A personal linguistic history, chapter 2: Looking east and north

Last night’s post left off with me beginning my junior year of college and about to embark on my study of Japanese. At the time, Japanese was just a fun, weird language in a sea of fun, weird languages. I don’t think it scratched any itch that Arabic or Russian couldn’t have satisfied just as well at that moment. But that changed pretty rapidly.

I LOVED Japanese. No, guys, really. I LOVED Japanese. The language itself is a lot of fun. The phonology and grammar are really accessible to an English speaker, but different enough to keep things interesting. Sure, the writing system kicked, and continues to kick, my ass, but that’s just because I’m not special. Japanese writing kicks everyone’s ass. No exceptions. But it was so much more than just the formal linguistics.

Studying Japanese opened my mind in a way my previous language study hadn’t. Spanish was fun and different, but I grew up in a town with a large Latino population. Italian . . . hell, that was a daily part of my life before I even spoke the damn language. But Japanese introduced me to a culture and a place I knew nothing about. I had no existing context for the things I was learning. Every word and every character exposed me to a new part of the world. This was the good stuff.

By the winter term I’d really transformed intellectually. I was still majoring in psychology, but I thought and read more about languages and Japan than about psychology. My adviser even commented when he saw me reading a book about linguistic classification, “That’s not personality theory.” He just stared at me blankly when he asked me what class it was for and I responded it was side reading. (Aside: He was very proud of me when I was accepted for grad school. He told me I made the right decision — that I displayed a passion for linguistics that he didn’t see when we talked about personality psychology.)

By the time spring quarter rolled around I’d declared a minor in Asian studies, formalizing my obsession with East Asia. But that quarter held two more surprises. First, a friend asked if anyone would be interested in joining him in a historical linguistics course. I already had a full course load and had no reason to take another elective, but I said sure. Remember all those superlatives I applied to my first Japanese course a couple paragraphs ago? Yep, redux. I devoured the material in that class. The linguistics I learned in the intro course I took was fun, but this. . . . This was something else. I needed to know more about this stuff. But wait, there’s more. . . .

My part-time job on campus at the time was through the civil engineering department, but the database managers were both grad students in linguistics. One was in my historical linguistics class, and one idle afternoon we were chatting about how much I enjoyed the class. During that conversation, I learned that because undergrad linguistics education isn’t that widespread, most grad students in the discipline don’t enter their programs with degrees in linguistics. Wait . . . WHAT? HOLY. SHIT.

You see, my end goal had always been an academic career. PhD, tenure, ride off into the sunset. However, as my adviser astutely pointed out, at this point I wasn’t really feeling psychology anymore. But the basic life-track was still the same, regardless of discipline. If I didn’t need to complete another major, pivoting wasn’t that big of a deal. So pivot I did. I was only one course shy of completing my psychology major, but I registered for phonetics and syntax the following semester. I’d complete my undergraduate degree in psychology, but then I was going to grad school for historical linguistics. I was planning on researching the history and possible deep genetic relationships of Japanese.

In addition to my linguistics courses I had two elective slots available. One would naturally be second-year Japanese. But what about the other? I dared the unthinkable and decided to take two languages at once. The East Asia theme meant deciding between Mandarin Chinese and Korean. I chose Chinese based on the extremely misguided assumption that learning Chinese writing would help me in learning and retaining Japanese kanji. It didn’t work, but I did end up spending a year learning Chinese, which I don’t regret.

But I had an entire summer before I started my Chinese/Japanese twofer. Given my experience with Japanese, I was very eager to dive into some other weird language. At this point I had evidence that I’m really good at learning languages. Maybe I could find resources to teach myself something even stranger than what Northwestern University could offer me? My brother and I were discussing this question as his Husky lay on the floor next to him. That naturally led to, “How about Eskimo?”

(Note: I’m well aware that Siberian Huskies were originally bred by the Chukchi, who linguistically are no more Eskimos than Hungarians are Germans. Bear with me, I was new. More on Chukchi later.)

I know what you’re thinking. “How the hell does one go about studying Eskimo?” Thankfully, the Alaska Native Language Center exists. Their learning and documentation resources are amazing. Just as amazing, they had an Internet presence in 1995! I learned about the different Eskimo languages, five of which (depending on how one classifies Iñupiat dialects) are spoken in Alaska. I decided on Central Yup’ik, since it has the most speakers and thus the most materials. I made some decent progress with the language and really enjoyed it.

Studying Eskimo planted another seed in my head. While my knowledge of Japanese was growing daily, there were definitely other students that would be applying for grad school spots with a lot more knowledge than me. The historical linguistics of the Eskimo-Aleut family was more virgin academic territory. So I doubled down — while I finished out my Chinese and Japanese courses for the year, my grad-school applications described a research program based on Eskimo-Aleut. I was accepted on that basis.

Next post, grad school and beyond!

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~ by chewie93 on March 7, 2017.

2 Responses to “A personal linguistic history, chapter 2: Looking east and north”

  1. Really interesting stuff; enjoy reading about your linguistic exploits.

  2. Thank you! It’s gratifying to know I have an audience.

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