Author Topic: What can you advice for learning Indo-European linguistics by myself?  (Read 1081 times)

Offline ladislaV_

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I am interested in Indo-European linguistics but I don't know which background I need and where I should begin from

Offline Daniel

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Re: What can you advice for learning Indo-European linguistics by myself?
« Reply #1 on: January 04, 2018, 12:36:09 PM »
There are two approaches, from different angles, and you'll need some of both:
1. Study historical linguistics: the comparative method, specific sound changes related to Indo-European, etc.
2. Learn the Indo-European languages, especially the classical ones. Latin and Greek would be reasonable starting points, but if you're serious about this, then you'd want to have some working knowledge of (some of) Sanskrit, Avestan, Gothic, Old Church Slavonic, Hittite, etc.

The first is easy enough, just like various other subjects-- take a class, read a textbook, skim Wikipedia, etc.
The second is a little more challenging because it requires specialized knowledge that not many people have (beyond Latin and Greek at least). There are various textbooks to learn some of the classical languages that you can probably find at a library, but if you've ever tried to learn a language from a book you'll know some of the difficulties with that. On the other hand, for a language no longer spoken, the only better way would be to interact with others also studying it (in a class, etc.), but a book isn't an unreasonable approach if you are motivated on your own.

In short, Indo-Europeanists are very knowledgeable about comparative and historical linguistics, but specifically know the (early) Indo-European languages well. For someone like me who has a strong background in historical linguistics and has even done some relevant research about Indo-European, it is clear that expert Indo-Europeanists are just on another level regarding knowledge of the individual languages. It's a specialized field, but also a very academic one, meaning that at least in theory you could try to learn it on your own-- of course I would recommend a class if possible!
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Offline ladislaV_

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Re: What can you advice for learning Indo-European linguistics by myself?
« Reply #2 on: January 04, 2018, 06:21:27 PM »
Daniel, thank you for answer! It would be certainly helpful for me! My friend who is linguist adviced me to learn Indo-European by itself (like you said) before coming academic historical linguist, so I have no doubt about it. By the way, I am 17 y.o boy from Russia studying in high school. I also really worry about employment. So what can you say about academic employment in Indo-European linguistics? Is there any advices for me? I look forward to your answer, it is very important for me, and thank you again!

Offline Daniel

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Re: What can you advice for learning Indo-European linguistics by myself?
« Reply #3 on: January 04, 2018, 06:41:06 PM »
Well, it's a very small/specialized field and not as popular as it once was. That means there are few jobs in it. But also, there are not that many students concentrating in it so you might get one of the few jobs. Historical linguistics in general is somewhat neglected these days, so consider having an alternative as well. The most employable subfield is probably computational linguistics, and from that perspective what might make sense is learning both Indo-European linguistics and also computational approaches to historical linguistics to maybe find the middle ground between all of the controversial research these days-- and if you don't get a job in that, you'll have the skills to work elsewhere, outside of academia.
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Offline ladislaV_

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Re: What can you advice for learning Indo-European linguistics by myself?
« Reply #4 on: January 05, 2018, 02:31:37 AM »
Do you mean situation in USA or all over the world? Does it mean that there's nothing to research in Indo-European linguistics? Do you want to say it is dead field? Sounds sad..

Offline Daniel

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Re: What can you advice for learning Indo-European linguistics by myself?
« Reply #5 on: January 06, 2018, 10:08:27 PM »
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Do you mean situation in USA or all over the world?
Probably especially in the US, but elsewhere as well. Less so in some places with a strong tradition like Germany, but in decline even there. Historical Linguistics (and originally work on Indo-European of course) is really the origin of modern Linguistics in general-- from William Jones's initial popularization of comparative studies to research by Rask, Grimm, etc., and up until the 1900s, the main questions and methodologies in Linguistics were motivated by historical (usually Indo-European) questions. From there, synchronic theoretical approaches took off-- things like figuring out how phonology works in the mind of a speaker, with phonemes, etc., rather than how sounds change over time. And then Generativism with syntax trees and so forth, and then now the turn toward experimental work. Historical Linguistics has, in that sense, been becoming less central for over 100 years, but for most of that time in parallel to the new(er) research rather than being replaced by it. But today, there are fewer and fewer historical linguists, and fewer experts in the field (most today are older professors, not so many new grad students, etc., though there are still a few). I'd say that biggest factor today is the turn toward experimental/laboratory research. An oversimplified explanation would be that if the research involves statistics, it's becoming more popular, and if it doesn't, it's becoming less popular (not only, but especially, Historical Linguistics). In fact, we see that trend with some of the sometimes-nonsensical "big data" publications in Historical Linguistics today, making far-fetched claims that just don't line up with what historical linguists have known for over a century. (E.g., 'big data' research making 'innovative' claims about the Indo-European homeland. I'll add just that I don't think the methodology is "bad" per se, but that it needs to be done as an extension of, rather than alternative to, serious, well-informed Historical Linguistics, which is why I mentioned getting a background in computer science above.)

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Does it mean that there's nothing to research in Indo-European linguistics?
Well, that's part of it too. If you go into Historical Linguistics, there is certainly more to be done in other parts of the world. Overall, most of the big (and "answerable") questions about Indo-European (and some other families) have already been answered. It's unclear whether we'll ever really identify the homeland or be able to decide between hypotheses for earlier relationships (Nostratic, Eurasiatic, Indo-Ugric, etc.). There is still of course a lot of research to be done on individual languages, and it continues to be published. The field is far from dead, but it's less popular now.
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Do you want to say it is dead field? Sounds sad..
No, not dead. But in decline (or declined). Some of it makes sense: a lot of good research has already bee done, and now there are other questions we can ask. But the almost abandonment of Historical Linguistics is sad. I've worked with a well known Indo-Europeanist and he has talked several times (often informally, at department seminars, etc., but also at conferences) about how Historical Linguistics is now being neglected, and sometimes this allows for bad research to surface in its place (e.g., odd claims about homelands, etc.).

I won't forget my first week of grad school when I was walking with a group of classmates and one complained to the rest of us about our Historical Linguistics class. She was apparently indignant that she had to take one class in grad school. Odd, too, because her concentration was in phonetics, which traditionally comes out of historical research. But to me, that was very telling: at the very least, Historical Linguistics is "half" of the research that can be done (every synchronic question can be asked diachronically!-- in fact, it's even more than that-- there are about 6,000 languages around now, and there have been many, many more historically, although of course we don't have access to most of the data, but we can look at languages as they change now, and dialects, etc.). So in the end, there is a general lack of interest, some of the "big" questions have been answered, and other methodologies/subfields are becoming more popular (experimental work, etc.).

Personally, I would also comment that there is a push these days for grad students to become experts in methodologies and become very specialized, rather than learning languages first. It's simply not the case that most students start off with a strong background in Latin and Greek. That used to be the case, so it was easier to become an "Indo-Europeanist". Today, most of the research, I think, is done by narrower experts on specific (sub)families, tied into what has been done in earlier research.
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Offline ladislaV_

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Re: What can you advice for learning Indo-European linguistics by myself?
« Reply #6 on: January 07, 2018, 07:44:50 AM »
Thank you for answer! So, now I have no doubt. But how about becoming, for example, Slavic linguist, Germanic linguist, Baltic linguist? Some people say that it would be better to be researcher with something more specific

Offline Daniel

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Re: What can you advice for learning Indo-European linguistics by myself?
« Reply #7 on: January 07, 2018, 06:08:14 PM »
Sure, you can do that (or become an Indo-Europeanist still). Typically these specialties allow a little flexibility-- teaching Russian language classes while doing Slavic linguistics research for publication, etc. But it would also limit the topics for your research in a way--  if you work in a Slavic department you would end up mostly doing research on Slavic. Which might be fine for you. You should look at researchers today to see what career path you'd like to do. Then the big question is just whether you can get one of those jobs-- always a trade off-- narrow specialization means you're an expert in a narrow field if that job becomes available but not qualified for a slightly different job. Getting a job these days requires some luck.
« Last Edit: January 08, 2018, 08:33:48 PM by Daniel »
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Offline panini

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Re: What can you advice for learning Indo-European linguistics by myself?
« Reply #8 on: January 08, 2018, 04:58:20 PM »
There is some chance that a job will become available somewhere in about 10-15 years (a plausible future target for you). Let's say that there are exactly 2 jobs in that open up within that time frame, and there are 200 applicants. Then the question is, what do you need to do, so that you end up as one of the lucky 2? One approach is the "multiple birds, one stone" approach, where you specialize in Indo-European and Semitic and Athabaskan (and computational linguistics), the reason being that the department happens to have courses in these areas than need covering. Better to hire one person who can do everything, right? There is, however, the problem that people are willing to claim an ability to do things that they can't actually do, and developing an impressive publication portfolio in all of those fields is extremely hard, and risky (in case the demand is for IE, semantics, sign language and Mansi dialectology).

The other approach is the "undisputed brilliance" approach, implying tight focus (and frankly, "Indo-European is way too broad – instead, you need to have general fluency in IE and extreme competence in Iranian linguistics or Greek epigraphy). The idea is that you might become so superb in your area that no other candidate can touch you. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that departments want to hire the absolutely best person for the position, and I think that's unrealistic, at least at the relevant level. This is the way to get a named chair full professor position in a traditional European university, which could happen in some number of decades.

If you follow a broader study path, you have more future options to rearrange your research interests. For example, you may discover that you're more interested in comparative linguistics than historical linguistics. Language description and field work very naturally connect to comparative linguistics in a way that historical linguistics doesn't (essentially, you can't do historical linguistics in a family until there is some factual knowledge of the language that is sufficient to allow you to compare and reconstruct, and then you can do the finely-focused detail work that typifies historical linguistics). If you have spend all of your time developing talents at reading medieval manuscripts, you'd be unqualified to move in that new direction. Ultimately you have to narrow your focus, but right now an even split between general linguistics and specific languages would, IMO, be a wiser choice (assuming that you've already gained the requisite general knowledge of history, logic, ethics, physics etc.).