My first memories are tied to the awareness that beyond our small Czech speaking world there was an exciting multiplicity of languages out there, and along with it an exciting variety of very different attitudes and life styles. My mother spoke fluently Czech, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish due to her heritage and childhood in West Volhynia (West Ukraine today). And then there were mail deliveries of paperbacks from another exotic place called “West Germany”. They came each wrapped up in a transparent shrink wrap, a whole bunch of them stacked in a brown cardboard box, which, once opened, wafted the enticing fragrance of freshly printed books and a foreign world. They were printed by the DTV Press (German Paperback Press) in Munich, where one of my dad’s friends worked and regularly supplied him with its most recent publications. I did not know any German, but I heard it on an Austrian radio station (“Autofahrer Unterwegs”) that my dad listened to, and I must have been impressed by the pop songs in German it played. As soon as I learned how to read, one of my favorite childhood pastimes, when I was home alone, was to stand in front of the book shelves with the German DTV paperbacks, imagining being a pop singer singing songs with the lyrics like “Heinrich Böll, Irisches Tagebuch, Christian Morgenstern, Palmström Palma Kunkel, Siegfried Lenz, Der Mann im Strom …”, making up the tunes on the spot. I had no idea what the correct pronunciation was, but I was just mesmerized by the idea that the letters, each of which I knew individually, collectively had a meaning, which I did not understand, but there were people to whom it meant something and I wondered just what it might be. No less fascinating was the idea that these books came from “capitalist imperialism”, as I learned already in kindergarten, a world to be worried about and even afraid of, but something that seemed to me inconsistent with their pretty, inviting book covers (designed by Celestino Piatti). When I was about six years old, I decided to learn German. So I pored over a German grammar book that I found in my parents’ library, but did not get much further than learning the conjugation of the German verb ‘to be’.
This early experience with a foreign language and the world it evoked might have also been the reason why I was so fascinated by a psychology book, which I found in my parents’ library a bit later, and whose topics covered the connection between language, culture and human behavior. It was the first scientific book I read, and, of course, I could not have understood much, reading it and thinking about it by myself, but I was in awe at the ideas it opened up for me.
When I was about eleven years old, I began filling all my free time with learning foreign languages and reading, mostly French and English classic novels and poetry (in Czech translation). Interestingly, German literature took a distinct back seat, although I loved Christian Morgenstern and Heinrich Heine (I’ll return to them at the end). What stands out is that I loved thinking about grammar rules. That is, I thought that the grammar rules in my textbooks “could have been formulated better”. So I tried to come up with various ways of improving on them, “putting them in a better order”, according to what, to me at least, were underlying regularities and relationships among them. There was also a practical reason behind this, namely wanting to cut down the amount of memorization to an absolute minimum, reserving it to vocabulary, idioms, irregular verbs and such. When I was fifteen I taught myself Italian by going through a wonderful textbook (for native Czech speakers) from cover to cover. I learned the Italian pronunciation by following ingenious informal descriptions in this textbook, and by listening to the Italian radio station “Milano Rai Radio Due” in the dead of night, which at that time was not jammed. I had a very vague, and an intriguing, idea that there was an underlying system behind language use, which was reinforced by my discovery of structuralism in literary theory, its precursor Russian formalism in particular. This again happened by chance: while reading detailed introductions to Czech translations of foreign classics, there was a mention of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. I read and loved it, which in turn led me to finding out about Roman Jakobson’s Linguistics and Poetics, Viktor Shklovsky, Claude Lévi-Strauss and others.
What also stands out about this time (junior high in US terms) is that one of my heroes was Jean-François Champollion, who as a young boy first learned Latin, Greek, followed by Hebrew and other Semitic languages before deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. So my plan was to learn all kinds of languages in the years to come, perhaps forever, and hoping that eventually, just like Champollion, I might discover and solve some terrific puzzle along the way. My enthusiasm for studying foreign languages was not dampened by knowing that I might never be allowed to travel to the countries where they were spoken, or pursue their study at a university (children of East European dissidents often were prohibited from studying at universities).
But then in an unexpected and a breathtakingly swift turn of events, my dad “got an offer” to leave Czechoslovakia (which could hardly be refused) and three months later we were in Munich, the city from which the DTV paperbacks had been arriving. Now, I suddenly found myself in a German high school, but among the languages I had learned in Czechoslovakia, I had amazingly somehow omitted German. Yet, I managed to convince everybody that the ‘taking-no-prisoners’ immersion method would work the best for me, rather than spending a year in a German language learning camp. After graduating from high school, I enrolled at the Munich Ludwig Maximilian University to study Romance and English languages and literatures. I gravitated towards the few linguistics offerings, mainly in Chomsky’s generative syntax, which is how I finally understood that there is a full-fledged academic field of linguistics. What really caught my attention, while doing research for one of my term papers, were the proceedings of the Chicago Linguistics Society, which contained concise, to the point, highly informative papers full of intellectual energy and excitement. So when I happened to see a poster of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) advertizing an undergraduate study abroad program in the USA, I did not hesitate to apply, and in my application proposal I wrote that I wanted to study at the University of Chicago, in the Department of Linguistics.
My year at the University of Chicago was nothing short of life-changing. I realized that I had wanted to be a linguist all along, but had not known it. There for the first time I followed my interests in language not as an auto-didact, but guided by some of the best linguists, including the amazing Jim McCawley. My German scholarship funding ended after one year, however, and because of this and other practical reasons, I decided to return to Germany with the plan to complete my M.A. degree in linguistics there so that I could apply for another DAAD fellowship, but this time for doctoral studies in the USA.
Back at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, I switched to the Department of Theoretical Linguistics, chaired by Theo Vennemann, and took classes in formal semantics with Roland Hausser and Joachim Jacobs who gave lucid and exciting classes on Montague Grammar, and also on Categorial Grammar, the debates between Bar Hillel and Chomsky, Frege’s theory and the state of the art in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Occasionally I attended Godehard Link’s seminars in the Department of Philosophy, and I started exchanging some ideas on aspect with Manfred Krifka, who was just finishing his Ph.D. thesis. While I was finishing my M.A. degree, I got interested in the intersection of meaning in language, psychology, computational linguistics and philosophy, and so choosing where to do my Ph.D. degree, with my DAAD fellowship, I opted for UC Berkeley, which had just established the Institute of Cognitive Studies (ICS), supported by the Sloan Foundation. At UC Berkeley I felt like a kid in a candy store: apart from the Ph.D. thesis qualifying curriculum, we were free to take classes in all the Departments affiliated with ICS, and I took full advantage of it. I especially enjoyed the ICS colloquia, which featured UC Berkeley faculty, but also great scholars from elsewhere in the USA and abroad. Thanks to my advisors Chuck Fillmore and Paul Kay, we had ties to Stanford University, and to their close friend Ivan Sag in particular, who fabulously organized the 1987 LSA Summer Institute at Stanford. One of my favorite grad school memories is the LSA 1989 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, where I gave one of my first “serious” talks. Barbara Partee was in the audience and after my talk introduced herself to me and excitedly told me that she just got back from Prague where she took part in the Velvet Revolution demonstrations; back in my room, on CNN I saw Václav Havel walking across the courtyard of the Prague Castle, having just taken the presidential oath. While wondering about why he is wearing such short pants at this historically momentous event in Prague, I also wondered by what twists of fate I get to watch him on TV in a hotel room in Washington, DC.
I did not plan to be a linguist, let alone a professor. All I wanted to do was what I thought was worth doing, following my hunches. This also meant that I spent a number of years as an academic gypsy, after completing my Ph.D. degree, which I mostly viewed as continuing in the adventurous tradition of the wandering scholars of the Middle Ages, because it allowed me to spend time at some of the best linguistics departments and research universities. Overall, perhaps my path has something to do with my early fascination with the German DTV paperbacks, who knows. In hindsight, it is somewhat intriguing that as a kid I singled out Heinrich Heine and Christian Morgenstern among the few German authors worth paying attention to. Christian Morgenstern was a German poet from Munich, where the DTV paperbacks were printed, and Munich became my hometown after we were exiled from Czechoslovakia. One Morgenstern’s poem that I never forgot has to do with tense and aspect, which became my main specialty:
Unter Zeiten (Among Tenses)
Das Perfekt und das Imperfekt
tranken Sekt (were drinking sparkling wine).
Sie stießen aufs Futurum an (They toasted to the Future)
(was man wohl gelten lassen kann) (which might be deemed valid).
Plusquamper und Exaktfutur (Past Perfect and Future Perfect)
blinzten nur (only kept blinking).
Translation (“An Approach”) by Max Knight (h/t Manfred Krifka)
Perfect and Past
drank to a friendship to last
They toasted the Future tense
(which makes sense).
Futureperf and Plu
As for Heinrich Heine, he was born in Düsseldorf, which is my current hometown; I live next to his museum, and I’m professor of semantics at the university which carries his name: Heinrich Heine University.