Miriam Butt

Featured Linguist: Miriam Butt

Featured Linguist: Miriam Butt

Featured Linguist: Miriam Butt

I was born in Taif, Saudi-Arabia in a military hospital. I was one of the first (maybe even the first) European babies born there and caused quite a stir.

My father was an electrical engineer from Pakistan, charged with bringing electricity to the country. Some of my first memories involve peacocks in the garden of the royal summer palace — one of the duties my father had was to make sure that the royal family was well supplied with electricity!

My mother is a German journalist who interrupted her career to go on an Arabian adventure and from whom I presumably have a good portion of my love of language.

I grew up trilingual in German, English, Urdu with a bit of Arabic thrown in, but thought that that was normal. Indeed, I was astonished when the doctor in Germany was astonished when I asked him *which* language I should count to 20 in. Checking on counting ability is one part of the overall, standard examination to determine fitness to go to school in Germany, but one only needs to be monolingually fit.

Indeed, schools in Germany are still only slowly coming to terms with the new multilingual reality caused by recent migrations. Paradoxically, the state governments have consistently been decreasing the amount of linguistics taught to language teachers, thus exacerbating the situation, rather than addressing it effectively.

My first memory of thinking about language is when I was quite young. I wondered where language came from. What were the first words? How did it all start?

I went to ask my mother, but, once she had figured out what I was asking, had no answers.

In school in Germany, I learned Latin as of fourth grade. Although I consistently got fairly bad grades, I absolutely enjoyed the sense of antiquity, the sense of history and hidden information that wafted off the pages and pages of vocabulary items, paradigms and texts.

I wanted to become an archaeologist but my family told me there was no money in it and I should go for a different profession.

When I was thirteen, we moved to Pakistan and I attended the Lahore American School (LAS). There was no Latin in the curriculum, but the teachers were willing to be creative and helpful and allowed me to engage in a self-study course in which I continued with some Latin. I also found Mario Pei’s “The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages” in the library and worked my way through that in utter fascination.

With an American high school degree one can do very little except go to college in the US, so that is what I set out to do. I had been to the US on a brief visit, but it was mainly terra incognita, especially with respect to the college landscape. In the days before internet and instant access to information, I picked some states at random to narrow down the search space somewhat and then leafed through big college information books, looking for places that taught both Latin and computer science.

Computer Science because Pakistan at that time only allowed the use of foreign exchange (Pakistani rupees for dollars) if one studied one of a list of approved subjects. Air-conditioning was out of the question for me, so I settled on computer science. I knew I liked programming because LAS had offered a computer course and I had learned BASIC. Quite a forward looking curriculum for the early 80s in a school in Pakistan!

I applied to a number of places and was accepted (with financial aid) by Wellesley College. The experience there continues to be one of the best of my life. I learned linguistics from Andrea Levitt. Though her research is squarely in phonetics and language acquisition (something I only learned later), she made sure that all of us doing “Language Studies” received a broad and thorough linguistic training. This was augmented by Annette Herskovits in Computer Science, who worked on spatial terms from a Cognitive Science perspective. With the two of them as incredible mentors, I ended up doing a BA thesis comparing spatial terms in Hausa and Urdu.

This opened doors for the next step: graduate school. In applying, I knew I should be sensible and do computer science and earn a lot of money. However, a year spent as a Computer Science intern taught me that I did not want to spend my life in an air-conditioned office in front of a computer. I compromised and applied to places that did both computer science and linguistics. Stanford was one of those places.

On my first day there, I encountered a colibri and pepper trees and sun shine and the experience just kept on getting better. I took courses from and was mentored by a series of great linguists: Joan Bresnan, Eve Clark, Charles Ferguson, Andrew Garrett, Paul Kiparsky, Aditi Lahiri, John Rickford, Ivan Sag, Peter Sells, Henriette de Swart, Elizabeth Traugott and Tom Wasow. They taught me the value of a broad, interdisciplinary approach to linguistics and that being able to look at a given phenomenon from several different perspectives is a necessity in understanding language structure.

But most of all, I was influenced by KP Mohanan, who taught courses with an emphasis on South Asian languages and set me off on my current career path. Most importantly, though, he taught me to question each and every assumption I was presented with and that having an argument is always good! I have vivid memories of sitting out on a terrace in Kerala years later in the early morning light from about 6 am onwards with a cup of tea arguing about politics, linguistics, religion, anything and everything!

This memory also includes Tracy Holloway King, a Stanford class mate. Strong bonds were forged at Stanford with her and others, most notably Gillian Ramchand. We organized conferences together, published together while arguing vociferously about linguistics and about who would have to use the phone to call somebody (a duty to be avoided at all costs!) and published with Dikran Karaguezian of CSLI Publications. (We did not argue with him, but of course always accepted his sage advice!).

Our collaborations have continued even as we have moved into different directions, with industry at one end of the spectrum and theoretical linguistic research augmented by experimentation at the other end.

My first job out of graduate school was on Machine Translation. The next on grammar development, where I became part of the Parallel Grammar (ParGram) effort (see http://clarino.uib.no/iness/ for some of the resulting on-line interactive computational grammars and treebanks that document this work). The early years of this effort were characterized by intense exchanges (that is another way of saying “argument”) with another set of great linguists: Dick Crouch, Mary Dalrymple, Ron Kaplan, Lauri Karttunen and Annie Zaenen as well as Tracy King and John Maxwell at Xerox and at PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). I am indebted to my boss of the time, Christian Rohrer, for beginning the ParGram collaboration and for fostering a truly interesting research environment that always strove to be cutting edge both in terms of computational and theoretical linguistics.

Continuing that type of research and providing that type of research experience to my students has been at the heart of my efforts at the University of Konstanz. We focus on interdisciplinary research that connects up new computational and experimental methodology with research that combines all core areas of linguistics. We are one of many sites world wide chipping away at the vast expanse of missing linguistic knowledge and understanding. I write this just after attending a conference on South Asian linguistics in Lisbon that featured discussions of Tamil as seen through the lens of Christian missionary grammar writers, of Indian languages as they have fared in the diaspora (e.g., South Africa, Trinidad, Guadalupe), of Indo-Portuguese creoles and of understudied languages like Marathi and Punjabi (but which each count millions and millions of speakers). Listening to these talks again opened up vistas of thousands of topics that are in urgent need of linguistic attention, but that are currently attended to (if at all), by a comparatively vanishingly small number of linguists.

The Linguist List is a hugely important effort that has created a world-wide community of linguists who can communicate with one another effectively and quickly, thus ameliorating some of our lack of boots on the ground. It provides a space to share software and knowledge and is always looking for new and crucial ways to serve the community. Help keep it going and thereby help foster crucial linguistic research world wide!

 

 

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