23 October 2011

New career!

If I ever had time to write that autobiography that Eddie, Johnny, and Marko have asked for, it would be called "Confessions of a Failure."

And nor do I mean anything particularly negative by that negative-sounding title.  I mean only that my life appears to have been a series of undertakings, each of which I have imagined as being something ultimate - and each of which has been, viewed purely in temporal terms, at best incomplete, and in reality a failure (my friend Alan Creak, a sometime-reader of this blog, will recall the World's Best Shortwave Receiver).

In June, 1966, accepting that my intention of being the World's Best Astronomer had not panned out, I set out to be the World's Best Yapese Linguist (choosing a sufficiently-small pond to aim at being a Big Frog in).

"[sigh!]Oh, well - ok. Where's my informant?"
That was what I asked Don, when I had accepted that I would be working on (yuck!) Yapese.

"Uh ... you'll have to go find one."

Right.  OK, I'll just go out into the street and ...

Well, Don did give me a little help.  I just try talking to students at the East-West Centre - there would be some Yapese students there.

I went to the East-West Centre and, sure enough, there were Yapese students there.  Almost immediately I found out something about Yapese young people: they were unwilling to say 'no' to me about anything.

Barbara Leeguroy was the student I talked with.  She was a student there, and, yes, she would be glad to work as my linguistic informant.  I would have to talk with ... well, someone, I have forgotten who, but someone in charge of the programme that she was there with ... about permissions.

"Mr Jensen, students on the [whatever-it-was] grant programme are not allowed to work more than 15 hours per week."  This in addition to the fact that, once the summer's full-time job creating language lessons was finished, there was to be the actual training of Peace Corps Volunteers.

I had, by this time, met a number of Yapese students at the East-West Centre.  They were all sympathetic, but they were all on the same programme, and, yes, they had known about the 15-hour-per-week restriction.

But ... hey!  one of them remembered one student whose marks had fallen below standard.  He was not going to be able to continue with his engineering studies, and was to return to Yap - oh, maybe he is already gone?

'Phone calls.  No, he hasn't left yet, but he is just packing to leave this evening.  You had better hurry over to his apartment and talk to him.

Thus a long relationship began between me, eventually also with Susan, and John Iou - one of the co-authors of the two books that he and I, with Pugram and Defeg, wrote about Yapese: "Yapese Reference Grammar" and "Yapese-English Dictionary" (apparently some hopeful person is offering copies of the former at US$60 on Amazon - if you are hot for a copy, I can do you a deal).

Iou ... I should point out here, since Yapese names will recur throughout these posts covering the next twenty years or so - that Yapese naming is not - or was not; there are signs of changes in the westernisation of Yap - structured like English.  English names have, at least, a "first name" and "last name."  The last name - well, except for politically-motivated reasons - is inherited from the father.  It is the "family name."  The first name is the person's name itself.

Yapese persons do not have family names.  What looks to us like a first name is actually a baptismal name.  So Iou's name is Iou (pronounced, by the way, like the 'Yo-'' in 'Yo-ho-ho').  I myself was always 'Jensen' - and so forth.

Iou - to get back to my story - was in fact waiting for his ride to the airport when I showed up.  We talked.  His view appeared to be, "Oh, well, I really don't want to go home without my degree.  Here's a job.  Maybe that will be fun."  Iou and I were given an office, a typewriter, one which was able to type IPA letters, and we started in to work.

And Iou became effectively a part of my and Edna's - and Kathleen's - lives.  Over the next two years, I suppose Iou was at our house at least once a week - often more.  He and I used to go fishing (mask, snorkel, and spear - not pole and line) pretty much every week-end - bringing home dead creatures that Edna was supposed to deal with

When, in August, possibly mid-July, we were banished by Don Topping to Kaua'i, not to be allowed to return to Honolulu, until we had finished the 20 (I think it was) Yapese language lessons that had to be done before teaching, I wonder whether he still thought it was fun.


Marko said...

Does this mean you are actually thinking about it?

John Thayer Jensen said...


"Does this mean you are actually thinking about it?"

I think about everything all the time :-)


Marko said...

You are a man of many talents!!!
Even though you got stuck with Yapese (look at it on the bright side...you are now the main world authority on yapese language...power and fame here I come)!!!!

John Thayer Jensen said...


"...you are now the main world authority on yapese language..."

I recall once, in about 1966 or 1967, I, Bob Hsu (whose PhD was on Yapese and who had actually introduced me to the language in Berkeley in 1965 or -6), and Isidore Dyen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isidore_Dyen - one of the greatest linguists of all time), who had written a short book about the language, were together in a room at the University of Hawai'i. We were talking about issues of Yapese phonology.

I said to them both something like, "Wow! Do you realise that if someone dropped a bomb on this building now, all the world's Yapese linguists would be wiped out??!!"

Silence for a moment - then Bob replied, with a kind of shrug, "Hmm... yes ... well, so what?"

I had no response to that :-)


Marko said...

hahaha awsome!!!
and back we go to the "biggest frog in a small pond".