Featured Linguist: Bernard Comrie

My home town of Sunderland, in the northeast of England, was perhaps not the most propitious birth place for one whose interests were to encompass worldwide language diversity. Even less so the villages to the north of Sunderland where I grew up, and where hardly a foreign word was heard. It was, however, a good laboratory for lower-level diversity, at the dialect level. For don’t, the people to the north said divn’t [‘dɪvnt], while we said dinnot [‘dɪnət], and the folks to the south of Sunderland still used the thou series of second person singular pronouns. And I had an added source of linguistic diversity: a Jamaican father. While he never exposed us to Jamaican Creole, his English was still full of Jamaicanisms. His warning cry Mind you fall! (= Mind you don’t fall! in “mainstream” English) still rings in my ears. But whatever their source, the seeds of more exotic linguistic interest were sown, and at age 7 I duly told my mother that I wanted to learn French. My mother had “school French”, and she did everything to encourage my strange interest, even taking me on vacation to France a year later at a time when foreign vacations were by no means the norm in our social milieu. My first week immersed in a foreign language environment! I’m not sure that my parents ever really understood what drives me as a linguist. And certainly nothing is guaranteed to bring a tenured full professor of linguistics more rapidly down to earth than when their mother says So when are you going to get a real job? But they always offered me their fullest support.

At grammar school (≈ junior high school + high school) I took all the language offerings available, and even increased my oddity from the perspective of my peers by taking evening classes in Russian at the local community college. I also took advantage of the burgeoning possibilities of school trips to the European continent. I think that over the years I borrowed all the admittedly restricted set of foreign language textbooks from Sunderland library, and also started my own collection – one Teach Yourself language course (in those days just a book, with grammar and translation exercises) conveniently cost one week’s pocket money. But then came the real revelation, when the library started getting books about a subject called linguistics.  I already knew what I wanted to be: a linguist! Incidentally, it was also in grammar school that I undertook my first typological project, though I wouldn’t have known to name it that at the time. The Classics teacher had just introduced the Ancient Greek rule whereby a neuter plural subject requires singular verb agreement, and mused whether any other languages had a similar rule. I took that as a personal challenge and scoured the grammars available to me to draw up a list of comparable phenomena. With hindsight, the sample was ludicrously small and biased, and my results were certainly not a publishable article, but I had cut my typological teeth.

My undergraduate and graduate years at Cambridge were a mix of advanced language study (French, German, Russian), historical linguistics, and what was then a rather new academic subject in Britain, namely (general) linguistics. In my student days the last was largely generative grammar of the day, though I always had my mind on cross-linguistic variation, and soon after completing my doctoral dissertation I moved definitively toward linguistic typology. I’ll fast forward through the rest of my career to leave time for the present, but suffice it to say that I have doggedly pursued the view that understanding Language means understanding languages, that the linguist has to take cross-linguistic diversity seriously. And needless to say, I have been pleased to see more and more subfields of linguistics and approaches to language embracing this ideal. The phenomena that have interested me have been primarily syntactic, with some excursions into morphology and semantics (and even beyond), with recurring interests being relative clauses, valence and voice, and alignment – I consider my first meeting with the phenomenon of ergativity to be one of the truly transformative events of my life. Throughout this time and across the world, I have been blessed with teachers, colleagues, and students (these are not always discrete categories) who have provided an environment that has cherished my approach to language. In addition, I have had the opportunity to work with members of indigenous communities who have broadened not only my understanding of language but also my outlook on life. My great hope for the future: that indigenous communities will be empowered to study their own languages.

The COVID-19 pandemic in which we currently find ourselves is a tragedy, including for indigenous communities, and nothing that I will go on to say detracts from this. But for me, there have indeed been some silver linings. One has been the development of online lectures, which means both that I have been able to “attend” lectures that even in the best of times would have been geographically inaccessible to me, and also that I have been able to present my own ideas to international audiences, and even have them immortalized on YouTube. Another has been the opportunity – forced by necessity – to explore the range of scientific resources available on the internet, especially during the period when libraries were hermetically sealed and interlibrary loan inoperative. For instance, I am working on a project that requires me to identify basic color terms in a fixed set of Germanic, Slavic, and Romance languages. Under current circumstances, where was I going to find the relevant material for Wymysorys, an offshoot of German spoken in the small town of Wilamowice, Poland? Catalogs told me that an extensive dictionary was published in Poland in the 1930s, but imagine my joy when I discovered that an excellent photographic reproduction of the dictionary is available at Wikimedia Commons. And where was I going to find the color terms of Istro-Romanian, spoken by a few hundred people in a handful of villages on the Istrian peninsula in Croatia? Well, it turns out that an article on just this topic is available open access on the web site of the Slovenian journal Jezikoslovni zapiski. Does this mean that I will be avoiding the library when it reopens? Far from it. I already have a list of references that are not available online and that I will need to check via interlibrary loan once I have worked through the material I already have. And just as a library needs librarians to curate its holdings, so too the various internet sites that I have been exploiting also need to be curated – it is only too easy to take for granted that things are freely available on the internet while forgetting how much effort and cost is involved in keeping existing material accessible and making new material available.

Which brings me to the Linguist List. I can remember a time before there was the Linguist List, though those memories are getting vague. How did we cope in those days? Well, to be honest, we just did without a lot of information, or in some cases could get the information but only by time-consuming means of varying reliability. No ready list of conferences across different subfields and in different parts of the world; you basically found out about the conferences linked to societies you had joined and networks you had infiltrated, with the information circulating by snail mail. No ready list of new publications. If you had a question, you could ask the people around you, and you might send letters to a few others, but the thought of reaching thousands of people instantaneously was not even a dream. Now all of this and much more is available thanks to the Linguist List. But this easy accessibility has its danger: We start to take it for granted. It is only thanks to the hard work of the Linguist List team that this material is available, and curating this material does cost money. So please, donate what you can to the Linguist List. Every small amount helps. Each year I make sure that I make my own donation, secure in the knowledge that this sum is going to benefit our field in a way that would not have been imaginable just a few decades ago, but that now is indispensable.

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