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...
I am delighted to support this year's fund drive for the LINGUIST List.
While preparing this text, I had a look at the pieces from previously featured linguists and noticed
that I share some characteristics with Adele Goldberg and Colin Phillips: we all had a passion for
mathematics. I was a member of the Mathematische Schülergesellschaft (MSG) run by researchers from
the Humboldt University from the fifth grade onwards. When I was 13, I applied to the Heinrich Hertz
Oberschule, which is a school with a specialization in mathematics (nine hours of math each
week). Back then two to four pupils out of 30 could go to the Extended Secondary School and getting
a place on this special school was even more competitive. There were two tests: a math examination,
which I finished with 100%, and a political talk, which I failed. They asked me whether I would want
to serve in the army for an extended period of time (three years instead of one and a half), and I
told them that I never thought about this question but that I thought it was a bad idea. Since the
GDR expected loyalty of those who were allowed to these extended schools and those who were allowed
to study, I was rejected. I am very grateful to my parents who left no stone unturned in order to
get me into this school. They got certificates from my math teacher and from the MSG, and I had a
second chance interview on political issues with the principal of my school. I told them that it was
my deepest wish to serve in the army for three years (sarcasm)...
I always thought my journey to linguistics was a bit odd and haphazard, but as I’ve met more linguists over the years, I’ve come to realize that many of us took some time to find our way to the field. Like many others, after graduating high school, I had never heard of linguistics. I had always been interested in languages and learning them – first Spanish and French in high school, and even Swahili, which I tried to learn on my own – so that I could travel to new and exciting places. Growing up in central New York, and particularly, enduring its long grey winters, had me longing to see what else was out there in the world…preferably some place warm and sunny! Back in those days, when we would go to the mall, I would spend my time in Borders or Barnes & Noble, eagerly flipping through the pages of whatever language books I could get my hands on.
Linguistics through art and music: My story on how I came to do what I do
I have always been an artsy individual, so it seemed only natural that I should pick fine arts as my undergraduate major. Frankly, high school did not leave me feeling very confident that I would be able to study much of anything else. Pursuing fine arts allowed me to develop an appreciation for how the visual arts use modeling as a lens through which we can better understand nature in all of its beautiful (and horrendous) complexity. But while fine arts was a comfortable choice, I was not fulfilled and started exploring other areas of study, and I eventually discovered linguistics.
Initially I decided to take a linguistics course under the misguided belief that it might somehow help me with my communication skills. However, I soon developed a fascination with the bits and pieces of language, the wonderful strangeness of phenomena like implicature, and the machinations underlying speech production – the “meat” of our vocal tract. My interest in the study of the process of speaking became intertwined with my interest in music that features various “abuses” of the human voice (Skinny Puppy, Swans, Einstürzende Neubauten… that sort of stuff). I was ultimately drawn into an academic descent into the lower vocal tract.
It is a great pleasure to be able to contribute to the Fund Drive for the LINGUIST List, a resource which I have relied on since my MA years, and now during each inaugural seminar meeting encourage students to subscribe to.
My adventure with linguistics officially began with my filing an application to the University of Warsaw’s Institute of English Studies. While up to that point my neighborhood and classrooms could not have been more monolingual and homogenous, I had always been drawn to other languages, even down to deciphering the mysterious ingredients and descriptions printed on foreign food packaging, or checking out translators’ footnotes/endnotes in novels.
My choice of courses at university zeroed in on Theoretical and Applied Linguistics. At the time, I also did a semester of teaching English as a foreign language in my former high school, getting many ideas from my observations of the classroom. I subsequently undertook a PhD under the supervision of Romuald Gozdawa-Gołębiowski, inspired by and expanding upon his Interface Model of comparative/contrastive ISLA...
My home town of Sunderland, in the northeast of England, was perhaps not the most propitious birth place for one whose interests were to encompass worldwide language diversity. Even less so the villages to the north of Sunderland where I grew up, and where hardly a foreign word was heard. It was, however, a good laboratory for lower-level diversity, at the dialect level. For don’t, the people to the north said divn’t [‘dɪvnt], while we said dinnot [‘dɪnət], and the folks to the south of Sunderland still used the thou series of second person singular pronouns. And I had an added source of linguistic diversity: a Jamaican father. While he never exposed us to Jamaican Creole, his English was still full of Jamaicanisms. His warning cry Mind you fall! (= Mind you don’t fall! in “mainstream” English) still rings in my ears. But whatever their source, the seeds of more exotic linguistic interest were sown, and at age 7 I duly told my mother that I wanted to learn French. My mother had “school French”, and she did everything to encourage my strange interest, even taking me on vacation to France a year later at a time when foreign vacations were by no means the norm in our social milieu. My first week immersed in a foreign language environment! I’m not sure that my parents ever really understood what drives me as a linguist. And certainly nothing is guaranteed to bring a tenured full professor of linguistics more rapidly down to earth than when their mother says So when are you going to get a real job? But they always offered me their fullest support.