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Marianne Mithun at the School of Linguistics

On September 17 and 19, the HSE School of Linguistics had an honor to host Marianne Mithun, a prominent American linguist focusing on typology and indigenous languages of North America. Marianne has gracefully agreed to answer our questions about her research and her impression of HSE.

Could you please describe your research profile for us and, more specifically,  te stuff you’ve been teaching here during your visits?
— I am linguist and like to do empirical-based research, so starting with how people are really talking. So, I think the best thing is just let people talk and talk to each other about different things and transcribe it and look to see what you see in there. So I think the most interesting stuff comes out of what people do spontaneously, maybe more what you waited for.  I work especially with languages in North America, also with Austronesian languages, Central Alaskan Yupik, Navaho which is spoken in the Southeast, as well as Central Pomo which is known in California. Then I work with a Chumash community, in the central part these  languages are no longer spoken.

What was your focus during your classes here?
— So, it’s about how language contact shapes language structure. For a long time language contact wasn't something linguists focused on. This become very clear to me because, so I told people about California, this is a region very rich in different languages and different families, there are about 20 different genetic units in California. What’s interesting to me about then among other things is there are very similar, strikingly parallel structures, but almost nothing common in vocabulary. Sounds a bit like Sprachbund.

Can you please elaborate a bit for those not present at your lectures?
— The idea is for the most part, with a couple of exceptions, this community was always very small, which meant that kids had parent who spoke different languages, which meant that kids were usually bulled at least. The idea is kids can learn anything in any amount of complexity. So, if you’ve got two languages in your  in your head and one of your languages makes a distinction, and the other one, you want to replicated, maybe replicate the frequency. So in this language people always say specify direction and location every time they saw any motion. Then kids go to speak this language and once that we all do, with the some except, once to specify direction and location more often, so uses the recourse in this language, there is always second piece in this puzzle.
There is a cultural tradition in California not to mix languages, to speak the language where you are. So if I visit you I your language, if you visit me – you speak my language and you don’t mix, which means if there is a distinction over here in this  one language but I speaking this one, I’m gonna use recourses in this language to replicate that distinction.At first you use backword and do it more but if this happens generations and generations that frequency leads to routinization. It is why people don’t just say ‘go’: they say ‘go up’ and ‘go down’. Over time that’s what gives you grammar. That’s how you get these parallels using grammar over a long period of time where you have young bylinguals who are replicating frequencies of expression which than ultimately routinized into grammar.
People usually think that the vocabulary is on the first place, like I speak English and I’m not gonna follow with a Russian reflexive suffix. I’m gonna grab your words ‘borsch’, ‘vodka’, But if you have prohibitions for mixing, you don’t get that much.

Is there a long-standing research tradition in this are or it’s just your focus?
— Well, I worked a lot with Central Pomo, this is one of these languages. I was very lucky: a woman looked around, I thought ‘oh my godness there are only two speakers of that language and she asked somebody to find somebody there to document it, it was almost undocumented, which was surprise in California, that’s not very old. She told somebody and he told his wife, she was my teaching assistant. So, that’s how it all started. And I went up and worked with them and then turned out that were more speakers than that. So we spent nine years documenting their talk. It was great. Since they were from three different communities, they have a lot to tell each other about the different communities, culturally it is very interesting recording too. And they all died in same year because they were all the same age. But we have a thing transcribed, translated. I was very lucky because this woman who called me in the first place was very very sharp and we always worked hard. She never thought about linguistics, but she had very keen understanding, when you use this, who uses that, why you use this.

— Can you give us your impression you might have developed during your visit to Russia this time?
— I’m absolutely stunned by how beautiful everything is. I was here during Soviet times and the differences are really amazing. Every time I look somewhere I amazed again how brilliant, beautiful, interesting everything is, and how sharp linguists are, too. I went to seminar at the Institute of Linguistics and I was so impressed, and the questions I’ve been getting were so impressive. I mean, Russian linguistis I know are world class linguists. I’m also absolutely stunned that so many people know so much English and can do many linguistics in English.

— Could you tell something about your immediate or more remote in the future research plans?
— Oh, I work with a number of other communities. You probably know, in North America like a lot of other places, there is a number of indigenous languages, but most of them are losing there first-language speakers. Actually, Central Pomo is like that, I work a lot with Iroquoian as well. I started working with them when there were a lot of first-language speakers, who were just starting to teach thoroughly, and first notice is that their kids didn’t speak and they tried to teach and they realized they could speak, but had no idea how to teach. They asked me to come and help them to figure out, what was it’s all about. They were very good speakers. I showed them the structure of the language, so if you are going to teach, you don’t have to teach grammar, but you want to be clear and logical. They were good speakers. But had no idea what was easy, hard, regular. I work for years with then making them linguists, essentially developing curriculum.
And now there is a new generation of adults second-language speakers and they are fluent and nobody would ever thought that adults could become fluent Mohawk speaker. The Mohawk heard that there is something called immersion. And they asked me ‘what is it?’ and I told them ‘that’s when you go to school in the language’. All the communities, when kids are 4, their parents can decide whether kids would learn in English school or in Mohawk. English is their home language and all elementary school in Mohawk. These kids now are young adults got grans to do what they call ‘adult-immersion program. What this does it pays a salary to somebody, you have a job, do this for a year from 9 to 5 five days a week, and you spend that in Mohawk. You do all things you do in your life. They do that and they are really fluent. They have television programs. Now there is a nursery school, language nest, so even babies can go work grammar issues talking in Mohawk.  And now there is a second year adult immersion program. They always were amazing people, they just decided to do it and did. It’s a huge community, it’s a different world.

— Can you give a piece of advice to our students and early-career researches? What’s the best way to achieve a career in linguistics like yours?
— Ha! I would say imitate your professors. It’s really impressive to see educated people are gathering here. The only way to do it is to love it. If it’s not fun, you should do something else. And of course we don’t do it for cash, you know.

Interview by Andrian Vlakhov.

Marianne Mithun has shared her slides with HSE. These are uploaded to a shared folder and password protected. You can obtain the password by emailing misha.daniel at gmail.com.