Featured Linguist: Mirjam Fried

I was still in grad school when Linguist List was born, essentially as a discussion forum then. And I remember with fondness what a thrilling leap into the world of virtual communication it was at that time, and how I devoured most of the discussions that quickly started to pop up on all sorts of topics and often among people I was not likely to ever meet in person. Things have of course developed from there and it’s great to see that we still have this indispensable and very professionally run service, richer than ever. Please let’s keep it going!

Especially now that there is some hope of gradually returning to a more normal academic life. Being reduced to zoom meetings for so long has shown us real limits of the online mode of communication: e.g. when we need to brainstorm with colleagues about projects, teach practical hands-on courses, or just enjoy a friendly gab in between conference talks. But to be fair, this unwelcome disruption has brought some pleasant surprises, too: mundane work meetings turned out to be more efficient this way; I saw enrollment almost doubled in my classes, bringing in students who normally wouldn’t touch linguistics with a ten-foot pole (did they have more time on their hands now?, was it easier from the comfort of their homes?, did they feel less ‘on the spot’ than in the classroom?, or…?); not to mention that the whole experience has forced us to be more creative in the ways we do things. Nonetheless, I’m happy at the prospect that this semester could be different, finally, at least at my Alma Mater here in Prague, allowing me to be face-to-face with my students again. I also have a small team of MA and PhD students and a few junior colleagues, all of us eager to continue developing our ideas in multimodal constructional analysis and to start inviting guest speakers from other countries again! Plus I see an added bonus: there will be a treasure trove of material for studying how the virtual communication is pretty fundamentally different from the normal way and what strategies interlocutors develop to cope with it. What more can a linguist ask for…

So, why have I become a linguist? Well, because I always wanted to! Which is not to say it was always a smooth and easy ride; my life story may seem like an exercise in searching for silver linings…. I was born and grew up in a now non-existent country (Czechoslovakia) at the time when one couldn’t plan much of anything, least of all one’s professional future. Success depended on ideological prostitution and that was not how I was brought up. But that didn’t stop me from forming a life-long plan at the age of thirteen. When – in seventh grade – we were introduced to the basics of dependency grammar and learned to diagram sentences, I discovered my calling. On the way from school that day I informed my mother that when I grow up I want to be a syntactician. Structure absolutely fascinated me and the idea of dissecting complex sentences into different parts that can be classified (neatly, they had me believe then, haha) by function got me hooked. All my career-related decisions from that point on were driven by this goal – to become a syntactician. Little did I know… Accordingly, I chose the so-called humanities track in high school because there was more emphasis on language(s), including obligatory Latin, in spite of being chastised for it (apparently, kids with good grades were supposed to take the math-oriented track). I was lucky, though, to have a teacher who supported my interest and helped me find books by Czech linguists which broadened my horizons in various disciplines, from syntax to sociolinguistics. 

After graduation, the first hurdle emerged. As politically suspect and unreliable, I wasn’t allowed to enroll in the university double-major program I chose (Czech Linguistics and Classics). On the way from learning this unsurprising piece of news, I bumped into my middle-school French teacher who was at that time running a popular educational program for kids, and she was sufficiently appalled by this turn of events to give me a job in her program and then work through her connections to make sure that the next year I do get in. Which I did. Since my primary interest was actually in diachrony, I found my way into an RA-ship in the Old Czech department in the Academy of Sciences. This job introduced me to morphosyntactic variation, opened up a whole new world of research questions and especially of data (a humongous database, all in the form of excerpts on index cards – imagine that!, a roomful of drawers upon drawers), and this experience eventually led not only to my MA thesis, but many years later also to a series of articles, when grammaticalization research provided me with a tangible theoretical perspective. 

At the same time, my search for ‘real linguistics’ landed me in the Math Faculty of Charles University, where I for the first time got a taste of transformational grammar and formal semantics, but subsequently also the work of Charles Fillmore, which I could relate to the easiest. This particular RA-ship was practically a clandestine operation, the group led by Petr Sgall and Eva Hajičová was politically out of favor to such a degree that they all had been chased out of the Faculty of Arts, where I was regularly enrolled, and basically in hiding among the mathematicians. It was sheer luck that I managed to sniff them out and learn about their seminars. As their RA, I was helping in preparing material for what eventually became the valence dictionary, to this day a crucial part of the Prague TreeBank. By the way, while working on this, I came to the firm conclusion that I would never get into semantics because it’s too messy, too intractable, simply too difficult and not for me. Granted, Czech aspect is all those things, but still. Little did I know again…

And another hurdle, this time really serious. Even before graduating from college, it was made very plain to me that if I didn’t join the communist party, there’d be no hope for an academic career. In fact, for the likes of me, not even school teaching was “in the interest of the state”, as the all-purpose phrase went. I was getting myself mentally ready for a career of dish washing or window cleaning… But through one of the great ironies of life, I met my future husband (an American, then a grad student of Slavic linguistics at Yale) during a summer school in Slovenia, where my greatest political tormentor had sent me, I guess in the hopes that I would eventually relent in a show of gratitude for this trip (not normally allowed in those days). Instead, after four years of correspondence, I married this American students and emigrated to the US, on Christmas Eve of 1982. It was like landing on Mars and I couldn’t even dream of simply continuing with my academic pursuits. Not right away, anyway. But hey, learning to live in New York, soaking up the environment, enjoying the unimaginable freedom, and later working as a computer programmer (for the Fed, of all places) was not a waste by any stretch. Three years later, after having taught myself the most arcane programming languages, the innards of the PC hardware (then a freshly emerging miracle in computers), and in my free time reading linguistic literature, I felt ready to go back to grad school and the biggest decision of my professional life was before me: I liked the East Coast (not knowing anything else, of course) and imagined I’d like to go to MIT, while my husband saw himself in the Silicon Valley, which was just taking off then. We each did a detailed ‘feasibility study’ along the same (long) set of criteria, he won by about 3 points out of more than 70, and I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me. 

At UC Berkeley, Chuck Fillmore opened up a completely new world to me. Semantics suddenly didn’t feel so daunting and intractable, syntax became even more interesting and infinitely richer, and most importantly – it was also the beginning of introducing the cognitive perspective into linguistic analysis. I remember joint workshops with folks from UC San Diego, which were a lot of fun and eye-opening experiences. Through all this, I saw construction grammar as the way of thinking about language that made by far the most sense to me and it has become my chosen field. Additional hurdles – some open, some more under the surface – were of course presented by the job market; it wasn’t easy to be a cognitive linguist, a woman, and a foreigner to boot. After a pretty satisfying one-year visiting job at U of Oregon, which brought me in contact with the world of typological research, I landed a job in the Slavic department at Princeton University. PU wasn’t exactly known for pursuits in cognitive linguistics and I felt a bit isolated, but it helped that I found a way to hang out with people in the psychology department. It was again useful new food for thought. 

At PU, I was also required to teach Czech, which I took almost as a necessary evil. But this less than perfect match again turned out to be a useful turn in the long run, as I sort of stumbled into research area I’ve been pursuing ever since – the grammar of spontaneously produced language. Once a student in my Czech class asked about the meaning of a word that in dictionaries is defined as a subordinating conjunction, but in spoken language it has evolved into a polyfunctional discourse marker that had not yet been analyzed and described. In trying to answer the student’s question, I realized I’d have to write a whole book to capture its full nature, including the phenomenon that a few years later became known as insubordination, in Nick Evans’s work. So, I’ve been writing articles on this and other similar markers, and since they are a feature of spontaneous interaction, they necessarily pose questions about the interplay between lexico-syntactic, phonic, and even gestural patterns, which, by definition, is something construction grammar was designed to handle by providing the conceptual and analytic tools to capture language in its multilayered complexity. My latest adventure thus involves the search for prosodic and segmental correlates of specific linguistic patterns, with the indispensable contribution from my phonetician colleague.

And so here I am. Still dealing with syntax, but in a much more interesting and theoretically satisfying way, which takes seriously both the cognitive perspective (brought to me through my Berkeley years) and the interactional grounding (my Prague School background). Needless to say, it is extremely rewarding and encouraging to see how the constructional approach, including its link to lexical semantics (through Frame Semantics) and discourse has become part of the ‘mainstream’ and informs linguistic research not just in synchronic syntax, but also in diachrony, in morphology, and in a growing a number of specific domains: acquisition, computational modeling, language teaching, psycholinguistics, corpus linguistics, etc. And most recently extending also into questions about multimodal patterning and, hence, also the scope of grammar, the scope and nature of speakers’ linguistic knowledge… It’ll keep us busy.

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