought I understood enough of his ideas and ideals to write about them.

Being a linguist has brought other pleasures: beautiful people and places to visit, the chance to straddle disciplines and popularise one’s favourite findings, wonderful colleagues and co-authors, inspiring students, awe-inspiring subjects of research like the polyglot savant Christopher. The list is almost endless. Be a linguist!

Neil Smith

Featured Linguist: Joel Sherzer

Today we are continuing to update you on the most inspiring stories from scholars all over the world. Please welcome our Featured Linguist Joel Sherzer who is sharing his story with our readers and subscribers. Take a look below!

Joel Sherzer

How I Became a Linguist
by Joel Sherzer

My contribution to linguistics has been to analyze language in cultural and social contexts. I have used this approach to my study of the language and culture of the Kuna of Panama, the work I am best known for. Many students and scholars who have worked with Latin American indigenous languages and peoples have been influenced by my work.

It all started in Central High School in Philadelphia. Four years of high school Spanish kindled my interest in languages other than English and in grammar. Oberlin College was a decisive experience. I studied French, Spanish, Latin, and Russian, as well as a smattering of linguistics. In the summers I participated in Oberlin programs in France and Mexico. I also took part in a Princeton program in Paris where I sold books in the department store Au Printemps.

After I graduated Oberlin I had a Fulbright fellowship in Mexico that enabled me to study Nahuatl, one of many people who cut their linguistic teeth on this fascinating language. I became part of a group of fascinating anthropologists, linguists, and artists. They worked with Morris Swadesh on Mexican indigenous languages and cultures, including an effort to decipher Mayan hieroglyphs, and volunteered their expertise for the linguistics section of the then new museum of anthropology in Chapultepec park.

With a Woodrow Wilson fellowship I began graduate work in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. There I was fortunate to study and interact with a creative, dynamic, and pioneering group of people in various departments. The work of my Penn teachers has remained with me all of my scholarly life. Along with others, I frequently crossed the street between the anthropology and linguistic departments.
Henry Hoenigswald stressed areal and typological approaches to language change and history.
Dell Hymes trained me in ethnographic approaches to language.
David Sapir, like his father Edward, used texts to reveal grammatical and cultural patterning in his research in Africa.
Erving Goffman focused on structure and pattern in everyday interaction. Bill Labov elaborated fieldwork techniques and studied variation in language use.
My dissertation, which I rewrote as a book, dealt with areal-typological patterns in indigenous languages north of Mexico.

After grad school I was offered a position at the University of Texas in the Anthropology and Linguistics departments. I developed a program in linguistic anthropology, along with wonderful colleagues, Richard Bauman, Greg Urban, and Tony Woodbury. In my first year at Texas I edited Morris Swadesh’s book on the origin and diversification of language. This was a labor of love, as Swadesh had become a good friend before his untimely death. Another person I became close to over the years was William Bright, with whom I shared interests in areal-typological linguistics and verbal art.

While at Texas I began many years of fieldwork among the Kuna of Panama. My Kuna research involved close collaboration with individuals who do not read or write but who shared with me their remarkable linguistic and cultural knowledge, expressed in their conversations, stories, myths, chants, and songs. In addition, I have over the years become friends with and collaborated with many people who study various aspects of Kuna life.

My approach to Kuna language and culture led me to develop, along with colleagues Greg Urban and Tony Woodbury, what has come to be called the discourse centered approach to language and culture. We organized a series of conferences at Texas where people presented their work on different forms of discourse found in indigenous America. The tape recordings were transcribed and translated and stored in published form and/or in libraries. With the availability of the Internet, along with Christine Beier, Heidi Johnson, Lev Michael, and Tony Woodbury, I founded and now direct AILLA, The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America, whose purpose is to preserve indigenous languages by archiving them in digital form. AILLA has been very successful. Up to now over 250 languages have been archived, and AILLA will no doubt continue to grow.

Within linguistics and linguistic anthropology, two foci have come to characterize my work, speech play and verbal art. These foci have taken me to various places in the world, including Panama, Mexico, France, and Bali.

Joel Sherzer

Featured Linguist: Barbara Citko

During our Fund Drive, we have been traveling to different areas of the world and introducing you to featured linguists in those regions. So today our new Featured Linguist is Barbara Citko from the University of Washington. If you are eager to learn how Barbara became a linguist, please read her story below.

Barbara Citko

How I Became a Linguist
by Barbara Citko

How did I become a linguist? I think I took a road many linguists take, which is via a study of a foreign language. In my case it was good old English, which I started studying when I was seven. And, as they say, the rest is history. This is how I got interested in crosslinguistic variation, and the idea that there are well-defined limits to this variation. Well, maybe this came a bit later, although I have always liked to think of myself as a precocious linguist.

I grew up in Gdynia, Poland during what I consider to be one of the most interesting periods in Poland’s history. Gdynia, like Gdańsk, perhaps its better known neighbor, also had a big shipyard, and these shipyards were places where the Solidarity movement started. Both of my parents were members of Solidarity; my father worked in the Gdynia shipyard. This meant that strikes, martial law, curfews were very close to home, not something you heard about on the news or learnt about from history books. Maybe this experience didn’t help me become a linguist, but it certainly shaped me as a person.

I went to an English high school and majored in English philology as an undergraduate in college (first at the University of Poznań and then University of Gdańsk, both in Poland). It was in Poznań where I first got exposed to Chomskyan linguistics. I still remember my first syntax course, pouring through Radford’s textbook and being utterly fascinated by the beauty and simplicity of Subjacency Principle. I know, I am dating myself here.

I came to the States in 1994 and got a PhD in linguistics from Stony Brook University in 2000. My dissertation was on free relatives, and I have been interested in what we might call non-canonical wh-constructions: across-the-board wh-questions (What did Peter write and Bill review?), questions with coordinated wh-pronouns (What and where did John sing?), multiple wh-questions (Where did John sing what?) and various types of relative clauses ever since. In my research, I tend to focus on Polish, my native language, hoping to contribute to our understanding of the syntax of Slavic languages and, more generally, to our understanding of which aspects of language are universal and which ones are not and why this might be the case.

Over the years I have been influenced and inspired by so many great linguists, all of whom would be impossible to name here. But I do want to acknowledge my first syntax teachers, Przemysław Tajsner and Jacek Witkoś from the University of Poznań, and my undergraduate advisor from the University of Gdańsk, Piotr Ruszkewicz, and thank all the faculty from Stony Brook University, in particular, Richard Larson, my dissertation advisor, for making graduate school such a wonderful and memorable experience!

After graduating from Stony Brook I spent one year as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Utah, one year at the University of Connecticut and two years at Brandeis University, before joining the Linguistics Department at the University of Washington in 2005, which is where I have been since. It goes without saying that I would not even have known about these positions without the Linguist List, let alone have applied for them, let alone have gotten any of them. I also wouldn’t have known about countless conferences, books, journals; all the things that help us keep up with the field. In other words, without the Linguist List I wouldn’t be the linguist that I am today. Thank you, guys, for everything you’re doing!!!

Barbara Citko

Featured Linguist: Irina Nevskaya

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.

Irina Nevskaya

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.

Irina Nevskaya

Featured Linguist: Eitan Grossman

As our Fund Drive is traveLING to North Africa and the Middle East, we are going to meet our next Featured Linguist Eitan Grossman from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Read below his story on how he became a linguist.

Eitan Grossman

How I Became a Linguist
by Eitan Grossman

I grew up in a small town in New York, and like a lot of North American eighteen-year-olds, I went to college right after finishing school. Focusing on languages and literature, the one class I took in a particular brand of New England linguistics was enough to turn me off. As it turned out, the American college experience wasn’t meant for me, and neither was America, and I quickly found myself living in Israel. I waited tables, served in the army as an infantry soldier, worked in a screw factory, and milked cows, among other sundry jobs, none of which I was particularly good at. After a few years, I was good and ready to go back to activate my brain a bit.
Up until three weeks or so before I was supposed to begin my BA, I was convinced that I was going to be a water-and-soil engineer. How this idea got into my head remains a mystery till today. But over the summer, I got my hands on (and actually read) de Saussure’s Cours, which had been recommended to me by an English professor years ago. This led to reading Chomsky’sSyntactic Structures and Langacker’s Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Although I didn’t really understand any of them, I did understand that I was going to be a linguist, which pretty much scuttled my dreams of building irrigation pipes in exotic places.

I began studying linguistics and Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, focusing mainly on Semitic languages. I can only describe the experience as electrifying. Now, I should say a few words about the linguistics department at the Hebrew University which was a bit of an oddity, at least from the point of view of most North American linguistics programs. The oldest linguistics program in the country, it was firmly European structuralist in orientation and the studies were based on the intensive study of quite a few languages. In my first year, I studied Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, and a lot of Hebrew, including the ridiculously difficult course in niqqud, the science (or art) of vocalizing an unvocalized Hebrew text. The theoretical and methodological courses embodied a particular blend of structuralism, typology, and functionalism, but also medieval Arab grammarians, Romance philologists, and the rock stars of 19th and 20th century linguistics, those nonconformists Otto Jespersen, Edward Sapir, Hugo Schuchardt, Hermann Paul, Joan Bybee, and T. Givón. My teachers in linguistics were Ariel Shisha-Halevy, Eran Cohen, Lea Sawicki, Moshe Taube, Orly Goldwasser, Gideon Goldenberg, Dana Taube, Olga Kapeliuk, Nimrod Barri, Anbessa Tefarra, and others, many of whom are still friends and mentors in various ways.

I came to Coptic, as it happens, in a fairly invisible-hand way. I had to pick another language in my first year, and my choices were either Syriac Aramaic or Coptic. Not knowing what to pick – being equally and completely ignorant about both language – the BA advisor told me that I should go to the library, open a book, and see which struck my fancy. The Syriac script – which to my eyes looked like a lot of squiggles – send me to the warm embrace of Coptic, with its more reasonable Greek-based alphabet.

The first year course in Coptic was probably the most challenging course I took in my entire BA. The professor, Ariel Shisha-Halevy, was – and is – a radical thinker, who showed me that most of what I thought I knew about language was just a collection of prejudices. I don’t want to eulogize someone who I still see often, so I’ll just say that I kept studying Coptic because I wanted to keep hearing what Shisha-Halevy had to say. I also ended up studying Welsh, Irish, Greek, Somali, Yiddish, Ge’ez, Sidamo, and a little Swahili and Polish, but I was mostly focused on Ancient Egyptian in all of its phases.

I wanted to keep studying, which meant I had to do some more degrees. I was lucky enough to come into the field of Egyptian linguistics when a lot of the established scholars were a bit tired from some titanic clashes about the nature of the Ancient Egyptian verbal system. This meant that those of us working on the later phases, from Late Egyptian to Coptic, could work on new topics, and I think that our teachers were happy to encourage us in this. Also, a lot of us were reading functionalist and typological literature, which gave us a different perspective. All in all, the community of linguists working on Ancient Egyptian and Coptic is a tremendously exciting and supportive one, and it’s a privilege and a source of ongoing happiness to be a part of it.

In the end, I wrote a dissertation about an undescribed Coptic dialect, but since I wasn’t exactly in love with the subject, I spent a lot of time working on other topics, mostly related to language variation and change, such as language contact, grammaticalization, dialectology, and historical sociolinguistics. I was lucky enough to meet (and correspond with) fantastic scholars, who were really generous with their time and encouraged me in every imaginable way, and even though I worked on a weird dead language and didn’t speak the right lingo, took me seriously (I think).

I did post-doctoral research in Liège, Be’er Sheva, and Jerusalem. For the first year and a half, I shuttled every two weeks between Liège, where I was working, and Jerusalem, where my wife and kids had to stay. Not an easy period, and one that left a pretty massive carbon footprint, but a wonderful one nonetheless. On the one hand, the stress of being uncertain about one’s future is tough. On the other hand, I could basically do what I wanted in terms of research, and I was lucky enough to find remarkable partners with whom I could talk endlessly – and eventually write – about the questions that have come to occupy me for most of my waking hours, and some of my dreams: why are languages the way they are? what is the relationship between form and function? what is the role of listeners in shaping linguistic form? why do languages change? A lot of the work from this period, much of it joint productions with Stéphane Polis and Sebastian Richter, is still in preparation, in print, forthcoming, and most of all, staring me down from the hard drive of my computer. At the moment, I’m in the middle of my first large-scale typological project, which deals with the typology of adposition borrowing.
I now teach linguistics at the Hebrew University, where I give courses in historical linguistics and typology, as well as various phases of Ancient Egyptian. I have to admit that the course I enjoy teaching most is the introduction to linguistics: first year students often have the best questions, the ones that still trouble most of us.

Studying a dead language attested for more than 4000 years is pretty different from working on a living oral language. First of all, there’s that pesky lack of native speakers. But it means embracing working on a corpus, which I think is a good thing. It also means that you get to look at really long-term diachronic changes, which is also a good thing.

Here are a few wet-behind-the-ears words of advice for my fellow rookies. Linguistics is a fantastic field, but it’s also a tough one, and a thick skin helps. Make the most of opportunities. Write about things that really excite you. Be generous to others. Change your mind once in a while. Don’t be afraid to be intellectually incorrect.

Eitan Grossman

Featured Linguist: Lina Choueiri

This week we are traveLING to North Africa and the Middle East, and today we are going to meet our Featured Linguist Lina Choueiri from American University of Beirut. Let’s take a moment and hear Lina’s story about her path to linguistics.


How I Became a Linguist
by Lina Choueiri

I did not come into linguistics by accident, nor did I know from a young age that I
wanted to be a linguist. As a teenager in the early 80s, growing up in Lebanon
during the civil war, I had in fact never heard of linguistics.

I was preparing myself for a career in medicine, because my family and my
teachers all said I could do it. The thought of becoming a psychiatrist, and
perhaps unlocking some of the mysteries of the mind stayed with me throughout
my high school years. By the time I was ready to go to college, I had stopped
romanticizing about the idea of a career in medicine; I chose instead to study
mathematics, a subject I excelled at in school. I also joined some friends of mine
studying French literature at the Université Saint-Joseph. I wasn’t quite sure
what I would do with a degree in mathematics, but my advisor was encouraging
me to consider a career in academia. The French literature curriculum included
one course in linguistics, which was taught by a Jesuit priest, Père Aucagne, who
had no formal training in linguistics. He had studied Greek and Latin and had a
passion for languages. When I raised my hand for the first time, to ask a question
in his class, Père Aucagne told me that I was the only literature student he had
ever had who seemed to show an interest in linguistics. He also gave me a book
to read and suggested that we could discuss it together. He added that he found
the book difficult, but that my training in mathematics could be an asset, and that
we might work together to understand it. That book was Syntactic Structures. It
was the summer of that year that I decided to pursue a degree in linguistics.

This was easier said than done: we were in the late 80s, before email and the
Internet, and the civil war in Lebanon was still raging. I needed to find out how
and where to apply. I also needed advice from someone knowledgeable about
the field, but I had chosen a specialization that very few in Lebanon had heard
about. Père Aucagne put me in touch with the chancellor of the Université Saint-
Joseph who knew Joseph Aoun. They thought that I should write to Joseph and
ask him for advice. I sent Joseph a naïve letter inquiring about linguistics
programs in the US and their admissions requirements. Meanwhile, the
hostilities of the civil war had intensified, and I left Lebanon before receiving his

I arrived in Virginia in May 1990 to stay with family. Soon after, I started
applying to graduate programs in neighboring universities. I joined the program
in general linguistics at the University of Georgetown in spring 1991. This is
where I was first introduced to the different areas of specialization in linguistics,
and by the time I completed my course work there, I knew I needed to spend
even more time reading, studying, and catching up. I also knew that I wanted to
focus my research on Arabic in particular, and Semitic languages in general.
While completing my degree at Georgetown, I started applying to some PhD
programs in the US, including USC, where I hoped to be able to work with Joseph.
I joined USC in fall 1993, and I have been working on the syntax of Arabic ever
since. I am now at the American University of Beirut. My work on the
comparative syntax of Arabic dialects continues to be a source of excitement and
pleasurable new discoveries.

Lina Choueiri

Featured Linguist: Henry Davis

While we are traveLING through Western North America, we are happy to introduce you to our next Featured Linguist – Henry Davis. Read below Henry’s story about what led him to the study of language and how he got where he is today.

Henry Davis

How I Became a Linguist
by Henry Davis

I first learned that linguistic knowledge mattered at the age of four. I began my academic career in a tough primary school in Paddington, London, where I was regularly bullied for my non-Cockney accent. When the bullying got too much, my parents moved me to a posh preparatory school in St. John’s Wood, where I was regularly bullied because my accent was not upper class enough. And then my family moved to Manchester. I spent hours in the boy’s toilet, practicing [phæθ] and [khæsḷ]instead of [phαθ] and [khαsḷ] as though my life depended on it; which, at least in the school playground, it did.

My uneasy relationship with educational establishments continued. I hated my high school with such intensity that every morning I imagined the school buildings sliding beneath the playing fields like some landlocked Titanic. I and a band of fellow misfits even hatched a sub-Fawkesian plot to burn it down, but were discovered in the basement at an early stage of our conspiracy. Were it not for the fact that I was a good prospect for Oxford or Cambridge, I would certainly have been expelled; as it was, I left for London immediately after sitting my Oxbridge entrance exams, and fell, serendipitously, into a company of clowns. I learnt to juggle, stilt-walk, and fire-eat, and for the next fifteen years, vacillated between the life of an itinerant performer and that of a still-reluctant academic.

After what I suppose would now be called a ‘gap year’ (though there weren’t meant to be any gaps in those days), I returned to academia in the form of King’s College, Cambridge, where I was to read English literature. I had originally chosen King’s specifically because my headmaster had warned me against it, on the grounds that it was “full of women and homosexuals”: he was, thankfully, correct. However, in spite of the typical Cambridge mixture of overgrown intellect and overheated hormones, fueled by a readily available pharmacopeia, I felt lost, intellectually and otherwise; and though I toyed with the fashionable obscurities of Lacan and Derrida, I couldn’t help sensing that in taking them seriously I might have fallen for an elaborate French intellectual joke. I took a year off (not a gap year this time – more like a gaping void year) and ended up on an island off the west coast of Ireland tending goats and planting potatoes for a primal therapy commune.

Back at Cambridge, I stumbled upon linguistics through politics, more specifically through an anarchist reading group led by Raf Salkie, which led me to start reading Chomsky. I found Chomsky’s political writing incisive, but not particularly inspiring. However, I was intrigued by his linguistics, which seemed hard in the right way – if you worked hard enough at it, it would get clearer rather than more confusing. So I looked around for linguistics lectures at Cambridge. I found a single course, taught by Terry Moore, with one of those catchy obituary titles like ‘The Funeral of the New Grammarians’ or ‘The Death Rattle of Generative Linguistics’ or ‘Another Nail In Chomsky’s Coffin’ or…well, you know the type. Of course, the rush to bury Chomsky’s ideas just made me all the more intrigued to unearth them, but I couldn’t get any further with generative linguistics at Cambridge. I ended up doing the second half of my degree in Social and Political Science, graduating in absentia while street performing in Italy.

The Thatcher years had begun to cast a pall over the UK. The last two places I lived in England – Toxteth, in Liverpool, and Dalston Junction, in London, both went up in flames. The Toxteth conflagration was particularly spectacular, since it was fueled by a large furniture warehouse on the end of the street where I lived. Things looked grim: either Thatcher was going to win, or anarchy was about to be loosed upon the UK (the genuine, frightening kind, not the genteel intellectual version). Neither seemed like an attractive prospect, so I decided to cash in my Cambridge degree and apply for graduate programs abroad. In the end, it came down to a choice between doing psychology at UCL or going to Canada to do linguistics. (I had no intention of studying in the States, since running into the arms of Ronald Reagan would have defeated the purpose of fleeing Mrs. Thatcher). I chose the latter, and ended up in Vancouver because David Ingram called me up from UBC and offered me money and I liked the look of all those little islands on the map.

I never left. I learned some linguistics, and was given a more or less free hand to do what I wanted – probably a mistake, because it turned out to be an 800-page dissertation, nominally on the acquisition of the English auxiliary system, but including what I imagined to be a comprehensive theory of parametric syntax and its relation to language acquisition. Ken Wexler was my external examiner, and he did me the honor of showing up to my defense. He pulled from his bag a giant stack of paper – my thesis, single-sided, double-spaced, and heavily annotated – and commenced to ask questions, starting at the beginning, and going on – and on. An hour passed, then another. The atmosphere became thick with the fug of stale thought, and finally, reduced to a gibbering idiot by nerves and exhaustion, I stumbled over deep ergativity and could not go on. The Chair rescued me, the examination ended, and it was announced that I had passed. I took revenge by blowing fire over the heads of the examining committee.

And that was the launch of my linguistic career – except that it wasn’t. I now suspect that like many others, I went through a kind of post-doctoral post-partum depression, but at the time I did not recognize that I had a bad case of it – perhaps because of the misshapen monster I had just delivered. I didn’t want to do linguistics anymore, let alone work on language acquisition, and so I dropped out once again and went back to clowning. But the life of a clown is hard on the body and yields mostly spare change, and so, in order to pay the rent, I ended up in the twilight zone of sessional teaching.

Then, nearly five years after I had finished my dissertation, I had a stroke of enormous luck. I had begun to learn a little about Salish languages through Dwight Gardiner, who was writing his dissertation on Shuswap at Simon Fraser University. An opportunity arose to do syntactic research on St’át’imcets (Lillooet), through a grant held by Pat Shaw at UBC: I jumped at the chance, and began work on the language in the summer of 1992. That fall, a further opportunity arose: Simon Fraser advertised for an instructor in St’át’imcets through their nascent First Nations language teaching program, based in Kamloops. They needed someone with a Ph.D., and since I was in the right place at the right time, I got the job. Of course, it was a ridiculous situation: I was teaching a language I knew almost nothing about. But my teaching ‘assistants’ were three fluent elders, who decided if I was going to teach their language, I’d better learn it, and learn it properly. So began my apprenticeship in St’át’imcets.

And that is what finally made me into a linguist. A couple of months after I began working on St’át’imcets, one of the elders I was working with asked me simply: ‘Are you on our side or theirs?’. Though I’m not sure I quite recognized it at the time, my answer (‘Yours!’) constituted a long-term commitment to the language and its speakers, which continues to this day. Though many of the speakers I have worked with over the years have passed on, it is my hope that at least some of their deep knowledge of language and culture will be available for future generations.

Over the years, I broadened my commitment to include several other indigenous languages of British Columbia. For me, the documentation and analysis of these critically endangered languages is a huge responsibility and an extraordinary opportunity; I feel very privileged to do the work I do, and though the route I took to get here was circuitous, it is where I – finally – feel at home.

Henry Davis

Featured Linguist: Doug Biber

Today we are traveLing to Western North America with our Featured Linguist Doug Biber from Northern Arizona University. Read below about his life journey that led him to the field of linguistics.

Boug Biber

How I Became a Linguist
by Doug Biber

In grade school, no one would have ever guessed I’d grow up to become a linguist – I was the kid who got Cs in French and couldn’t produce a trill to save my life! I went to university majoring in civil engineering – relieved that there was no language requirement for that major. But I ended up switching to geophysics, thinking that it would be less restrictive than engineering, and that it would allow me to spend more time in the mountains (which turned out to be wishful thinking).

Two things happened during my undergraduate education that got me interested in academic research, and specifically linguistics. The first was a technical writing course, where I was shocked to learn that the point of writing was to tell the reader something that they didn’t already know. (I had believed up to that point that the reader – of course, an instructor – always already knew the correct answer, and so the point of writing was just to impress the reader.) And the second was an introduction to English syntax course, where I discovered that analyzing language could be really fun!

After a year and a half working as a geophysicist, I got laid off – and used the severance pay to go into a graduate program in linguistics at the University of Texas. After graduation, I ended up getting a 3-year position coordinating a Somali mother-tongue literacy program in the NE Province of Kenya. That experience shaped my world view, but also gave me the opportunity in my spare time for firsthand experience doing linguistic fieldwork. I was especially interested in working on Somali phonology and dialect variation.

Towards the end of that time, I started to think about PhD programs in linguistics. Luckily, around the same time, I had sent a paper that I had written on Somali focus markers to Larry Hyman at USC – a really scary prospect for me, given Larry’s stature in the field of African linguistics. Of course, Larry responded with extremely helpful comments, and also facilitated my going to USC for my PhD.

While at USC, I gradually shifted my research interests from phonology and African linguistics to patterns of (socio)linguistic variation. I had a background in computer programming, and so I got a full-time staff position as a programmer at the university computer center. But I was somehow blissfully unaware of corpora or anything called ‘corpus linguistics’ – and I had no thought that I might be able to apply my programming skills to any useful research questions in linguistics. In fact, during early stages of my dissertation research on the linguistic characteristics of speech and writing, I spent hours counting linguistic features by hand in texts! Then one day my dissertation chair – Ed Finegan – showed me an article that he had been reading about corpora, and suggested that I could apply my programming skills to corpus analysis for my dissertation research. Ed helped me obtain university funding to purchase the Brown Corpus – and helped to launch a 30-year linguistic research agenda involving corpus analysis.

Doug Biber