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Recent PhD graduate Dr Katerina Naitoro is the 2020 recipient of the Stephen Wurm Prize for Pacific Linguistics. Kate talked with us about her interest in language and linguistics and about the research that led to her receiving this prize.
How did your interest in languages and linguistics evolve?
It started with my learning of German and later English as a child. Being a native speaker of Czech, I was fascinated by the similarities and differences between the new languages I encountered and the way speakers used these languages to express themselves. As I moved countries and spent more time in an English speaking environment, I realised my dominant language shifted to English. That brought questions about bilingualism, identity, and the connection between language, culture and ways of thinking.
It was at this time that I began university. I enrolled in an introduction to linguistics course as an elective, and within the first week of the semester I changed my major from English to linguistics. I vividly remember my first linguistics lecturer, Kon Kuiper, pointing out the uniqueness of human language: "No matter how eloquently your dog can bark, he will never be able to tell you that his father was a poor but honest dog." And it kind of rolled on from there.
What do you see as the value of studying languages and linguistics?
Language is one of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals. As a system of communication, it has unique features that reflect human cognition, our inherent drive to seek and recognise patterns, and our desire make sense of the world. Beyond conveying information, language helps us express our identity, feelings and emotions. Through language we encode our cultures, our social organisation, our relationships. Through language we record and pass on our histories. Yet while these functions are common to all human languages, there is so much diversity in how they manifest in different languages.
For me, the ways of benefitting from the study of languages and linguistics are as broad as these many functions of language. This study deepens our understanding of how our minds work; it gives us a glimpse into the richness of the diverse cultures and their histories; it lets us appreciate the diversity of the human family whilst reminding us that we are one. The study of individual languages makes us aware of ways of thinking different from our own. Examining the histories of languages allows us to learn about the history of the people who are or were speaking them. Learning about how we acquire our first language or learn a second language enhances our understanding of human cognition and development.
Tell us about your PhD research that led to this prize.
My PhD thesis is a cross-linguistic study of the development of transitive morphology—the markings that occur in some languages to distinguish between transitive (having a direct object; e.g. ate in ‘I ate an apple’) and intransitive (having no direct object; e.g. fell in ‘they fell down’) verbs—in a number of languages from the Southeast Solomonic subgroup of the Oceanic language family. The story started during my Master’s thesis. I noticed that in the language I was studying—'Are'are, spoken on Malaita in the Solomons—there were a variety of ways a verb stem could occur with different transitive suffixes, and nuances for each suffix. Curiously there did not seem to be any way of predicting these combinations. I wanted to know how this situation arose, whether there were patterns I was missing and how these potential patterns developed. I decided to look at the history of a group of languages spoken in the Solomon Islands to investigate this.
The picture that emerged was more complex than I anticipated; my journey was frustrating at times and I am aware that in many respects I have only scratched the surface. Looking back I feel I could not have chosen a better place to tackle this project than ANU. This research would not have been possible without the careful and immensely helpful guidance and encouragement of my supervisory panel: primarily Beth Evans, Malcolm Ross and Andy Pawley; briefly Mark Donohue and Don Daniels; and sadly also briefly Frank Lichtenberk. I may not have figured out everything I wanted to, but I have definitely learned a lot. Thank you.
If you wish to support research like this, you can now donate to the School of Culture, History & Language fund.