Featured Linguist: David Stifter

Featured Linguist: David Stifter

Why am I a linguist ‒ A tale of three spells

1. Under the spell of Celtic

I remember when I first encountered the word ‘Celtic‘. I was around eight years old and had to stay home from school because I was suffering from a fluish infection. To stave off my boredom, my father brought home the latest volume of Asterix, ‘Asterix in Belgium’, my first encounter with that character. On one of the first pages, Asterix introduces himself to the Belgians by saying (of course in German translation) ‘We are from the Celtic part of Gaul’. I wondered what ‘keltisch’ (Celtic) meant and came up with one of my first etymologies. I thought this word must be somehow derived from ‘kalt’ (cold). One learns through one’s mistakes.

A few years later, in grammar school, I remember the excitement that I felt when I leaved through the final pages of our school edition of Caesar’s Gaulish War. The index gave explanations and etymologies for all personal names mentioned in the text, including the Gaulish ones. By that time, not least because of Asterix, I had a general idea what Celtic and Gaulish meant, but the language itself, like the other Celtic languages of which at the time I knew nothing more than the names, had already put a spell on me that had nothing to do with any practical considerations. This is how conditioning works. A generation later, I find myself in Ireland, holding the position of professor of one of those Celtic languages and contributing to the edition of newly discovered Gaulish inscriptions, on the forefront of those who try to shed some light on this still so poorly understood language.

How I got into Old Irish is an anecdote worth telling, an anecdote that illustrates the twists and turns of life. Although I had had these romantic ideas about Celtic for many years, I used to be least attracted by Irish (largely for aesthetic reasons: too many h’s in the words). One October evening 1994, while walking home from an evening lecture, I told the lecturer that I was dreaming of going to Wales to study Welsh. Next morning, the Head of Department, Prof. Jochem Schindler – who the lecturer must have contacted immediately after our chat – called me into his office and greeted me with the words: ‘You are going to Maynooth to do Old Irish‘. I refrained from objecting that so far I had not felt the least appeal by Old Irish. Only a few weeks later Prof. Schindler, having just turned 50, suffered a stroke and died a few days later, and I was left with his linguistic legacy. So I went to Maynooth, facilitated by a Scholarship of the Republic of Ireland, and sucked in Old Irish there. After that year abroad, I returned to Vienna where I got sucked into a career as a historical linguist, more by a combination of luck and inadvertence than by any grand design. After fifteen years I received a call back to Maynooth. In this way, very much like St Patrick who heeded the call of Vox Hiberionacum ‘the voice of the Irish‘, I am here again now, spreading Old Irish to the world. And after all, compared to Modern Irish, there aren’t that many h’s in Old Irish words.

2. Under the spell of solving riddles

Without curiosity, there is no science. Without the desire for discovery, there is no progress. Without the urge to solve riddles, we will only ever remain at the stage of stupefied mystery, but we will not be able to move on to appreciative admiration. This is what motivates me to look behind words, where they come from, what their history is, and to look into them, to see what their inner working is. It may be the case that knowing the name of something tells us nothing about that thing, but knowing a name and its etymological analysis surely reveals us something about the people who created the name, what they thought, how they saw their world. Many riddles in that!

My discipline of historical linguistics is blessed in that we can operate on the hypothesis that every riddle has a solution, but it is cursed all the same since the key to that solution is often irretrievably lost in time. We can try to piece together the fragmentary evidence that has come down to us, but we may not have access to enough information to create the full picture. However, we can still make the effort, and perhaps, on the way, we are fortunate to discover an alternative way of looking at a problem. This is why I love deciphering inscriptions in scripts that are no longer used, or why I spend my time on extracting fragmentary messages from almost illegible manuscripts. For me, the linguistic study of a language is inseparable from a rooting in the philology of that tradition. When I approach an unknown text, it has to be taken from all sides: the palaeography, the spelling, the requirements of the genre, the phonology, the lexicon, the syntax, the historical context. Missing a tiny stroke of ink over one letter can have effects on the understanding of the verb, the clause, the text, with further reverberations on syntactic theory, the study of history etc. Without understanding its anchorage in real life, we will only make superficial statements about the language.

A newly found word, its meaning, its prehistory, and its relationship with other words fill me with great excitement. These small riddles can be found everywhere in our lives, they can enrich us every day. The fact that I grew up in a part of Austria where four different languages (not counting dialects) are spoken, made me aware of the richness and value of linguistic diversity. I learnt soon that most of my German-speaking peers carried their ignorance and rejection of the minority languages like a depraved badge of honour, not as a mark of disgrace, but for me it was a stimulus to learn more and to keep my mind open.

I was fortunate to belong to the ‒ perhaps ‒ last generation of university students in my country that was not squeezed into the straightjacket of economised education, that is to say, school-like curricula and tight time-frames. I had the privilege of being able to learn just for learning’s sake, almost whatever I wanted and for as long as I wanted. Since I did not need any credits for my degree at home, I never actually sat a single exam in Old Irish when I studied in Maynooth. The closest I got to being examined about Early Irish were two exams in Middle Irish, which I did a few years later in Vienna. I spent nine years on my Master’s degree, and another five on the PhD. Add this to my twelve years in school, and I spent 26 years in education and training. How does this compare to the 20 years of learning that Julius Caesar reported for the druids? It is fitting that as a professor in Ireland I now bear the title of Ollamh, the highest grade awarded to poets in medieval Irish society. And knowing its history, I bear it proudly.

3. Under the spell of time

The third spell that I am under is that of time: What is time, what is its cause, and is it at all? How does it shape human experience, what does it mean for a person to lose time? These issues are intricately woven into the structure of languages and language experience – language being one of the most effective means to counteract time.

Where these three spells overlap, that is that delightful place where I find myself when I succeed in recreating a small piece of lost time, when I am able to make speak to us again human beings who lived centuries or millennia ago, and when I make them share some of their thoughts with us, make them share how they rationalised their lives in environments that are very different from our daily modern experience, and yet they are of the same human nature. There is no standing still. It is one of the tasks of a scientist to bring together the past with the present in order to transform it into the future. What my job, or rather my vocation, is about is, in the final analysis, to bring together the old – the ancient texts, the languages no longer spoken – with the new ‒ the modern technology of computational and quantitative methods, databases, the internet, in order convey the analogue media of the objectivised past into the digital media of the virtual present.


David Stifter is Professor of Old Irish at the Maynooth University Department of Early Irish, Ireland. His research project Chronologicon Hibernicum has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 647351). The project aims at developing methods for the dating of Early Irish language developments.



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