Orange Alert

Linguist Profile: Jaklin Kornfilt

Professor attributes success to multilingual upbringing, luck, early-morning classes

April 14, 2016, by Jaklin Kornfilt

 Jaklin Kornfilt
The author speaking at a recent conference in Beijing

Editor's Note: The following piece is by Jaklin Kornfilt, professor of linguistics in the Department of Languages, Literatures, & Linguistics, where she also serves as director of the Linguistic Studies and Computational Linguistics programs and as the Turkish language coordinator. The piece originally appeared on The LINGUIST List's official blog on April 5, 2016, and has been reproduced with their permission.  

The Istanbul of my childhood was so multilingual that not to become a linguist would have been impossible for anyone with an ear for language and an interest in figuring out puzzles posed by all those languages and dialects. In my own case, it was German, French, Russian, and Yiddish that I was exposed to at home, in addition to the Greek of my nanny and of many neighbors. My cousins had an Armenian nanny. Many acquaintances spoke Ladino at home. It was wonderful to be taken along to my mother’s shopping expeditions, because, depending on the merchant, she would speak a different language: Turkish, Greek, Ladino—and with some, even Russian. It was fun to listen to the two rather different-sounding Yiddish dialects of my grandmothers, one of whom lived with us and the other [of whom would] come for a day-long visit once a week. They didn’t like each other very much, and so they used to sit and have very polite but very poisonous conversations for hours. Once I learned to write, I devised an alphabet for transcribing those conversations, and, when I ran out of topics for my letters to my father, who used to be away a lot on business, I would include some of those transcriptions; they amused him very much, or so he claimed.

That transcribing languages and dialects can actually be part of a real profession is something I discovered in Germany, where I studied German and English literature on an academic exchange scholarship. I had to take an introductory linguistics course where we were told about a new approach to studying and understanding languages called Generative Grammar. We read parts of Syntactic Structures and Aspects [of the Theory of Syntax, both by Noam Chomsky], and I now feel inclined to say " ... and the rest is history," only that it still took me some time to find my way to formal linguistics. In Germany, our lecturers in linguistics were sympathetic towards Generative Grammar, but they didn’t understand it very well, and, thus, couldn’t really teach it. I was attracted to it, but there was nobody to explain it all to me in clear terms. It was about then that I visited my aunt in Israel and met, by a chain of coincidences, Bob Lees, who founded the Department of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and invited me to stay and study formal linguistics, although it was the middle of the semester. This involved driving to the university at least twice a week through heavy morning traffic to catch Lees’ introductory linguistics course, which met at 8 a.m.—a real sacrifice, but one worth making, because the course was an absolutely wonderful introduction to linguistics and got me totally hooked. I took the exams of the course and did well on them, upon which Lees suggested that I should continue towards a Ph.D. in linguistics, and that I should do so in the United States. This is how I ended up at Harvard, as a doctoral student in theoretical linguistics. (By a funny coincidence, there, too, I had to go to class to attend an introductory course that met twice a week at 8 a.m.—Jay Jasanoff’s introduction to historical linguistics, and, likewise, a course well worth getting up early for. At least this time around, campus was within easy walking distance!)

The LINGUIST List did not exist yet while I was a student, but I envy my own students who make heavy and constant use of it. I was a relatively new assistant professor when The LINGUIST List came into existence, and it was wonderful to find all this great news about conferences, summer schools, books, and jobs in one’s mailbox every day. It made me feel connected to the world outside, and I relied on it a lot for news, which I used constantly, in various ways; I still do and can’t imagine doing without it.

By the way—the picture that you see here was taken a couple of months ago at a conference in Beijing, on the syntax of information structure in the minority languages of China. When the picture was taken, I was speaking about post-verbal structures in Turkish. This was one of a very few conferences that I had not learned about via The LINGUIST List!


Jaklin Kornfilt Professor, Linguistics and Turkish Program Coordinator

Media Contact

Robert M Enslin