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

Got an abstract? There are 218 conferences awaiting your submission.

Think about it: in your career, how many conferences have you gone to? How many have you presented at? How many abstracts have you submitted for papers, talks, poster sessions, panels, and colloquia?

And of those, how many did you find out about through the LINGUIST List?

An academic’s need to attend and present at conferences, and the inherently chaotic nature of the academic conference system, is precisely what makes the Calls and Conferences feature of the LINGUIST List such an indispensable tool. Rather than relying on word of mouth or hoping that your colleagues will remember to CC you on an email, you can count on LINGUIST to keep you informed about your field’s most important conference and the associated call for papers.

But we do far more than just email you this important information: we also have a searchable database of all upcoming linguistic conferences (http://linguistlist.org/callconf/browse-current.cfm?type=Conf) and all active calls for papers (http://linguistlist.org/callconf/browse-current.cfm?type=call). We also have an events calendar to keep you organized (http://linguistlist.org/callconf/eventcalendar.cfm), so you’ll never have to present in Germany one day and Japan the next.

If you’re a conference organizer, you probably know how much easier it is to submit a conference announcement, program, and call for papers via LINGUIST than to email your colleagues one by one. You also know that we circulate your submission within 48 hours. But did you know that we provide a free, user-friendly platform (http://linguistlist.org/confservices/EasyAbs/index.cfm) for your participants to submit abstracts? Or that we’re developing an online registration service (http://linguistlist.org/confservices/EasyReg/index.cfm) to bring your attendees to you, minus the headaches?

As of this week, the LINGUIST List has records for 787 conferences taking place all over the world between now and September 2015, with 218 active calls for papers. And these aren’t just English: we distribute announcements in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and, once, even Papiamento!

We do all this for the sake of the linguistic community at no cost to you, which means we rely solely upon the generosity of our supporters. If you have found these services valuable, please donate to the LINGUIST List today.

http://linguistlist.org/donation/donate/donate1.cfm.

Without your donation, we can’t continue to provide our Calls and Conferences services that you, as an academic, rely on. We’re counting on you!

With sincerest gratitude,

Bryn Hauk, Xiyan Wang & Anna White
Calls & Conferences Editors

Another Week, Another Routledge Giveaway! Donate Now!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

If the Monday blues has got you down, then LINGUIST List just might have the pick me up you need to get excited: This week’s Routledge giveaway!

Anyone who donates this week is eligible to win either the title of their choice from Routledge’s Handbooks in Applied Linguistics series, or a one year subscription to their preferred Linguistics journal! For more details, please visit the link below:

http://www.routledge.com/u/FundDrive14

This is a prize you don’t want to pass up, so donate today!

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Plus, a donation of $35 or more will guarantee you one of our great Fund Drive Premiums!

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The LINGUIST List Crew

Making the Most of LINGUIST: Additional and Special Interest Resources

Some LINGUIST resources aren’t so easy to classify. In this last letter, we’ve grouped some of the lesser-known features that may be of interest to you.

LINGUIST has established a presence on a variety of social networking sites. Connect with us by clicking the links below:

Various linguistic resources can only be found on the World Wide Web. Luckily, LINGUIST has an area for that!

  • Web Resources/Software: This area of the LINGUIST List contains links to websites and software devoted to natural and constructed languages, to writing systems, and to language resources on the web (such as dictionaries).
  • FYI: As mentioned in our previous letter, the FYI area contains information that doesn’t neatly fit into any single LINGUIST posting topic, such as calls for book chapters, award recipient announcements, new journal editor announcements, scholarship announcements, etc.
  • Discussion: The Discussion area is one of LINGUIST’s best kept secrets (but we’d like it to be not-so-secret). Discussions posted on the LINGUIST site have spawned many publications, collaborations, and thought-provoking linguistic observations and ponderings. Join the discussion!
  • Mailing Lists: There are a number of mailing lists linked in here that are related to different facets of linguistics and language.

LINGUIST’s projects also cater to various linguistic interests.

  • Tutorials: These tutorials were designed by programmers to help train linguistics students for work at LINGUIST. They’re very helpful introductions (or, for some of you, refreshers) for the technical work linguists engage in.
  • Linguistic Blogs: Here you can see what linguists on the web have to say about language:
  • Learning Languages Other than English: These resources will help you find language learning resources.
  • English Language Learning (EFL/ESL): LINGUIST also contains a variety of resources for learning English.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this Making the Most of LINGUIST letter series! As always, if you have any questions about the services LINGUIST offers its readers and subscribers, don’t hesitate to ask.

Today’s Prize is Up to Spec(Gram)! Donate to Win!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

Today we’re proud to offer a prize from the first, foremost, and possibly only publisher of satirical linguistics: Speculative Grammarian! If you donate before 11:59 p.m. today, you could be one of 5 lucky winners to walk away with a SpecGram prize package, which includes a copy of The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics, as well as a SpecGram magnet or poster!

You can read the description for this must have volume at the URL below (and if you happen to pay money for a book you may win for free anyway while you’re there, I’m sure the good folks at SpecGram won’t complain):

http://specgram.com/SGEGL/

Remember, to win, you need to donate today!

http://linguistlist.org/donation/

And don’t forget, LINGUIST List also has many great premiums we’d love to send you if you donate $35 or more!

http://linguistlist.org/fund-drive/2014/premiums.php

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The LINGUIST List Crew

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

New Evidence for Neanderthal Language Announced

YPSILANTI, Michigan – The controversy over whether Neanderthals possessed a capacity for language may have been resolved. After years of speculation by evolutionary anthropologists and geneticists, a group of linguists has announced today that they have uncovered written evidence proving the Neanderthal capacity for language.

“Neanderthal man was able to express his ideas about the world around him, but was restricted by his limited syntax,” Professor Schmaltz explained at today’s press conference. “Whereas modern man combines words hierarchically into structure, the Neanderthal could only concatenate them linearly.”

It seems that Neanderthals had a single syllable oog, which, when repeated, formed different words. oog has been translated as ‘Oog’ a proper name, oog.oog meant ‘two people named Oog,’ oog.oog.oog meant ‘emotionally distant – like a teenager anxious to move out of his parents’ cave’ and so on.

Schmaltz’ team was able to identify and translate two texts left by Neanderthals. The first, a recent discovery in Spain, is a fragment of a teenager’s diary. It reads oog.oog.oog and has been translated as ‘[Dear diary, I feel] emotionally distant. [I wish I had my own cave]’.

‘[Dear diary, I feel] emotionally distant. [I wish I had my own cave]’

oog.oog.oog

The second text is either an exhaustive history of the region or simply the Neanderthal word for ‘antelope’, oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog…

 

oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog…

oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog.oog…

 

These findings suggest Neanderthals were just as culturally sophisticated as modern humans, but totally lacked an efficient method of communication. It has long been known that while Homo Sapiens’ culture developed rapidly, Neanderthals stagnated over thousands of years. Schmaltz hypothesizes that innovations simply would have taken too long to explain, as new words would have to be even longer chains of oog’s.

Schmaltz went on to speculate that the high-five traces its origins back to a borrowing from Proto-Neanderthal. “With each hand representing the name ‘Oog,’ slapping them together must have been used as a greeting. It truly was the original instant message.”

 

LINGUIST: A Non-Profit Service for Linguists

Dear Subscribers,

I came from Shanghai, China and I am so happy that I have joined the LINGUIST team over the past six years. I really appreciate the LINGUIST List for giving me this job opportunity. Right now I can support my family, raise my kid, and learn a lot of new things from different projects.

As a full time programmer for LINGUIST, I have been involved in many different projects. This year I am mainly involved in two projects: LEGO and EasyReg. For the LEGO project, we have uploaded 31 lexicons and we will upload more lexicons and more than 3000 word lists into our system. Then the user can search all the data in these lexicons and word lists through our faceted search facility. The EasyReg facility was launched a few months ago. The EasyReg system will help conference organizer to set up online registration system easily and let registrants submit and pay registration fee online through their customized registration system.

Also I help to maintain the publisher, finance and EasyAbs web sites.

LINGUIST is non-profit organization. It provides free service for all linguist users in the world. Your donations – even a small amount – will mean a lot for us. Your contribution will help us to continually run another year to provide more service for linguist users and gave us the chance to work here.

Please help us to donate at:

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Thanks again for your continued support and donations!

Yours sincerely,
Li (Lily) Zheng
LINGUIST Programmer

Week 3 of Routledge’s Prize Giveaway! Donate Now!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

It’s a new week, which means we have another Routledge giveaway to announce! Anyone who donates this week is eligible to win either the title of their choice from Routledge’s Handbooks in Applied Linguistics series, or a one year subscription to their preferred Linguistics journal! For more details, please visit the link below:

http://www.routledge.com/u/FundDrive14

But remember, you’re only eligible to win if you donate!

http://linguistlist.org/donation/

Want to make sure you walk away with some swag? The donate $35 or more to receive the premium of your choice!

http://linguistlist.org/fund-drive/2014/premiums.php

As always, good luck!

The LINGUIST List Crew