Matthias Brenzinger: Our Featured Linguist!
It was about one and a half years ago that I finally I arrived where I had always wanted to be and do what I had always wanted-- teach students, support small language communities and conduct research on African languages on my doorstep. The University of Cape Town and my new colleagues welcomed my efforts to establish the Centre for African Language Diversity-- CALDi as well as The African Language Archive-- TALA and I was recently appointed the Mellon Research Chair: African Language Diversity this initiative. The main aim of CALDi is to train young African scholars in descriptive linguistics and open up space for research into African languages at UCT with the hopes of countering the dominance of African linguistics outside the continent. It has been a great challenge for which my whole career has been a form of preparation...Read more
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. (I hadn't
read the catalog carefully enough when I was in high school.) 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.
I registered for Chomsky's course and also for the course in quantum mechanics
required of physics majors, which happened to meet at the same time. I began the
semester going to each course on alternate days, but quickly figured out that
this wasn't going to work. I dropped the physics course, and became a humanities
and science major, combining philosophy and mathematics. At the end of the semester
I went up to Chomsky and said, "Professor Chomsky, I understand that you're a linguist.
Can you tell me what that is?" He replied, "Do you have time this summer to read a
couple of books?" When I told him I did, he lent me copies of Syntactic
Structures and Sapir's Language, and told me to come back in the fall
and tell him what I thought.
As soon as I got back to Cambridge that fall to start my senior year, I told Chomsky how
much I enjoyed both books, and that I wanted to learn more. He agreed to direct an independent
study and serve as my major advisor. I was hooked. I took several additional linguistics courses
as an undergraduate, wrote a bachelor's thesis under Chomsky's direction on finite-state
processing of context-free languages, and applied and was admitted to MIT's brand new
graduate program in linguistics. The rest, as they say, is history.