Featured Linguist: Wannie Carstens

MY CAREER IN (AFRIKAANS) LINGUISTICS

I grew up in Namibia (in the 1950’s and 1960’s) where I was exposed to a real multilingual world: German (as Namibia is a former German protectorate, end of 19th and beginning of 20th century), Afrikaans (due to the historical connection to South Africa where Afrikaans at that stage was the primary language), English, and many indigenous languages: Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Nama, Damara, Kavango, San, etc. My father worked for the government and he travelled a lot. During school holidays I accompanied him and experienced these languages and their speakers in their actual settings. It opened a multicultural and multilingual world to me, a world in which I felt comfortable, the world of languages.

But I had a very good Afrikaans teacher in my high school in Windhoek, and this eventually motivated me to take Afrikaans (in combination with Dutch) and German as my majors for my BA degree at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. During my first year (1971) I took an extra course in General Linguistics (Algemene Taalwetenskap), taught by Prof Rudolph P Botha, one of South Africa’s best linguists ever. This where I really felt at home – hearing more about syntax, semantics, pragmatics, etc. But due to my interest in Afrikaans (and the possibility of becoming a teacher in Afrikaans) I continued with my study in Afrikaans and eventually obtained a MA degree in Afrikaans linguistics.

I was fortunate enough to be appointed as a temporary lecturer in Afrikaans linguistics at the University of Stellenbosch (SU), and it dawned upon me that I probably would not become a school teacher any more. (The fact the my girl friend of that time – now my wife of more than 40 years – was still studying at SU naturally had no effect on my decision to accept the position …) This also motivated me to enrol for a DLitt degree at SU under the guidance of Prof Fritz Ponelis, the foremost scholar in Afrikaans syntax. In my thesis I focussed on a combined semantic-syntactic study of Afrikaans definite pronouns and researched the influence the context of various written texts had on the use of these pronouns in Afrikaans.

At this time I already was a lecturer in Afrikaans linguistics at the University of Cape Town, where I eventually spend 11 and a half years before moving to the former Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (since 2004 the Potchefstroom campus of the North-West University) where I retired (after a full career of 41 years) at the end of 2017 as professor in Afrikaans linguistics.

At UCT I wrote my first book, a book on normative linguistics for Afrikaans (Norme vir Afrikaans (“Norms for Afrikaans”)), as I had to develop material for my second and third language speakers of Afrikaans for one of my courses. When a publisher came around asking for manuscripts I told them about the work I was doing and I was invited to submit the manuscript. To my astonishment this book (published in 1989) became a best-seller in Afrikaans linguistics and it has been used since then as a handbook in many courses in South Africa. The 6th revised edition of this book was published in January 2018. It still amazes me that this book had this success!

Due to my interest in text linguistics, of which I took note while busy with my DLitt, and after meeting Prof Nils Erik Enkvist from Turku in Finland, and the great Robert de Beaugrande himself, who at that stage was teaching at the University of Botswana, in Gaborone, Botswana, I in due time completed the first book on text linguistics in Afrikaans in 1997 (Afrikaanse Tekslinguistiek (“Afrikaans Text Linguistics”)). This enabled me to combine my interest in syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis and text linguistics into one book. This eventually led to my next book on text editing (Afrikaanse Teksredaksie (“Afrikaans text editing”)– together with Prof Kris van de Poel of the University of Antwerp in Belgium) where I was able to use the knowledge gained from normative grammar and text linguistics to develop a model – based upon Prof Jan Renkema of the University of Tilburg’s well-known CCC model – for the training of a new generation of copy/text editors in Afrikaans. Again a first for Afrikaans. Since then this book has been adapted for use in English (Text Editing, 2012), Sesotho (2016) and the IsiZulu version should be finalized this year and the IsiXhosa version next year. Versions in German and Dutch are also underway. (We are looking for candidates to adapt this book also for their own languages – scholars in Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Russian, etc. are more than welcome to contact me in this regard.) I am glad my work had this effect! This was an effort on my side to transfer my skills and knowledge to other languages.

My last project was just concluded when I submitted the final manuscript for Part 2 of a book on the history of Afrikaans (together with Prof Edith Raidt). This book, titled Die storie van Afrikaans: uit Europa en van Afrika. Biografie van ‘n taal (“The story of Afrikaans: Out of Europe and from Africa. Biography of a language”) is the result of the last five years of my career. I had the privilege to be part of the last 48 years of the history of Afrikaans (and the way it developed) and I recorded this for the next generation. There is a good possibility that the last two books (Part 1 and 2 of STORIE) will be translated into English in the near future.

My whole career was in and about Afrikaans. It was a decision I made early on in my career. Rather than trying to be a scholar in a language I am not fluent in (English) my choice was to make a contribution to my home language, Afrikaans – despite what so many people said about this language and its complex history. Looking back I think I made a small contribution in developing Afrikaans linguistics as a discipline in a few fields: normative grammar, text linguistics, text editing, language politics, the history of Afrikaans. At least I do hope it is experienced as such by colleagues in South Africa!

TIPS FOR THE NEXT GENERATION OF LINGUISTS

  1. Do not be afraid to follow your passion. (It worked for me.)
  2. Read, read and read as wide as possible at the beginning of your career. It helps you to make an informed choice regarding the field you want to specialize in, whatever it may be.
  3. Look for the gaps in your selected field and then make yourself the expert regarding that specific gap.
  4. Never be afraid to tackle something new. Be bold. (All the famous linguists followed this route.) You might become the real expert in that field. (And eventually a famous linguist …)
  5. Do not be afraid to follow your gut. (It will not always work out but how will you know if you do not experiment with something?)
  6. It makes no sense to do exactly what someone else already did. It is just repetition and not something new. When you look back over your career, can you say: “I think I really made a difference”? This is the real test.
  7. Remember that every generation stands on the shoulders of the previous generation(s). This means that you can and may (!) use the work of a previous generation(s) as point of departure for your own work. Therefore do not be afraid to criticise the work of the previous generation. (It happened that some of my former students criticized some of my earlier work and it meant a lot to me: as (a) it meant they found it worthwhile enough to criticize and (b) I thoroughly enjoyed it as it helped to sharpen the knowledge on the specific topic. (c) It even ‘gave me a kick’ to know that my students were not afraid to be critical of their former teacher.)
  8. Make a serious effort to establish a good and wide network (friends, contacts) in your discipline and specific field. No academic / linguist can survive without a network. (Hi! to Bob at UCLA, Gary at UNLV in Las Vegas, Paul at UNC Chapel Hill, Jacques at Univ Ghent, Kris at Univ of Antwerp, Marijke and Gijsbert at Leiden, Rina in Vienna, Sanna in Turku, Eric in Aruba, etc.)
  9. If you get an opportunity to spend time in other countries (as post doc, visiting scholar) make use of this opportunity as it will broaden your horizon as academic. Networks make this possible and feasible.
  10. Share information (new books, an article they/he/she might be interested in, information on a possible relevant conference or event, etc.) with your network. Because of this someone in your network might be willing to read your first draft of papers and even give critical feedback. This is priceless!
  11. Attend conferences nationally and internationally. Otherwise no one will know about your work. You do not always have to read a paper, as attendance of these conferences is part of experiencing the world of linguistics.
  12. Publish in good international journals as much as possible, but also do not be afraid to publish in local journals as the local linguistics’ industry of your country must also be maintained.
  13. Remember that you have a responsibility to develop the field and discipline in your own country and in your own language.
  14. Do not be afraid to publish in your own language. English is NOT the only language of science. But also publish in English if it is possible for you as it probably will be read wider.
  15. You really do not have to be the most important international scholar. It is a bonus if it is the case. But it is important to be a recognized scholar in your own context because this is where you work and stay and function.
  16. If your work is regarded as good/exceptional translate it in English if you are a scholar in another language.
  17. Take a business card (linked to your institution) to conferences and hand it out if there is an opportunity. And when you get back home keep the cards you got and make contact with persons in your field. (It takes time and effort, but trust me: it really is worthwhile!)
  18. Attend at least one LSA. Two will be even better. This is very important! This will make a difference to the way you approach what you do and the way you think about language and linguistics. (And take a picture of yourself with some of the ‘big names’ and put it against your wall to look at when you feel discouraged and tired.)
  19. Make provision in your annual research budget for a financial contribution to the LinguistList (LL). Or make certain that your institution makes an annual (worthwhile!) contribution to the List. Without it you will be in ‘linguistic darkness’. We talk about pre- and current LL. You are lucky that you are in the current LL period. Enjoy the benefits of this.

MY ASSOCIATION WITH THE LINGUIST LIST

I think I am actually one of the first linguists in South Africa who started to make use of the List. Even in the early days of email in South Africa (1992!) I was a member of earlier versions of the list. And to be honest – I am proud that I realised the enormous potential of the List. It opened a world wide network of linguists (wwnl) to me. I could read their informal thoughts about topics in linguistics, and I learned about new publications. It also opened linguistics as an international discipline to me, and it helped me immensely in my own career in various ways:

  1. It helped me to sharpen my own thinking about linguistics as a discipline, and also specific issues in linguistics.
  2. It informed me about conferences of which I would not have known otherwise. It made it possible for me to attend conferences all over the world (such as in the USA, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Finland, Russia).
  3. It informed me about publications I would not have seen otherwise. (Due to the cultural and academic boycott in the 1970’s and 1980’s we in South Africa could not always get the books we wanted but at least we could take note of it and get copies through other means.) I ordered it for our university library and in this way it helped to build a trusted and respected library for the field.
  4. This library enabled me to read more then would have otherwise been the case.
  5. It enabled me to share information from the List (about conferences, workshops, books, etc.) with colleagues all over the country, and even in other parts of the world. In this way my own network grew. And then colleagues again started to share their ideas, publications, etc. with me. Therefore beneficial to both parties.
  6. For many years I was a manager and had to establish a new generations of linguists in South Africa, not only in Afrikaans, but in general – the information I got from the List helped me to shape their careers (send them to conferences, order books for them, help them to select topics for further study, etc.).

FUNDING FOR THE LL

Lastly. When I became a manager (some of us get to be managers…) and the List asked for funding to support the various services of the LL, I was in a position to start a funding campaign in my own institution (money from the institution itself but also from individual researchers) and it enabled us as group to make a contribution. For many years the NWU was the Africa and South African champion regarding our contributions! The exchange rate of the SA rand unfortunately had an effect on the actual amount in US dollar bit at least we tried. I also tried to get other South African institutions to buy in regarding fun ding support but I was not too successful in this regard. A pity.

Now that I have retired there is no guarantee that the linguists at my institution will continue to contribute, but I did my best to convince the new managers to continue with the project. I also requested the Linguistic Society of Southern Africa (LSSA) to become more involved in the funding campaign. Let us hold thumbs that there will be success in both cases.

I find it really strange that the LL have to actually plead for support! There are so many benefits for linguists that even an annual contribution equivalent to $20 from ALL linguists around the world should just be a formality. There are 10 000 people regularly using the List and I think $200 000 will enable the staff to even add more services. Therefore: help to keep the LL going at all costs! As long as I as retired linguist have access to research funding I certainly will make a contribution, every year, even if it is a small amount. The LL should maybe consider asking a fee for enrolment – I know it will take a lot of effort but it might just be the solution to the problems.

I thank the staff maintaining the List for enabling me to be part of an international network and this over a long time. I do wish you the best and I will continue consulting the List as long as I am still active as linguist. I am and will remain a true supporter of the List!

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