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So now a little bit about myself. I was born in Palayamkottai, a town near the city of Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, India. When I was seven, my father taught me, my mom, and sister how to eat with knife and fork, packed our belongings and moved us to Washington D.C. He worked at the International Monetary Fund for seven years. In 1975, he decided once again to pack kit and caboodle and move us back to India. Since my Hindi and Sanskrit skills were close to zero, high school for me was at the international boarding school, Woodstock International School. The D.C. experience explains my American accent and the Woodstock experience why I have friends from all over the world.
When I was a teenager, I asked members of my family at a gathering, “Why do Black people use be so much?” Because many people in my family and people important to me struggled with literacy, my mission was to go to college and graduate school and earn a Ph.D. where most of my family did not make it past high school. Without anyone to tell me African American Language (AAL) was a valid language variety, I originally set out to study Speech Pathology as an undergrad at the University of Texas to “fix” African Americans.
I think I’ve been very lucky in my career in linguistics. I was lucky that I grew up in a family where is was normal and fun to speak other languages (even though we were landlocked in the East Midlands of England). I was lucky that the schools I attended were big enough and had enough resources to let me take several languages (I’m astonished when I think back that they ran an A-level class in German just for me – I don’t think that would happen in the UK right now). I was lucky that by the time I got to think about where to study, I’d just about figured out that some universities taught linguistic things as part of their languages degrees, and that I should apply to one that did. And I was lucky that, weeks after starting a BA degree in French and German at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, I realised that I really didn’t want to study literature at all, but that Newcastle actually had the perfect degree for me - German and English Language - and they let me swap programmes without any problem.
I have always loved language. I wanted to be a linguist before I really knew what linguistics was. Like many, I originally thought that being a linguist meant a perpetual life of learning language after language. So dedicated was I to that romantic notion as a teenager that I forged parental consent at the age of 17 to get a tattoo on my inner right ankle. Supposedly it said “linguistics” in Mandarin characters. I have since found out that what is actually there is, well, close enough! It is a good thing that becoming a linguist has worked out, since tattoos are permanent. In many ways, I was utterly naïve about what a linguist studies. Of course, there are many types of linguists and many complimentary questions related to language worthy of scientific investigation. But, in hindsight, I was not really aware then of even the essential elements that transcend paradigms and, we would agree (I hope) make us linguists. I suppose the path that brought me in my youth to dedicate myself to linguistics is not terribly different from many: A deep fascination with language coupled with a nerdy desire to understand the dynamic, essential characteristic of this mundane property that defines us as humans, yet is mostly taken for granted.
I was born in Tel Aviv and grew up Eilat, the southernmost city of Israel. My father was an Italian Jew who survived the Second World War in Italy and then arrived in Israel as a teenager in 1945. My own first memory is being rushed to the shelter during the Yom Kippur War (October 1973). As a child growing up in Eilat I experienced ‘Othering’ (defining oneself vis-à-vis the other) every day, looking at the spectacular, albeit inaccessible, unreachable, mountains of Aqaba, Jordan.