Michael Krauss / Linguist

Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers


michael krauss linguistI am pleased to share November’s “Peer to Pier” interview with linguist Michael Krauss. Mike, age 77, joined the faculty of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1960 and is now Professor emeritus.  He served as director of the Alaska Native Language Center from its inception in 1972 until his retirement in June 2000.

In his 1991 address to the Linguistic Society of America, Mike was among the first to create an awareness of the global problem of endangered languages. In talking with Mike, he made the point that just as we have learned that our planet needs biodiversity to survive and thrive, so too we of the human condition need intellectual diversity. He remains active in efforts to document Alaska’s Native languages and encourage awareness of the global problem of endangered languages.

In our conversation, I learned he and I have more than a few things in common, among those an affinity for the west coast of Ireland and underdogs.  Perhaps there is a connection there? In any event, I hope you’ll enjoy this thought-provoking discussion with a charming champion of diversity.

Meg: Could you define linguistics?

Mike: Linguistics everyone would agree is the scientific study of human languages. But there the agreement ends because it branches into two rather different concepts. One branch is the study of what all human languages have in common. In 1957 {linguist} Chomsky focused linguistics on the question of what is the basic nature of human language–what all languages have in common.

Michael Krauss

Photo Courtesy of the University of Alaska

The Chomsky view of this can correctly claim that the difference between Zulu and Eskimo and Chinese and English is quite trivial and what’s really interesting is what they all have in common. Chomsky would more or less claim that all we really need is English and, say, Japanese for double-checking, as all human languages are more or less basically the same with differences that are essentially trivial.

I’ll compare it with biology. The question of what is life boils down in some sense to the nature of DNA. The micro view is that what really counts about life is what all organisms have in common. The secrets of DNA and the difference between me and some fruit fly and some white rat and some panda is still going to be basically the double helix. Nobody’s going to have a triple helix so the difference between me and a chimpanzee is quite trivial according to that view of biology.

Some would correctly say here’s no point in studying pandas for their DNA because white rats are just so much cheaper and more convenient to use. Who cares about pandas or some damn stupid spotted owl, which is either a pest or gets in the way of our logging? Yet current wisdom says that if we wipe out some useless-looking centipede, that could wreck the biosphere that we depend on for our ability to breathe and for our organisms to survive.

So I’m trying to draw the parallel of the differences. In biology we might call them microbiology and macro biology. In some ways you could say diversity in language is as essential to our humanity as biodiversity is essential to our survival. The interest in micro linguistics or what makes all languages tick was practically exclusive, until recently. I’ve tried to make some difference in that, to pull the pendulum back to an interest also in macro linguistics.

Meg: What prompted your interest in linguistics?

Mike: I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio in the ‘30s, ‘40s in a Jewish family where I heard no language other than English and maybe a little Sunday School Hebrew. I can recall that I made myself late to school one morning because walking by some work along the road, people were digging a ditch and speaking a language that was definitely not like anything I’d heard before and I remember my fascination with that. I pretended to be interested in the work itself but it was the language that fascinated me so much that I made myself late for school.

Michael Krauss

Photo Courtesy of the University of Alaska

That was the first symptom you might say. Otherwise I was always good at languages in school and for some reason always interested whether it had any actual use or not. I’ve always been interested not only in language but underdog languages and languages of minorities. While it may have been more profitable for me to learn Russian I was always attracted to languages spoken by the fewer rather than the more people and by the more powerless rather than more powerful. That has also for some reason defined my life direction.

I went to Columbia and then the University of Paris where I got fascinated with Celtic languages. From France I went on to Ireland and ended up on a small Island off the west coast where there were still people not only who spoke Irish, but there were even a few young people my age who did not speak English. Back in the 1950s this was still true in the outlying fringes of Ireland and Galway Bay was still in those days relatively isolated. People spoke Irish and lived what was still at that time a 19th century kind of peasant existence.

I became deeply imbued with the Gaelic cause. That turned into a crossroad in my life. I was in my way becoming very integrated into life on that island and I sometimes wonder how I ever left it. In certain ways it was very, very formative.

It was a population at that time of 200-something, all stone walls and small patches, basically a subsistence life. At the time there were no gasoline engines and barely horse carts. It was mainly carrying things on your back and no electric lights or running water or anything of that kind. But a very rich life focused on values of 19th century Catholic Ireland–but people who had adopted Catholicism very much to their own culture more than the other way around and who were living a very traditional and very intellectual, very rich Gaelic life.

gaelic signsAt the time it was still during the period of such poverty that the Brits had hardly coveted the place and had left the Gaelic language and life still vibrantly intact on that island. There were wonderful people there living a very different life from that which I’d been raised in but to which I took in such a way that it changed me and never left me.

As a result of my experience there, I got a scholarship to Harvard, where I spent one whole year. Harvard basically rubber-stamped the dissertation that I had basically written in Ireland on the phonology of the Gaelic dialect that I had learned. I’m sure there was no one in my committee who ever so much as really read my dissertation at all.

One thought on “Michael Krauss / Linguist”

  1. What would be the real impacts of the extinction of all these languages after all? Not that I want it to happen, but I just wonder…

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