Our very own Professor Hamilton has been giving guest lectures on Russian linguistics at Harvard. Here’s his story about his latest trip. Leave your answers to his questions in the comments section!
The hallowed halls of Harvard
Dr. Clark has encouraged me to make a report on my second trip up to Harvard, which Mrs. H. and I accomplished during Fall Break. It was more fun than the first time.
We spent the night in a super hotel in the shadows of MIT, which is two subway stops from Harvard. Harvard is farther out from Boston than MIT, and a whole lot more like Wake Forest in its architecture and attitude. MIT is just a bunch of huge glass buildings, far as I can tell.
The gleaming glass walls of MIT
So what was Harvard like this year? The class consisted of eight graduate students, all of whom are working on their graduate degrees in Russian and will probably go on to become Russian teachers. That’s the main reason why they are required to take a course that uses my little book, the one you use if you take RUS 330 Structure of Russian, here, from me.
Professor Hamilton’s book
Somewhat to my surprise, I learned than none of these students is going to go on to do anything in what we would call Slavic Linguistics, the subject my own degree is in. There may be some schools left that can grant a PhD in that exact discipline, but Harvard doesn’t have it. They do have degrees in literature, and so literature is surviving, while linguistics, of the old fashioned kind, is fading away. To put it as Dr. Clancy, their professor said, it’s sad that the “birthplace of Slavic linguistics” no longer offers a degree with that name.
So what did I try to teach this group? Chapter 10 of my book. It’s about “borrowed words in Russian.” Interesting? Sure. I started by asking “OK, can you think of a word in Russian that starts with the letter э but is NOT borrowed? Don’t give me things like электричество or экран, those are borrowed.”
Right away somebody said “Этот, эта, это…” I said “Naw, that’s not a word.” The word is тот, та, то, with the “grunt morpheme” э plastered in front of it! You make a grunting noise when you are pointing at something and go ээээ-тот!. Same thing for этакая, etc.”
I think they started to agree. Then I told them that the history of the spelling letter э is relatively recent. From old texts I’ve concluded it didn’t get written down until around the time of Peter the Great. Before that, they all just used сей, ся. сё as in сегодня or сейчас, and our good friend это must have been substandard, like today’s “Gimme that there pencil.”
How did I get connected with Harvard? Sarah van Sickle. She took Russian here along with political science. She got interested in Ukraine and went there twice. So she applied to Harvard, since Harvard has always had a strong program in Ukrainian studies.
When she had me fill out the Harvard application’s recommendation form, it asked “What leadership has this student shown?”
Usually we professors can only answer “She was the president of the Russian Club and the vice president of the Frisbee Club.” or something along those lines.
In Sarah’s case I wrote: “She forced six of us faculty to come together in ZSR library and have a symposium on developments in Ukraine. We wouldn’t have done that without her forcing us.”
I do remember enjoying that symposium, since, at it,we wound up talking about the difference between “На Украине” and “В Украине”. That’s good linguistics. Can you tell me which phrase a Russian would use, and which one a Ukrainian nationalist now typically uses? Can you tell me what logic underlies this dichotomy?
If you can send me your answers, Dr. Clark will feed them to me, since I’m not very good at blogging. [As a linguist, why don’t I like the word “blog”? It’s not because I’m against abbreviations].