Academic journal article SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics

Interview with Edith Moravcsik

Academic journal article SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics

Interview with Edith Moravcsik

Article excerpt

LK

Let me start with our traditional question. Why linguistics? What motivated you to study language and to deal with it professionally?

EM

Foreign languages played a big role in our family. In addition to Hungarian--our native language --my mother spoke German and French and my father--a professor of Greek philology--knew German, Russian, French, Modern Greek, Ancient Greek, and Latin. He even had some Turkish; along with Russian, he acquired it in the prisoner of war camp in Krasnoyarsk during WWI. He spent five years there and happened to meet a Turkish fellow prisoner who taught him his language.

As a child, I took lessons in German and English with private teachers. In school, I studied Russian, Latin, and Ancient Greek. In spite of his broad range of familiarity with foreign languages, my father did not speak them well and I was not good at speaking languages, either; but, just as my father, grammar intrigued me and in particular, how the grammars of languages differed. I remember that my Ancient Greek grammar book listed verbal modes--indicative and subjunctive--under the different tenses, while my Latin textbook had it the other way, with modes comprising tenses, and I wondered whether this indicated a difference between the two languages or whether it was simply due to the textbook writers' whim.

When I graduated from high school, I had to choose a major for my university studies. I would have liked to study general linguistics but there was no Linguistics Department at the University of Budapest at the time. My favorite language was Russian--but this was in 1957 right after the Hungarian revolution against the communist regime and the Russian occupation. Since my father was a fairly prominent person, my parents felt that if I opted for Russian, this would be interpreted as an endorsement of the communist regime by the family, which we definitely did not want. Another possibility was English but this in turn could have been seen as indicating an anti-communist position--a dangerous option. Since I disliked German at the time, the only remaining choices were the politically neutral classical languages: Latin and Greek.

When in 1964 at the age of 25 I immigrated to the US, I was first teaching Classics but this was not a field of study I wanted to stay with. Being in the US and having to hone my English skills, I was constantly faced by the striking differences and similarities between English --my "outer language"--and Hungarian--my "inner one"--and this experience increased my interest in linguistics. Indiana University in Bloomington IN had a very good Department of Linguistics and since I was also offered a teaching assistantship there to teach Hungarian, I seized this chance to realize my desire to become a professional linguist.

LK

Could you compare your student life with the situation at American universities nowadays?

EM

I studied Classics at the University of Budapest between 1957 and 1963 and Linguistics at Indiana University in 1966-1971. Professor-student relations in Hungary at the time were very different from how things were at American universities in the 1960 and are today. University courses--other than language and other skill-related curricula--were based on lectures, with little or no participation by the students. Professors were not as easily approachable as in the US. Acquiring factual information was emphasized over learning new ways of thinking and argumentation.

Since the University of Budapest (Eotvos Lorand University by its full name) was in the heart of the city, it had no campus nor did it have student dormitories as far as I know. Student life consisted mostly of studying together; joint extracurricular activities were infrequent.

LK

What is the position of linguistics at American universities? Any substantial changes in recent decades?

EM

While in Europe, general linguistics emerged as a separate field mostly from philology and historical studies, in the US, it was initially linked to anthropology, hallmarked by names like Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, and to missionary work. …

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