As I began taking courses as a Freshman at UCLA, I knew I wanted to be a university professor, and became single-mindedly desperate to figure out if there was some area where I could make a meaningful contribution, presumably in the sciences. Day and night I studied and re-studied the degree programs in all of the departments in the UCLA course catalogue. Over and over I read that to get a PhD, one would need "a reading knowledge of at least two foreign languages, preferably French and German."
So, totally focused on getting a PhD in some subject, and not knowing what else to do, I decided to get the languages out of the way first. At UCLA I signed up for French 2 during the summer after high school and German 1 for the Fall semester. (It was semesters then!) I loved the summer French course, which was taught all in French with the prepublication mimeographs of what would become the Pucciani & Hamel UCLA textbook Langue et Langage. But my Fall schedule did not permit me to continue, since I had to start German, and I had other courses. The problem didn't last long. Each of the first two weekends I spent all Friday evening and all day and night on Saturday and Sunday doing homework that was due on Monday for my honors calculus course. Despite the enormous time I spent, I tried but could not solve most of the problems. My one consolation was that I could (and still can) listen to opera at the same time as I work, typically on headphones (as I am doing while writing this narrative as well).
By the third homework I was really frustrated. I had no way of knowing that others in the class were also having difficulties and would ultimately rebel and get the professor to change the course in the fourth or fifth week (as I found out later). "Why am I doing this?" I asked myself. So, on Monday of the third week, I ran to Haines Hall and found my summer French teacher. Out of breath I asked him, "Is it too late to sign up for French 3?" He said no and recommended a fantastic teacher for me, Mme Duquesnay, a French lecturer with a Licence-ès-Sciences in mathematics. Ah! French and science combined, I thought. This will be useful for my PhD! In a flash, I ran to the registrar and dropped calculus for French, which turned out to be a fateful move. In the Spring semester I took French 4 (and German 2), was drawn into existentialism (even though it was already passé), and became a French major. That summer I took three upper division courses, including one on French phonetics (where I mechanically and self-consciouslessly learned the phonetic contexts where one is supposed to drop the schwas!) in preparation for my sophomore year in the University of California Education Abroad program in Bordeaux.
Since my new plan was to get a PhD in French, I thought I had better take only French literature courses in Bordeaux, which were on Stendahl's Le Rouge et le Noir, the poetry of Leconte Delisle, Les Pensées by Pascal, and, my favorite, Les Lettres Philosophiques of Voltaire. I had to take advantage of being in France and master as much French literature as possible, or I'd never get a PhD! Since there was not much theater in Bordeaux, I often took an all-night train on Fridays to Paris, where I would go to the Comédie Française for four plays: Saturday matinée, Saturday evening, Sunday matinée, Sunday evening. I then would take the all-night train back to Bordeaux in time for my classes.
It was an exciting year, but I knew something was wrong. I got good grades--in fact, a 19 out of 20 on the Leconte Delisle final (an interesting story in its own right--see the Appendix if interested), but I wasn‘t a ”natural” in literature classes where I had less imagination than most of my classmates. Whereas they could think of incredible symbolic interpretations of whatever we read, I mostly was hung up on the grammar. My first fear was that our discussion leader or ”moniteur”, in most cases a doctoral student working on his agrégation, might call on me to explain something about the literary passage under discussion. A made-up story that I like to tell concerns my course on the Le Rouge et Le Noir. The teacher asks, “Why do you think Julien Sorel took the hand of Madame Renal?” and then calls on ME! I would haven’t dared then, but in the story I answer in colloquium French: "J'sais pas, moi. Mais ce que, moi, je veux savoir, c'est pourquoi est-ce qu‘il a utilisé le subjonctif?" ('I have no idea. But what *I* want to know is why he used the subjunctive?’)
During the previous summer I had driven one of my professors crazy with such questions. The grammar book we used gave a list of sentence types and verbs where you were supposed to use the subjunctive, but I always seemed to notice literary passages with a subjunctive form which I could not predict from “the rules”. Opera also provided much of my French database. I remember the time that Mme Duquesnay told us that you could say either à jamais or pour toujours for ‘forever’, but not *pour jamais. She was really stunned when I brought in Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy‘s libretto and showed her where both Carmen and Don José sing, “Adieu! Mais adieu pour jamais!”
The time came for the nearly 100 University of California students to choose their courses for the following academic year. Our Centre Californien at 14, cours Pasteur had what I needed: the famous UCLA course catalogue--although for the current year. French literature wasn't working out, so I again went through all of the degree programs, this time stumbling on something called the "Concentration in Linguistics". A major existed that was pooled together by various linguists from different departments. (I would discover that linguistics was in the process of becoming its own department with its own major that year, but news had not reached Bordeaux.) I looked at it. There were all kinds of terms used in the course titles and descriptions which intimidated me. There was one course that sounded particularly frightening to me. It was called "Field Methods," and the description read something like, "Each year students will study an unknown language with a speaker." My immediate fear was that it would be like qualitative analysis in chemistry where you have to identify a solution that they give you in a test tube--which I never managed to do! In this case I would have to figure out what language it was! "Well," I thought, "I guess I can risk it." I remember thinking to myself, "If this doesn't work out, I don't know what I will do." I took my finals (see the Appendix for that 19 out of 20!) and packed off to Lüneburg, Germany, where I took the Mittelstufe course at the Goethe Institut in preparation for my PhD in linguistics or some as yet unidentified field.
I had gotten all of my general education requirements out of the way, so I could just take all the courses needed for the Concentration in Linguistics. Since a year of a classical language was required, I signed up for Latin, which I really enjoyed, but dropped after one quarter (we were now on quarters), when I discovered that it was not required in the new major. There also had been a requirement of a year of a non-Indo-European language. While in Europe, I had conversed with African students who praised the Americans they had met in the Peace Corps. Thinking I might myself go to Africa in the Peace Corps some day, and with not a small degree of ignorance, I signed up to study "THE African language," Swahili. I was not alone: Over thirty students showed up on the first day, far too many for the crowded classroom. The instructor announced that they had also set up a class on a language called Igbo to which she urged some of us to switch. She presented two arguments, which I remember very clearly:
"For those of you who are here because you know Arabic, Swahili is not related to Arabic at all. Swahili has borrowed a lot of words from Arabic, but the two languages are totally unrelated."
"For those of you who are here because you want to study a typical African language, Swahili isn't typical. It doesn't have tone."
Puzzled by the second argument, I immediately asked the student to my left, "What's tone?" He then tried to explain to me that some languages use pitch to distinguish words, or something like that. "Oh," I replied, although I am sure I still did not understand. We must have found one of the arguments persuasive, as both he and I got up to move to the Igbo class, where I discovered both Africa *and* tone. Some time into the course I remember telling the instructor, Prof. Wm. E. Welmers, that I really enjoyed studying Igbo and asking him whether there were other African languages that needed to be described. "Well," he said, drawing out his response, "there are somewhere between 1500 and 2000 languages in Africa. Of these, I would say we have gotten a good start on maybe 12." He then concluded, "The problem is not finding work to do, but finding someone who will pay you to do it."
So, Africa was on its way, but what about general linguistics? Quite by coincidence, the introductory course, Linguistics 100, was taught by a Berber specialist, Thomas Penchoen, who had just returned to the US after 14 years in Paris. His mentor was André Martinet, whose functionalist approach found in Eléments de Linguistique Général became the basis of the course. The French connection was wonderful, but I still was feeling insecure about the things called phonemes, morphemes, and (in Martinet's framework), monemes! (There was precious little on syntax.)
As I like to say, it took my mentor, Victoria Fromkin, three quarters to convert me to generative grammar. In the Spring quarter I took her History of Linguistics and used my German to do a paper on Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Prof. Penchoen convinced an intimidated me to take his graduate (!) seminar on Berber (where I met and became good friends with two fellow students, Russell Schuh and Jilali Saib). OK, I was doing well in the courses, but could I be a linguist? Could I go on for the PhD which I had coveted since early days in high school?
The following year I began working towards the MA: It turned out that at that time in order for an undergraduate to take a graduate course, the department had to submit a request to give graduate status to the student, which Chair Robert Stockwell did for me. So, as a "departmental scholar" (a misnomer), I technically was already admitted to the graduate program! I took the scary sequence in generative syntax, but because I was interested in working on languages, specifically African, I wandered away from grammar to phonology.
The breakthrough came in the winter quarter in Prof. Welmers' field methods course, i.e. in the course I had most dreaded when in Bordeaux. The language we were studying was Nupe, and the language consultant was a fellow student and friend, Isaac George Madugu. At that time there was a controversy on abstractness in underlying representations in phonology. Paul Kiparsky had written a paper "How abstract is phonology?" in which he argued for constraining such abstractness. I discovered that the Nupe vowel system had bearing on this issue: Although the surface vowel system is [i, e, u, o, a] (plus three nasalized vowels), I proposed that [Cwa] and [Cya] sequences should be analyzed as /CE/ and /Cç/ (where /E/ and /ç/ are, respectively, front and rounded low vowels which never show up on the surface. I showed the analysis to Vicki Fromkin, who immediately suggested that I should submit an abstract to present this as a paper at the Summer Linguistic Society of America Meeting in Urbana, which I did. When I came back, she then said that I should write it up for Language. I followed Vicki's advice and submitted a draft to her for her approval. What came back was an almost unrecognizable marked up copy which was more red than either black or white. "You write purple passion prose," she complained. "Look, this is how you write a scientific article!" she continued, pointing out all the changes she had made. This had a great impact on me, and I have been trying to follow her advice ever since!
With the Nupe, I finally felt I had something to say, that maybe I could be a linguist. I joined a group of graduate students to study for the written MA exams in June. In our meetings I discovered that I was not the only one to feel insecure about Chomsky's X-bar theory, interpretive vs. generative semantics, or the Householder vs. Chomsky & Halle debate. (Anyone remember that?) In the group we all laughed when one of the best students said, "When I read Householder, I was convinced. Then I read Chomsky & Halle and was convinced by them. Then I read Householder's reply and was..." and so forth. It was a grueling week-long exam that UCLA used to put people through, and only 8 of us out 28 were allowed to go on directly to the PhD program. (There were over 100 graduate students in the program at the time!) I'm sure I passed because of Nupe, which I managed to cite not only on the phonology exam, but also as an example of internal reconstruction on the historical linguistics exam! I bet Larry Horn a pizza that I would not get more than 4 points out of 8 on the syntax exam. (I ultimately got 6 points, so I had to take him, his date, and his dog to Round Table!)
During that year and the following I finished all the course requirements and managed to study several other African languages as well: Hausa, Luganda, Bamileke. I then went off to Nigeria and Cameroon in search of a dissertation. For details about that and much more, see my "Field work as a state of mind", in Paul Newman & Martha Ratliff (eds), Linguistic Field Work (2001). Although I obviously was now a participant in linguistics, I found that what was really helpful to me was to keep the African languages going. They have been a constant inspiration to me and an inexhaustible source of exciting phenomena. I'm not sure if it is Luganda that I have lost the most sleep over, but both the discoveries and my multi-year collaboration with Dr. Francis Katamba have made the effort more than worth it. It's been a long time since I worried about the subjunctive in French. I'm glad I did, and only regret that I didn't pay (even) more attention to the 1966 vintage when I was in Bordeaux.
I hope that the above is useful to someone. Linguistics is an international field which still provides great opportunities for teaching, research, travel, collegiality, and friendship. I was very lucky to find my field as early in my life as I did and do not take for granted how good linguistics and so many in it have been to me.
How I psyched the French system out and got a 19 out of 20 on my final