02 October 2011


I spent only two years as a linguistics undergraduate.  It appears odd to me now, on reflexion, that I so readily adapted to my linguistic studies.  I had, after all, been a keen amateur astronomer from about age 11 or 12, and had majored in astronomy during my first two and a half years at University.  On the other hand:
  1. Your first two years at an American University are 'breadth' years - at least so it was when I was there, and I will only speak to that.  Everyone not doing a 'professional' course (e.g. law, engineering, or medicine) does a BA.  This is by contradistinction to the situation in New Zealand where, from the first, I would have done a BSc if I studied astronomy, a BA if I studied linguistics - and my courses would mostly or perhaps all have been major subjects.  In the University of California, as an astronomy major, I had to do a certain number of units of what were called 'social sciences' and a certain number of 'humanities.'  Thus my first two years were not at all exclusively scientific subjects.
  2. I had studied languages - as opposed to linguistics - fairly extensively from high school.  Four years of high school French, two semesters of University French, two semesters of University Russian, one semester of University Spanish - all whilst I was still majoring in astronomy.
  3. As I have indicated elsewhere, one of my 'breadth' courses - which simultaneously satisfied both 3 credits of the 'social sciences' requirement and the 'humanities' requirement - was entitled "Linguistics for non-majors."
Thus I was not a linguistic greenhorn when, in 1964, I began the first of two years that would lead to my BA in linguistics.  Nevertheless, it was a fairly new subject for me.

I took to it like a duck to water.  I loved linguistics.  I was fascinated by every aspect of it.

The linguistics course at the University of California in Berkeley, despite the fact that that University was one of the most important centres of studies of American Indian languages - Ishi, of Oroville fame, had been their subject - was nevertheless strongly traditional (in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries' tradition).  The core of areal studies was Indo-European.  All linguistics students had to study Sanskrit as well as either Greek or Latin.  Historical linguistics focussed on the Indo-European language family.

So these were the special subjects I studied at the beginning.  Nevertheless, my interest was soon pointed towards the various languages of the Pacific.

The reason for this is, surely, not far to seek.  My family had moved to Hawai'i in 1963.  In 1964, Edna and I spent four months living in Hawai'i.  I was, I am sure, quite enchanted with Hawai'i - as, indeed, who wouldn't be?

So at some point between September, 1964 and June, 1966, when I was graduated, I had decided to do graduate work at the University of Hawai'i.  That point has to have been moderately early in that period.  In the spring semester, 1966 I had applied to, and been accepted at, the University of Hawai'i graduate school.  I had said that I had a special interest in Micronesian languages.

And during those two years I studied Indonesian, had taken a course in Austronesian historical linguistics, and had, as I mentioned earlier, done a fair bit of (paid) computer programming in connexion with comparative Austronesian.  I suppose it was during that course that I said I had become interested in Micronesian languages.

Nevertheless, the only actual connexion I had with a language of Micronesia - a language which is not linguistically a Micronesian language - was in helping a linguistic PhD candidate named Bob Hsu.  Bob was studying a language called Yapese.  I knew of Yapese, knew that it was rather a linguistic orphan within Micronesia, being not closely related to the other languages of the area.  I was not specially interested in it linguistically, except for an oddity in its phonology - like many of the American Indian languages, but unlike any Pacific language I had ever heard of then - or since - it had glottalised consonants, which was kind of cool.  But my interest in Micronesian languages was historical - and Yapese was not related.

I worked for the University language laboratories, however, and Bob wanted to do some word elicitation - where a native speaker pronounces words in his language and you record them - so I did this work for Bob.  I quite enjoyed it.  It had been one of my first experiences actually working with a language as a linguist.  I thought that was the end of my involvement both with Bob Hsu and with Yapese.

This was not, of course, to be the case.


Kiwi Windbag said...

More! More I say! Daddy, I'd love it if you would dedicate multiple posts on our lives in Yap. I need to hear about it in detail. It'd mean a lot. Love you

John Thayer Jensen said...

You shall have it. But remember, I still have two years of Berkeley, seven years of Honolulu, and three years of Auckland, to cover, before we ever get to Yap – and then seven years, almost, of Yap to cover before you even get bor! One of the two of us will probably die of old age before I even get there!

I have been trying to get your mother to do a similar thing for her own life. She has told me things only recently that I didn't know and find fascinating – and she thinks are boring. Well, our own lives always are boring to us – but not necessarily to others.