Grammar sucks: it is complex and it makes no sense. That's what I learned at school. One day you are told that each Polish noun has a grammatical gender, and the next day – that it actually has a different gender in the singular and in the plural. One day you are told that transitive verbs always combine with accusative objects, and the next day you see the direct object in the genitive, just because some negation is floating around. One day you are told that complements are obligatory participants and adjuncts are optional circumstances expressing manner, location, etc., and the next day you notice verbs like BEHAVE or RESIDE, with obligatory circumstantials. So you can't be blamed for deciding that mathematics and programming make much more sense. Having said farewell to grammar, I went to an experimental university level maths high school, and got far enough in the national maths olympics to be accepted as an MSc student to the Mathematics and Computer Science department of the University of Warsaw.
These were late 1980s and early 1990s, the communism fell down – first in Poland, then in Berlin, Czechoslovakia and other places – and suddenly exchange programs became available, of which I immediately took advantage, spending a year in Edinburgh twice: first at Heriot-Watt, and then at the Centre for Cognitive Science of the University of Edinburgh. There, with teachers like Elisabet Engdahl and Robin Cooper, grammar not only started making sense, but became great fun – like a bottomless box of toys and puzzles. One game was called “Principles and Parameters”: how to set parameters (and how to tweak supposedly universal principles) to get Polish? I must have set a couple of parameters right, as I got an A+ for the final syntactic assignment and an offer to publish it, PUBLISH IT (gasp), as a research report of the Centre for Cognitive Science (EUCCS/RP-62). Another game was: how to make a computer produce all and only grammatical sentences of Polish? Computational linguistics courses were fun also for reasons not really intended by the lecturers. I remember a particularly enjoyable class at 2 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh, about the implementation of some kind of focus calculus in some form of dynamic semantics, when – as the teacher was trying to explain the intricate workings of perhaps a little unwisely named parameters FOC-IN and FOC-OUT – the colour of his face was becoming increasingly purple… Edinburgh was certainly a forming experience for me, and the solid broad exposure to syntax (Chomskyan and HPSG), formal semantics, logic and computational linguistics set me on the path of becoming a formal / computational / corpus linguist.
I have always been fascinated by the variety and structure of languages. My father greatly contributed to my lifelong passion for linguistics by instilling in me a deep love and appreciation for Latin — he had taken a degree in Classics before pursuing a career in Law. In high school in Belgium, I was lucky to have had inspiring and demanding language teachers as well. Through the study of Latin, I learned to rigorously reflect on language and its structure from an early age.
At the University of Leuven, I studied what was then known as ‘Romance philology’, a combination of literary and linguistic studies of Romance languages. During the first year, I received an introduction to linguistics from a somewhat eccentric and unconventional professor, Karel van den Eynde, a former Bantuist and structural linguist. His teaching style consisted of defiantly throwing linguistic puzzles at his students, challenging us to come up with an analysis. Only a few years later did I discover that most of these puzzles came straight out of Henry Allan Gleason’s 1961 Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics. It was around this time that I decided that the study of language would be my professional future.
I wrote my MA dissertation on ellipsis and gapping. Two years later, part of this MA dissertation turned into my very first scholarly article published in Linguistic Analysis in 1985. I received a four-year stipend from the Belgian National Science Foundation to pursue a PhD at the University of Leuven. In 1987, I defended my PhD on infinitival complementation in French. My dissertation dealt with issues at the syntax-semantics interface. It examined the interpretation of the empty subject of infinitives, a topic known as control. This fascination with the relation between syntax and semantics would become an enduring one in all of my research.
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.
My decision to become a linguist owes much to happenstance. At eighteen I was, like many teenagers, in the metaphysical phase, searching for the meaning of life. Although I was offered a very good scholarship for business studies, I decided to study philosophy. At the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science of the University of Zagreb we had to combine two programs. The major subject (A) lasted four, and the minor (B) lasted three years. Naturally, I chose Philosophy as my A subject. My first choice for the B program was English, but the problem was that I had learned English only for a short period of time and my command of the language was not good enough to pass the entrance test. Therefore, I had to choose something else. I can't explain why I chose General Linguistics, since until then I didn't know that such a program existed. However, after few months I discovered that Philosophy was not as interesting as I had expected and that Linguistics was far more exciting. I decided, and with the support of Radoslav Katičić, who was the chair of linguistic department at the time and later the supervisor of my PhD thesis, succeeded to change Linguistics into my major subject. As a third-year student I discovered Generative Grammar. The topic of my MA thesis was the relations between syntax and semantics in Chomsky's theory.
How did I become a linguist?
Well, my parents wanted me to become a doctor one day, a woman in a white coat examining patients, using diverse medical instruments, conducting studies. I myself would have rather preferred to work with animals (I love animals, dogs are my favorite ☺). I imagined myself travelling around the world, living in a jungle with wild animals, observing and studying the behavior of chimpanzees and the like. What has become of it? Depending on how you view it, the answer to this question could be: NOTHING, as I became neither a doctor nor an animal researcher or world traveller, or BOTH in some sense. Do you wonder how this latter answer may be sensical at all? I am indeed a world traveller, maybe not (always) in a physical sense, but as a linguist you have the opportunity of travelling around the world through different languages. Originally, I wanted to study the behavior of animals, but studying the structure of languages, trying to understand the principles behind such structures, can be equally fascinating. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. Well, I do not cure sick people but still I have something to do with ‟patients” and medical equipment while conducting psycholinguistic experiments.
But let me go first a few (actually much more than ‟a few” ☺) years back and tell you how all this started.
I studied linguistics and became a linguist for two reasons. First, I wanted to be a top diplomat for my country, Ghana, which would involve being posted around the world to represent my country. I figured that if I studied linguistics and foreign languages at the University of Ghana that would increase my chances, so I read Linguistics, French, and Swahili. Second, I wanted to help document and preserve my mother-tongue, Dagaare, a small language in northern Ghana. I succeeded in writing the first grammar sketch of the language, published at Stanford University titled The Structure of Dagaare. One of the most wonderful experiences young scholars will ever get in their academic life is seeing their first book and holding it in their hands. In my case it was even more dramatic because of the way it happened. After teaching the structure of Dagaare for two years as a part-time lecturer at Stanford University I went back to Norway - I was writing a doctoral thesis at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology - to submit and defend my thesis. Then the publishers at CSLI , Stanford sent me copies of my book in Norway. However I never received them because I returned to Stanford campus for a conference event. Then I walked into the Stanford Bookstore and happened to look at a section of the Bookstore with a bookstand titled: "Stanford Authors". Lo and behold, I saw my book and stood there for more than 20 minutes flipping through it unendingly - as if I was reading the texts for the first time when indeed it was I who wrote them in the first place. There were no selfies at that time, else I would have taken a memorable selfie about how it feels like to receive your first book.
I became a linguist because I was rather obnoxious and rebellious.
I grew up in a little town in upstate New York where no languages were taught before high school. In ninth grade I enrolled in my first language class: French. But after about two weeks, the teacher was clearly fed up with having one student wave her hand in response to every single question. I was handed a pile of books and cassette tapes, pointed in the direction of the janitor’s closet, and told to go work on my own. By June when I emerged from that closet, I had completed all the assignments and tests from all four years of high school French. I was told: “Ok, you’re done with language for high school.” But I didn’t listen. The following fall I signed up for Spanish. And the same thing happened. At the end of tenth grade I was told: “Now that’s really enough, we don’t have any more languages to offer, go do something else.”
Two years later I was signing up for courses as a Princeton freshman, selecting biology, calculus, and the like, since my parents had told me that there was no way they were paying for a university education unless I became a doctor. There was a language requirement, and that made me unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to go back to French and Spanish, since my “closet studies” were but a distant memory by then and probably inadequate to get me beyond a beginner course. I could try something different. Chinese? No, that conflicted with the pre-med courses my parents demanded. An advisor solved my dilemma by enrolling me in Russian.
I was brought to linguistics partly by accident, though it has ended up being the perfect match to my strengths and interests. As a child growing up in Buffalo, NY, I was mainly interested in the natural sciences and did not have much of any experience with foreign languages. Yet, when I had the chance to study Spanish in primary school and high school, I discovered that I excelled at it and had a knack for quickly memorizing new words and the idiosyncrasies of grammar. Moreover, in high school, I do recall coming up with a new alphabetic system for English which had different symbols for syllabic consonants (you know, just for fun).
Nevertheless, at that age, it certainly seemed more practical for me to devote my attention to the sciences, which I also loved. So, as an undergraduate, I went away to Brandeis University where I planned to pursue a degree in Chemistry with a minor in Spanish. As a freshman needing guidance in which courses to take, I was assigned a random faculty advisor. That person just so happened to be a linguist named Joan Maling. She nudgingly mentioned to me “Many students who are interested in the sciences and in languages like linguistics.” So, I enrolled in my first linguistics class with Ray Jackendoff. Ray’s enthusiasm for the topic and interest in engaging with students’ ideas proved contagious. Rather simultaneously, Chemistry became rather dull to me. Yet, could one actually study language with scientific rigor and make a career out of it? I didn’t really know if this was true at the time, but I took the plunge and switched majors.
My interest in linguistics began at the age of 12 when my father, a high school band director, signed up for a two-year contract with a branch of AID called Teacher Education in East Africa. During a six-week summer orientation program at Columbia University, adults and children alike took Swahili classes. I still have a whimsical diploma from completing that course, signed by the youthful Sharifa Zawawi, who went on to write a number of books on the language including what was for many years the most widely used Swahili text in the US.
My dad was assigned to work at a teacher training college near the town of Nyeri, about 100 miles from Nairobi. We loved the time we spent there for many reasons. It led to lasting friendships with Kenyans and expatriates from far-flung countries. During the holidays we traveled all over East Africa, tenting in the vast park systems surrounded by teeming wildlife, and snorkeling the gorgeous coral reefs.
My brother and I experienced the novelty of British style schools with their uniforms and prefects. Swahili was an option alongside of French and Latin at Kenya High School. I had fallen in love with it so I was glad I could continue to study. African writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo and Chinua Achebe opened new worlds to me. Because this was soon after independence, there was a wonderfully optimistic vibe in the country. On the other hand, lingering inequities and prejudices of the colonial period were a vivid part of daily life; this gave me an awareness and interest in world affairs and social justice that animated my experiences and perceptions forever after.
I grew up in Bad Soden, a small town on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany. My parents always encouraged any interest of mine. Whether it was science (the chemistry lab in the basement, even the rockets and explosive experiments in the yard) or language and literature. My dad had a fairly extensive collection of world literature. He was in his 20s when WWII ended and could not get enough of the books and the modern art that became available after the barbarism of the Third Reich. The interest in reading rubbed off on me, allegedly I could read fluently by the time I entered first grade, having taught myself reading by asking adults (sometimes total strangers) to spell out letters and labels aloud, starting with the signs in the elevator of our apartment building. Once I had outgrown children’s books, I was allowed to pick any book I wanted from my dad’s shelves, as long as I would put it back after reading it – and I took full advantage of that. There was no notion of “age-appropriate” books in our house: if I could read it and enjoy it, it was considered appropriate. From those beginnings, language, literature and science never lost their appeal for me. In high school I focused on physics, math and English, and when the time came to decide on what to study, I narrowed down the choice to geophysics or German studies and it was my choice to make. My rationale at the time was: Go for the big and risky dream first (study literature to become a writer), and if that does not work out, science and engineering are still another interesting option.
I did not know about Linguistics until I signed up for German studies at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. It was one of the academic minors “Nebenfächer” offered in German studies --an interesting application of formal methods to the subject of language. All it took was an introductory generative syntax course (taught by the unforgettable Wolfgang Sternefeld) to get hooked; I studied under Helen Leuninger and Günther Grewendorf. Language and the mind/brain, the mathematics of language, and the distant prospect of computers analyzing language – this was incredibly exciting! A few years into the program, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study generative linguistics in the US. To my surprise I made it through round after round of the selection process until I was placed in the University of Washington’s linguistics program. When I received the happy news, I tried to find the university on a map – poring unsuccessfully over a DC area map -- the only “Washington” I recognized.
I was born in Volos, a medium sized city in Greece, by the sea, more or less half way between Athens and Thessaloniki.
My parents thought it would be good for me to learn foreign languages very young, (sometimes I wonder whether they had heard about the critical period hypothesis), so next to normal school I had French and English classes. That was fun but did not trigger any interest in linguistics. I loved to read books, the longer the better. Maybe I secretly wanted to become a writer.
What I did want to become, however, was an archaeologist, and go on expeditions.
During my final year of high school, we were told about the Indo-European language family and how e.g. French, English, German, and Greek all belong to the same family but to different sub-branches. I entered university to learn more about these issues, but soon changed my mind. It all happened during our first session of introduction to linguistics in Athens; our Professor, Dimitra Theophanopoulou-Kontou, mentioned Noam Chomsky, and the idea of Universal Grammar. I felt that this all makes perfect sense. It has to be right. I then wanted to read everything that Chomsky had written; of course, I could hardly understand most of the things I was reading.
A few months ago, I was asked by a TV programme to make up a language for their monsters to speak, and with that, my linguistics life completed a cycle. When I was about 11 or so, I grew fascinated with language, mainly from reading Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, a book I still completely love. Le Guin envisaged a world where the words actually created the reality, and every single piece of existence had its own particular name. Fascinated by this idea, and already developing my inner language geek, I started making up languages to explore whether they could work like that. To do this, I had to learn how real languages actually worked. At school, they just taught French and German (and later some Latin), but my local library (sadly closed this year because of government cuts) was full of teach-yourself books on weird and wonderful languages, as well as some pretty impenetrable linguistics books. I think the librarians were a bit perplexed by a twelve year old taking home tomes on philology and grammar he couldn't possibly understand. They were right, I didn't understand them at all, but I was so hooked by that point, that I read them anyway, and I guess some stuff sunk in. I remember winning a competition for local schools at St Andrews University, when I was about 16, and buying, with my£20 prize, second hand copies of Chomsky's Syntactic Structures and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (which I still have). Again, I wasn't really able to understand these books in much depth, but the idea that you could use rigorous, mathematical, means to try to get under the skin of language was, and still is, just endlessly fascinating to me.
I suppose that there are some linguists familiar with the fact that I began my fieldwork as a missionary. When I decided to become a Bible translator with Wycliffe Bible Translators/The Summer Institute of Linguistics (legally distinct entities with the same membership and doctrinal allegiance required to be a member of the former), I had no idea what linguistics in fact was. I quickly got an idea, though, as my path took me to the University of Oklahoma SIL summer courses, where I took my first-ever linguistics course with Kenneth L. Pike.
Pike was a huge influence on me at the time. I watched him do monolingual demonstrations in front of large audiences and make the case through personal example that linguistics was a holistic enterprise, engaging the full mind, personality and body of the linguist. I learned from him at the time what I have only recently begun to think of as the most important insight of 20th century linguistics, the etic-emic distinction.
But I was not thinking about linguistics any more than I had to at the time. I realized that my courses in Koiné Greek and my experience with Spanish, growing up on the California-Mexico border had first revealed to me my love for languages and had prepared me to also enjoy linguistics. But my primary objective was to build a church among an indigenous community somewhere in the world.
The Istanbul of my childhood was so multilingual that not to become a linguist would have been impossible for anyone with an ear for language and an interest in figuring out puzzles posed by all those languages and dialects. In my own case, it was German, French, Russian and Yiddish that I was exposed to at home, in addition to the Greek of my nanny and of many neighbors. My cousins had an Armenian nanny. Many acquaintances spoke Ladino at home. It was wonderful to be taken along to my mother’s shopping expeditions, because, depending on the merchant, she would speak a different language: Turkish, Greek, Ladino—and with some, even Russian. It was fun to listen to the two rather different-sounding Yiddish dialects of my grandmothers, one of whom lived with us and the other used to come for a day-long visit once a week. They didn’t like each other very much and so they used to sit and have very polite but very poisonous conversations for hours. Once I learned to write, I devised an alphabet for transcribing those conversations, and when I ran out of topics for my letters to my father, who used to be away a lot on business, I would include some of those transcriptions; they amused him very much, or so he claimed.
My first memories are tied to the awareness that beyond our small Czech speaking world there was an exciting multiplicity of languages out there, and along with it an exciting variety of very different attitudes and life styles. My mother spoke fluently Czech, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish due to her heritage and childhood in West Volhynia (West Ukraine today). And then there were mail deliveries of paperbacks from another exotic place called “West Germany”. They came each wrapped up in a transparent shrink wrap, a whole bunch of them stacked in a brown cardboard box, which, once opened, wafted the enticing fragrance of freshly printed books and a foreign world. They were printed by the DTV Press (German Paperback Press) in Munich, where one of my dad’s friends worked and regularly supplied him with its most recent publications. I did not know any German, but I heard it on an Austrian radio station (“Autofahrer Unterwegs”) that my dad listened to, and I must have been impressed by the pop songs in German it played. As soon as I learned how to read, one of my favorite childhood pastimes, when I was home alone, was to stand in front of the book shelves with the German DTV paperbacks, imagining being a pop singer singing songs with the lyrics like “Heinrich Böll, Irisches Tagebuch, Christian Morgenstern, Palmström Palma Kunkel, Siegfried Lenz, Der Mann im Strom ...”, making up the tunes on the spot. I had no idea what the correct pronunciation was, but I was just mesmerized by the idea that the letters, each of which I knew individually, collectively had a meaning, which I did not understand, but there were people to whom it meant something and I wondered just what it might be. No less fascinating was the idea that these books came from “capitalist imperialism”, as I learned already in kindergarten, a world to be worried about and even afraid of, but something that seemed to me inconsistent with their pretty, inviting book covers (designed by Celestino Piatti). When I was about six years old, I decided to learn German. So I pored over a German grammar book that I found in my parents’ library, but did not get much further than learning the conjugation of the German verb ‘to be’.
My interest in linguistics arose during a sea kayak trip through Eastern Indonesia. Paddling slowly along the coast I picked up bits and pieces of languages that I heard along the way and became fascinated with the ways the languages changed from village to village. This was my first real exposure to "small" languages---languages with only a few hundred or few thousand speakers. These small languages evolve to meet the needs of communities, binding speakers to their environment. At the same time these small languages are almost everywhere under threat of being replaced by languages of wider communication.
The Linguist List has had a formative influence on my career. When I entered graduate school in the mid 1990’s the field was in a state of upheaval. After a couple decades spent developing theoretical models of language competence, many in the field had only recently (re-)awoken to the problem of language endangerment. However, just as the field began to re-engage with language documentation we were faced with an unprecedented transformation in digital technologies. During this Digital Dark Age technologies evolved so quickly that I was using a different recording device with every field trip. As each of these devices became obsolete the data they recorded risked becoming more endangered than the languages on those recordings. What was the point of doing all this documentation of endangered languages if we weren’t able to preserve that documentation? When I started my first job at the University of Alaska in 1999 I arrived with boxes filled with cassette tapes, DAT tapes, MiniDiscs, CDs, DVDs and other proprietary digital recording technologies. As I continued to do field work this mess only got worse. Clearly I needed to find a better way to deal with digital data. You might say that documentary linguistics as a field needed to get its house in order.
In primary school and high school, my favourite subjects were languages and math. I later came to realize that this is true for many linguists. I did better in math classes than other classes, but I really loved the languages. I grew up in a Swedish-speaking area of Finland, and I studied Finnish in school. I also studied English, French, German and Spanish. I loved the classes, but I seemed to like the languages for different reasons than my peers. My friends either did not like studying languages, or else they liked it because it might be useful. You could communicate with people from different places and backgrounds. I never became good at communicating in the languages I studied, I simply enjoyed the patterns and structures. The grammar lectures and exercises were great, but I didn’t really enjoy the conversation exercises.
After high school, I had some idea that languages and math don’t “go together” and I would have to choose. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to attend Brandeis University in Waltham outside Boston, and I chose to study French language and literature. I enjoyed those classes very much, but what became my true passion was linguistics. In my first semester, I took Introduction to Linguistics. I didn’t quite get all the talk about cognition, but the puzzles in the homework assignments were a lot of fun. I was hooked and decided to double-major in French and Linguistics. Boston was obviously a great place to be for exploring linguistics, and I attended talks and classes around town. I received valuable support from Joan Maling and Ray Jackendoff at Brandeis, and also Charles Reiss and Mark Hale at Harvard. I got to spend a lot of time with many people who care deeply about how language works. All the talk of language and cognition slowly started to make sense. I was intrigued by all aspects of linguistics that I learned about, but I ended up writing my thesis on a topic in Finnish morphosyntax.