Published: July 27, 2021 By

'One of the most attractive features of my time in Boulder was the contact with colleagues and visitors in other disciplines. ... The intellectual importance of these contacts cannot be underestimated'

I am sharing my impressions about the changes that I have seen over the last 50 years in the Linguistics Department, College of Arts and Sciences, and the University of Colorado Boulder as a whole. Here are some of my very personal observations, which are personal in the sense that other people, linguists and non-linguists, may not necessarily share them.

My observations are colored by the experience of having been a student in three countries and a faculty member, often visiting, in eight countries. In addition to addressing your list of questions, I include comments about changes in the discipline of linguistics and changes in the Boulder campus.

The term “linguistics” is relatively new, but some of the research done by linguists continues the activities started by ancient Greek and Roman scholars. Current linguistics is a rich field whose researchers differ in what they perceive to be fundamental questions. Even if they agree on fundamental questions, they often disagree on theoretical assumptions and methods of investigation.

What follows is based on this linguist’s own perception of the fundamental issues in linguistics. The proliferation of linguistic departments across the world is associated with the emergence of various fields in which linguistic methods are used as tools and the increasing use of tools of other fields in linguistic research, e.g., psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, applied linguistics and several other fields.

Zygmunt Frajzyngier

Zygmunt Frajzyngier is a professor of linguistics.

One fundamental question that remains open is the very nature of a given language, viz. what is its structure and what is the nature of its meanings. The Graeco-Roman approach, based on just two languages, Greek and Latin, gave us the structural division between words and sentences, mediated by syntax or the ways of putting words together. Studies of many languages have demonstrated that there is no universal category “word,” nor is there a universal notion of “sentence.” Given those two findings, the motivation for syntax is being revised as well.

Fifty years ago, Paul Erdös, a renowned mathematician, asked me this, “What are some interesting questions in linguistics?” I do not recall what I answered, but whatever it was, it was not particularly interesting to him or to me. I think I am now in a better position to answer this question.

One of the activities in which linguists around the world are involved is the description of languages. We don’t know how many languages are there. Some talk about there being more than 5,000 languages, while some throw out the number of 3,000. The difference in those estimates is the evidence of our ignorance.

One of the changes in the last 50 years is that more languages are now being described for the first time and that better methods are being used in the description, including sound and even video recordings of language interaction. The sheer number of hitherto-undescribed languages will provide opportunities for linguists for many years, provided that social and political conditions allow it.

Over the last 50 years, while the technical tools increased significantly, the areas where one can do the necessary fieldwork have been shrinking rapidly due to social and political unrest. The areas with the largest number of undescribed languages are increasingly becoming inaccessible for researchers.

One of the open questions in linguistics is about language knowledge and processes that take place in the human brain and lead to the realization of language. This type of research must take into consideration as wide a range of languages as possible in order to avoid the error of assuming that the specific characteristics of one language are characteristics of all human languages. Recent work has added the previously neglected study of sign languages to answer this question.

Another open question in linguistics is in what ways languages are similar and in what ways they are different. One of the fundamental findings of cross-linguistic studies is that their grammatical systems code different meanings. This generates a follow-up question, “Given the common human physiology and common physical and social needs, why do different languages encode different meanings in their grammatical systems?”

This question will keep linguists busy for a long time. The importance of this question is that the syntax of a given language, instead of providing rules for the formation of sentences and clauses, provides a means to convey the meanings encoded in the grammatical system.

My interest in languages began in late 1950, after I was told categorically that chemistry is not my thing. I felt privileged when I was accepted as a student at the University of Warsaw. This sense of privilege persisted throughout the MA and PhD programs and when I became a faculty member, first in Warsaw in 1968 and then in Boulder in 1970.

The colleagues in the then-freshly created Department of Linguistics in Boulder, namely Luigi Romeo, Allan Taylor, David Rood, Kumiko Takahara, Alan Bell, and the late Alan Kaye and Joel Ericson, were most welcoming and helpful, something that I only came to fully appreciate many years later.

The department at the time represented a relatively broad coverage of languages with similar methodological approaches. Over the years, the coverage became quite distinct. Instead of coverage of a broad range of languages there was a broader coverage of sub-disciplines: psycholinguistics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, and computational linguistics. This broadening was intended to, and in fact did, attract more students.

I have had the honor of having brilliant students who have contributed to the field of linguistics and other fields where linguistics played a role and who have continued their work."

At the university level, I found that most important support from people in the administration at the time: Bill Briggs, Ed Lipetz, Bruce Ekstrand and in later years Jerry Peterson.

Over the years, from the very beginning till my retirement I found the university’s system of support for research through small grants to be most valuable, especially when external grants were drying up.

From my first year of teaching until this year, I have been amazed at the enthusiasm and good will with which students come to the first class of the semester and have always regretted if I didn’t meet students’ expectations and did not maintain their enthusiasm until the end of the semester.

I have had the honor of having brilliant students who have contributed to the field of linguistics and other fields where linguistics played a role and who have continued their work. Since the importance of a university is the people who are associated with it, those people should be listed: Mahmoud Farroukhpey, Jonathan Seely, Robert Koops, Eunil Kim, Wonho Kim, Kyung Im Han, Erin Shay, Immanuel Barshi, Michael Thomas, Sean Allison, Jesús Villalpando-Quinonez, Yahya Asseri, Marielle Butters and no doubt more.  

One of the most attractive features of my early years in Boulder was the contact with colleagues and visitors in other disciplines: mathematics, physics, anthropology, philosophy, English, psychology, political science, French and Italian, Spanish, Slavic and Germanic and history. The intellectual importance of these contacts cannot be underestimated. These colleagues would ask challenging questions about linguistics which I wasn’t always able to answer, and at the same time I learned from them a little bit about their disciplines and the methods they used.

I consider the critical view of colleagues from other disciplines to be an important factor in my research. The places where we would meet for lunch, such as the Faculty Club and the dining area in the University Memorial Center, facilitated those encounters.

I keep being impressed by the constant physical growth of the campus, with the addition of new buildings and new facilities for students without spoiling the overall esthetical effect of the campus. I don’t think I have a broad enough view of the university to say much about the overall changes.

To conclude, I want to make one observation. I was a student and taught at several universities that were completely under government control, including the budget and the administration. Whenever the governments wanted to exercise control over the subjects that were taught, people who taught them, and the way they were taught, the faculty and students would grumble, and then the more vociferous faculty and students would be fired. The system of tenure or due process didn’t exist in those systems.

At CU Boulder, we enjoy the freedom of scholarly pursuit, doing research on whatever we want and using the methods we choose. The only criterion is that we must meet the scholarly standards of our disciplines. I hope this freedom remains unaffected by any external forces, whatever their sources may be.

Zygmunt Frajzyngier is a professor of linguistics.