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