How I became a Linguist
When I was young, I never thought about linguistics. I wanted to be a film producer - that was my major ambition. My parents were artists, art had surrounded me from birth. But I had no talent for drawing, which my father was glad about. He always said that the only people who should become artists are those who are just unable not to be artists. Otherwise, it’s just a hard and unsatisfying life. But I did want to be a film producer, so I chose classic philology as my field for my university education at Moscow State University: I figured that philology would give me a good education, so I would know something about everything. Look how literature is full of references to classical heroes and stories. To be an artist and not know such things is like being a doctor who doesn’t know Latin.
And in my fourth year of the five-year program I wrote my fourth-year paper on a linguistic topic. And the next year, when I was about to graduate with my diploma, a new division opened up at MSU on structural and applied linguistics. And I got interested and in parallel I went and attended courses in that division. There I first encountered Vladimir Uspensky’s lectures on mathematics, and I went to them regularly that year and later as well. My 1961 diploma thesis (roughly comparable to an American M.A., I suppose) was even connected with mathematics. Spectrometers had appeared in Moscow - they were huge, bigger than a bookcase. There were a mass of lamps, somehow interconnected, so that the output was a spectrogram, an analysis of the acoustic signal into its components. They were really pretty pictures - you could look at them and see what had been said. I applied that new technology to Greek and my diploma thesis was “Spectral analysis of the vowels of Modern Greek”. As soon as I finished the thesis, I sent an article on that topic to the major linguistics journal Voprosy Jazykoznanija, and it was accepted.
So then I was supposed to start graduate work, and it was suggested that I apply to the department that hosted that new division; they had an opening for a graduate student, but I wasn’t permitted to take it. Both the dean and the party bureau said that such a dubious character shouldn’t be admitted to graduate study. Why dubious? Well, they somehow had a nose for dubious characters. I hadn’t really said anything yet, but it seems that I didn’t even keep silent correctly. I had gotten all A’s in my studies, and had done a good diploma thesis, but evidently something was wrong. It was most likely connected with the fact that in the middle of my five years I was the editor of our class’s “wall newspaper”. Every department had its own wall newspaper, and every year’s class within the department had its own. Each class tried to make its own paper as interesting as possible - there was informal competition among classes. And the philologists had more ways than most to make things interesting; as soon as one was posted, crowds would gather around it. We wrote about anything and everything: culture, literature, theater, reviews, our own student creations. Of course there were supposed to be some Komsomol-related topics, and there always were. And somewhere around the second or third year, we put out an edition of our paper that had poems by three authors under pseudonyms, including some of mine. We used pseudonyms because we knew the dean would be immediately informed about them, since they were based on human values rather than on Communist values. At that time things were becoming more liberal in some areas, but at least in our part of the university, such things still operated as they always had. In 1959 they kicked out the great philologist V.V. Ivanov, who now has appointments at UCLA, MSU, and the Russian Academy of Sciences, because he defended Pasternak. So because of that wall newspaper, I was not acceptable. They didn’t have to know whether I was one of the authors; I was editor of the paper, therefore responsible. There was one time when I had to face an interrogation by some reviewers from the regional Komsomol committee. They asked a lot of very unpleasant questions. I passed the football back to them in my own way, and they could tell I didn’t share their ideology. I remember a student telling me to just say “Yes” to them so they would leave me alone, but I could not. There was another episode I remember. As a future film director, I decided to make a film about our year’s class. My father got me a very primitive 8-mm camera from Germany, and I used it to make a film, an artistic film, not a documentary. It was a silent film with subtitles, called Net Slov -There are No Words. We had a big group working on it, and I spent several months on it. It involved an imaginary event in the department; the heroes of the film were real students. And there was one scene involving a (real) required course in political economy, held in one of the largest halls, which would hold all 250 philology students of our class. I had asked Professor Lif if I could film his class. He was very touched, and said yes, surely, come and film. And I did. I came into the hall; there were 15 students there, each one occupied with his own activities. Lif carries on about Marxist political economy, and everyone is just doing their own thing. Well, there were a lot of little episodes in the film like that that provoked general amusement. Later when the party bureau had to approve the film in order for me to show at our end of year celebration, they watched it and laughed and were ready to agree, but then they said, OK, you can show it, but you have to take out the episode with Lif. And I said I couldn’t take it out because it had a particular place in the story; if I removed it, I’d have to remove a lot else and there would be nothing left. And they said that in that case, I couldn’t show it. So once again I had behaved incorrectly. In short, I wasn’t allowed to do graduate study.
The head of our division, Professor Zvegintsev, worked out that they could take me on as a departmental administrative assistant, a laborant. So they took me on as a laborant. And my hands were itching - I wanted to do everything, get into everything. I got approval from my native Classics Department that I could teach Latin to the linguistics students. And the appropriate papers were given to the dean for approval, and he approved it only as an optional (i.e. “unimportant”) course, and only under condition that I make up the hours missed in my administrative assistant duties; and I didn’t get paid anything. I taught that course for two years. And the whole time “they” were checking up on me, what time I arrived, what time I left - watching me closely.
But finally in 1961 the division became a real department and I got a real position as head of the group of administrative assistants; well, the group was just me. At first the department was very small. But after half a year my article came out in Voprosy Jazykoznanija. They told me to go to the publisher - there was a letter for me there. I arrived and they handed me a letter from Academician Kolmogorov, the great mathematician. “Respected Professor Kibrik, I liked your article. Could you come and give a lecture in my seminar?” Since he was a mathematician, he didn’t react with any shock that I turned out to be so young, and the seminar went normally, with interesting questions and discussion. And after that I got more ’real work’ and my career progressed in a more normal way. There was a Professor Panov, a mathematician and head of a machine translation group; his wife was a linguist, and she and I had been acquainted since childhood through her brother. She apparently had a high opinion of me and said something to her husband, who then came to Professor Zvegintsev and said he would like to establish a partnership between his department and ours, but only if I were in charge of the cooperation. So in 1962 I became the head of this joint project. And I worked with them and defended my Candidate dissertation with them, and was promoted from junior administrative assistant to junior research scientist.
And then in 1965 there was another new initiative: we started to hold the Olympiads in our department. That was also an unheard-of event. Vladimir Uspensky was head of the Organizing Committee (OrgKomitet); there were also me, Polivanova, Zalizniak, and Zhurinsky, who made up most of the problems for the Olympiad. But when Uspensky brought the list of OrgKomitet members to the dean as a draft document for the dean to sign, the dean said OK except we have to remove Zhurinsky. It turned out that when Zhurinsky was a student and did his military service in the Navy, he joined the Party. And when he came to our department, still as a student, he resigned from the Party, on his own. That didn’t prevent him from being a student, but the dean couldn’t allow him to be on the OrgKomitet - he kept close tabs on the political correctness of everything official in his deanery. Uspensky said all right, I will just withdraw the draft document and we won’t do an Olympiad. And we didn’t. About a year later, the Dean called Uspensky in and asked “What happened to our Olympiad?” And Uspensky said, “Well, you didn’t sign that document.” And the Dean said “All right, I’ll sign it.” And Zhurinsky stayed on the OrgKomitet. And we had our First Traditional Linguistics Olympiad. And that was a completely new beginning. It was like a great leap 20 years ahead - it helped us (and themselves) to identify high school students who might get interested in linguistics. And it has worked -- many strong linguists have started out as prize-winners in the Olympiads. So it really made sense - but it has always demanded a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm. We would sit down and discuss and choose the problems. Our ‘problem committee’ was headed by the mathematician Alexander Wentzell - he taught probability theory to our students, and at the same time was very interested in linguistics, partly through his mother, a mathematician who wrote novels under the pseudonym “I. Grekova” . Wentzell worked with mathematical exactitude - every problem had to have exactly one solution. In no case should a problem turn out to be unsolvable - that had to be guaranteed. So the discussions were really serious. And we wanted to avoid the possibility that there could be solutions other than the intended ones. So we had a circle of people who would solve the problems and look at them closely. But sometimes something fell through the cracks. Sometimes during the Olympiad itself, with 200 students working on problems, it might suddenly turn out that although everything was logically correct, it wasn’t what we had intended or wanted. That sometimes happened.
The students at their first Olympiads are usually 8th, 9th, or 10th graders (ages 15-17), but sometimes there were students from the 6th or 7th grades (ages 13-14). The late Sergei Starostin, a Corresponding Member of the Academy, first competed in an Olympiad as a 7th grader (age 14) and took first prize. And he continued to compete, with quite amazing results. So once we had the Olympiads, everything changed - it was a whole new life.
The Olympiads are still going on, though the Ministry of Education has been making our life more difficult. We want success in the Olympiads to continue to give students a real advantage in competing for admission to the top linguistics departments, because without that perceived benefit of participation, the Olympiads take on a different meaning. At the beginning, they didn’t carry that benefit. But then some years ago we managed to get it; but now they are making it harder and we are having to fight for it.
One more long-lasting development got started in the early years. In 1966 or 67 I approached Zvegintsev with a proposal: it would be good if our students as part of their work had an analog of the problem-solving they do in the Olympiads, but interacting with real people who speak a language the students don’t know. They should figure out questions to ask informants, find the right elicitation procedures to get good answers, and gather all the data needed to reconstruct the grammar of the language. This is “field linguistics”. It has great pedagogical value - it’s a training ground for increasing the effectiveness of their education, helping students realize what they are really able to do.
Archi Expedition 1968. A.E.Kibrik with informants.
We proposed that the first expedition be to Lakia, in Daghestan, where the Laks live. Daghestan is a rich storehouse of languages - there are about thirty languages there. Some are related, to various degrees; each one has interesting properties, and they had hardly been studied. Only five had writing systems, including Lak; even those five had no written grammars. So I brought this idea to Zvegintsev, and he was very receptive. He remembered his own early work on Pamir languages in Central Asia in the 1950’s, and was very ready to approve the idea. I asked him who would head the project. He replied, “Well, you will.” (As we say, ironically, “Initiative is punishable.”) And the university didn’t provide any funding. I worked with a partner, and we took nine students on the first expedition. We chose the students with great care, and we put a lot of work into finding some small funding sources. We chose our first destination somewhat accidentally, for family reasons: my wife’s sister was married to a Lak who was well connected with the local population and knew the director of a school who could help us organize everything. We lived in that school, and some of our best informants were schoolteachers. Our first expedition was in 1967, to Lakia. It took us a couple of years to work out how to organize our teamwork most effectively. My first co-leader and I turned out to have incompatible working methods, so we later led separate groups, and I started working with the distinguished phonetician Sandro Kodzasov as my main co-leader.
That was just the beginning of a tradition of linguistic expeditions that has continued for decades; my last expedition was in 2002, and others continue. We studied Pamir, Tuvan, and Kamchatkan languages, and more than twenty Caucasian languages, and published seven grammars, some of them very large and complete. So in the end I didn’t become a film producer and have been well distracted by linguistics. It’s been a long time since I thought of a film career, and I’m glad that idea didn’t become reality - if we don’t count a few nice films about our linguistic expeditions.
 The Russian name for the Latin letter "y" is i grekova, "Greek i".
Adapted from an interview with POLIT.RU, Fall 2010 (to appear spring 2011); condensed, paraphrased, and translated by Vladimir Borschev, Aleksandr Kibrik, and Barbara Partee.
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