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.
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.