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.