April 17, 2006

nördiness and serendipity, or: what it takes to become a linguist

as part of its annual fund drive, the linguistlist, the most comprehensive network of linguists, has published short portraits of "linguists of the day". they all address the question of how somebody decided to become a linguist. you may be hooked by noam chomsky or by audrey hepburn. and a certain tendency towards nördiness may be quite useful. here's a selection from the answers:

terry langendoen, university of arizona:

When I entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a freshman in 1957, I wanted to major in meteorology (the science of weather), but learned from my freshman advisor (a professor of naval architecture) that it wasn't available to undergraduates. ... He suggested I major in geology. I was horrified at the idea, and in the fall semester of my junior year I was still trying to choose between physics and mathematics when I learned of a special degree program combining humanities and science. After I consulted with the director of that program, the program secretary pulled me aside and told me that there was this fantastic professor I simply had to take a course from. She told me he was on leave, but would be back in the spring teaching a course on logic. His name was Noam Chomsky.
juan uriagereka, university of maryland:

I became a linguist by mistake. I was supposed to be majoring in economics, after having studied basic science. It was a time of great changes for Spain: Franco had just died, and after decades of dictatorship everyone was on the move. So it was easy to think you could achieve something by organizing through demonstrations, the arts, intellectual discussion. Suddenly economic equations seemed dry, and all my friends thought they'd make it as painters, actors, musicians. (Most of them have). I dropped out of school and lived for a while writing for the radio, TV and the stage. I had lots of odd jobs, including organizing a jazz joint in the red district. After a couple of brushes with the law I ended up penniless. My girlfriend had spoken about 'majoring in something easy' relating to literature. I did in English -which still sounds to me like majoring in Planet Jupiter or The Moose- and linguistics was the only thing I understood. Plus it dealt with Chomsky, who I knew from the left.

jeff heath, university of michigan:

I enrolled as a Linguistics major in my first week as a college freshman. The major was very small (4-5 students per graduating class), the teaching and advising were very good, and I never looked back. The other thing was that my old man was a high school English teacher. When you are the child of an English teacher, you are going to have your grammar corrected on a daily basis from about the age of six. ("Bill and me are going downtown." "Bill and WHO?") Now I correct HIS grammar. Maybe that was the real reason I became a linguist--a Hamletesque mix of filial emulation and revenge.
östen dahl, university of stockholm:

The word "nerd", graphically spelt "nörd", entered my native language, Swedish, fairly recently. Nevertheless, and even without access to computers, I displayed severe symptoms of nördiness at an early age. In particular, I had an obsession with languages, and spent quite some time making up what is nowadays called "conlangs", i.e. languages invented for fun. (I suspect that such nördiness is really a benign form of Asperger's syndrome.)
dan everett, university of manchester:

I came into Linguistics serendipitously. Although I have always been interested in languages, largely due to growing up on the Mexican border, hearing Spanish spoken all around me in Imperial Valley, California, I wasn't particulary interested in science - I wanted to be a musician. But on a trip with my school band to Hollywood, I went to see the movie My Fair Lady (at the Egyptian Theater) and I was fascinated by the work of 'Henry Higgins' (coincidentally, the linguistic consultant for that film was the late Peter Ladefoged, who became a good friend and co-author). Higgins's work attracted me mainly because it looked like phoneticians could get rich and know women like Audrey Hepburn. But the film also helped cultivate my pre-existent fascination with language.

deborah tannen, georgetown university:

So I attended a linguistic institute at the University of Michigan in 1973. ... I was hooked. Here was a discipline that combined my love of language with an obsessive interest in conversation. With no particular career goal in mind, I decided I wanted to spend the next several years studying linguistics. A friend at the Institute, Jane Falk, who was then getting a PhD in Princeton, said, "If you think this is linguistics, you'd better go to Berkeley." And that's what I did.



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