Featured Linguist: Ida Toivonen

Featured Linguist: Ida Toivonen

Featured Linguist: Ida Toivonen

In primary school and high school, my favourite subjects were languages and math. I later came to realize that this is true for many linguists.  I did better in math classes than other classes, but I really loved the languages.  I grew up in a Swedish-speaking area of Finland, and I studied Finnish in school. I also studied English, French, German and Spanish. I loved the classes, but I seemed to like the languages for different reasons than my peers. My friends either did not like studying languages, or else they liked it because it might be useful. You could communicate with people from different places and backgrounds. I never became good at communicating in the languages I studied, I simply enjoyed the patterns and structures. The grammar lectures and exercises were great, but I didn’t really enjoy the conversation exercises.

After high school, I had some idea that languages and math don’t “go together” and I would have to choose.  I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to attend Brandeis University in Waltham outside Boston, and I chose to study French language and literature. I enjoyed those classes very much, but what became my true passion was linguistics.  In my first semester, I took Introduction to Linguistics.  I didn’t quite get all the talk about cognition, but the puzzles in the homework assignments were a lot of fun. I was hooked and decided to double-major in French and Linguistics. Boston was obviously a great place to be for exploring linguistics, and I attended talks and classes around town.  I received valuable support from Joan Maling and Ray Jackendoff at Brandeis, and also Charles Reiss and Mark Hale at Harvard. I got to spend a lot of time with many people who care deeply about how language works.  All the talk of language and cognition slowly started to make sense.  I was intrigued by all aspects of linguistics that I learned about, but I ended up writing my thesis on a topic in Finnish morphosyntax.

Graduate school turned out to be a great experience as well. I studied in the Linguistics Department at Stanford University and my supervisors were Paul Kiparsky and Joan Bresnan. I learned a lot from them and the other professors at Stanford, as well as from my fellow graduate students. My path through graduate school was a bit unusual (or perhaps there is no typical path through graduate school). I took several odd semesters off to teach and study at Brandeis (again) and at Concordia in Montreal. I also started working on the endangered language Inari Saami, spoken in Inari, Northern Finland. The community in Inari was welcoming and supportive, which made the project possible.  Doing fieldwork is probably the most difficult and the most rewarding thing I have ever done. Inari Saami has a very rich morphology; the verbal, nominal and adjectival paradigms are daunting. It has now been 20 years since my first trip to Inari, and I’m still far from a complete understanding of the system.  Part of the challenge comes from the complex morphophonology — the paradigms involve complex vowel alternations and consonant gradation.  The Inari Saami paradigms sparked a curiosity for the phonetics and phonology of quantity, and I am still exploring quantity today.

During my time in graduate school, I had the opportunity to explore many different areas of linguistics.  I never truly developed one main area of interest. My fieldwork on Inari Saami was very broad, as I was trying to learn about all aspects of the language. I signed up for as many classes as I could fit into my schedule.  I continued exploring Finnish morphosyntax. I conducted a study on child language acquisition under the supervision of Eve Clark. I explored topics in historical linguistics. In the end, I wrote my PhD thesis  on the syntax and semantics of verbal particles in Germanic, mostly Swedish.

After graduate school, I got to spend time at the University of Rochester, NY, and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, both great places with lots of good linguistics. I finally ended up at Carleton University in Ottawa, where I am cross-appointed in Linguistics and Cognitive Science. I still haven’t quite decided what my main area of interest is, I guess I am some kind of old-fashioned general linguist? Current projects concern the phonetics and phonology of quantity, the semantics of distributivity, grammaticalized animacy, the effects of singing on pronunciation, and the nature of the argument-adjunct distinction. Much of the data I work with come from Inari Saami and a dialect Swedish spoken on the Åland Islands.

Writing this little text about my path to and through linguistics helps me see how fun and rewarding it has all been. Language truly is beautiful, even with all the efforts we make to tame it and describe and explain it in as simple and boring terms as possible.




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