Featured Linguists

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.