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.
Looking back over many decades of passion for linguistics and phonetics, it turns out that there are not as many steps as one might think from a first degree in literature and philology, emphasising structural, hermeneutic and biographical methods, and thorough acquaintance with the history of the Germanic languages from Indo-European to the 20th century, to research on computational language documentation and computational phonetics, particularly prosody, on the other.
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.