James Matisoff Interview Part 1


Today we are here with Professor James A. Matisoff Professor emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley and one of the key figures in Sino-Tibetan linguistics since the mid 20th century and
one of the key developers of the whole field of Sino-Tibetan Linguistics and also one of the founders of the International conferences on Sino-Tibetan
languages and linguistics and we are now here at the 50th such conference
and so we’re taking this opportunity which also happens to be the 80th year of
his birth and so we are going to be asking him a number
of questions about his life and his work and the development of the field
generally so Professor Matisoff could you please tell us about some of these
things? Thank you Okay well where to begin? I was born in 1937 in
Boston Massachusetts and grew up there in New England my first real study in-depth of a foreign
language which was Hebrew I was made to go to Hebrew school after public
school from about age seven and I did a six year course I guess in five
years and the class was very interesting because most of the kids who were class hated it
because it was after public school it was just something you had to get through
but I kind of enjoyed it even though I would play hooky sometimes and What the class was, we would read the Bible
and of course in Biblical Hebrew and then the whole class was conducted in
modern Hebrew so we would translate verse by verse into the modern language and
then talk about it that way and that’s pretty advanced yeah.. well I remember especially on the blackboard on the side he took a completely regular verb – the triliteral verb SGR which means “to close” and he put the root
in one colour and then all the prefixes and suffixes in another
colour and the vowel.. the vowel changes still in other
colours It was like wow isn’t this great? this is this part is stable then we have this and that will change the vowels and I think that gave me a certain flexibility
in non-indoeuropean languages at quite an early age so – I’m glad that happened I went to school there – went to Harvard and
got my BA and MA started off in philosophy but decided after a while I had no talent
for it so I switched to French literature and uh got my BA in that and then stayed on another year and got my MA in French at which point I went to Europe on a traveling fellowship and spent most of the time in Paris. Had a
good time there. Made various other trips and then came a time for a big decision in
my life I could have gone back to Harvard and finished
a PhD in French although I was beginning to lose interest in that as an academic field. I love the French
language and literature but I was frankly getting a little bored with it but in France I met this guy who had been to Japan and told me what an interesting
place it was and I made this decision not to go back home after my year abroad but to try going to Japan to study Japanese and in retrospect that seems to have been
one of the best decisions I ever made So I took a slow boat to India on that old line I don’t know if it still exists “Messageries
Maritimes” leaving from Marseilles to Bombay going down the Red Sea where I had a great
case of stomach problems solved by paregoric which is a opium derivative
but that made me feel better finally got to Japan and I had no idea about
the Japanese academic world where I should apply I had heard of the University
of Tokyo but it turned out that’s a very hard place
to get into and I hadn’t done the proper applications and
everything but then a friend of mine told me about this school in Tokyo called
International Christian University which had an intensive Japanese program for foreigners
and I went there and I waved my Harvard MA at them sort of and they let me
enroll. Didn’t even charge me and so I spent that whole year – 10 months
anyway – in this intensive Japanese class It was well organized we were given a set of sentences to memorize
every day paying attention to pitch accent and all
that stuff and we’d be graded every day how well did and
the grades would be posted on the wall So it was very motivational we had to learn a certain number of Japanese characters every day which we did and I had a very good
time Then came another moment of decision what
should I do? Should I go back and continue for PhD in French at Harvard or
do what? but someone had put a bee in my bonnet about
linguistics one of my French professors said he thought maybe that would be more to my
taste than straight French literature so I did that went back to Harvard, enrolled in the linguistics department which was something of a mistake because it then as now is not a very good linguistics department the chair was a guy called Joshua Whatmough who was an Englishman who ah… hHe was a smart guy. He had a theory called
selective variation about the history of language but he plunged right into laryngeals and details
of Indo-European and he advised me to take computational linguistics with a guy called
Anthony Oettinger which I did and it involved a lot of calculus I got a
65 on the midterm and dropped the class decided if this is linguistics I don’t really
want it but this year I also started studying Chinese
with the eldest daughter of Zhào Yuánrèn the
great Chinese linguist her name was Biàn Rúlán but everybody called
her Iris. It’s funny Americans called her Rúlán but Chinese tend to call her Iris
for some reason that was a wonderful class intensive Chinese.
Enjoyed that a lot and that was the year I met this woman here then Susan Kimball. We met in a Japanese class It was a literary Japanese class – bungo (文語)
or wén yǔ (文语) and that was fun too and after a few weeks
we decided we were gonna get married we didn’t waste time it was sort of a good decision we’ve been
married now for 56 years or whatever it is 55 or 56? 55. 56 in January and also that was the year I became acquainted
with Noam Chomsky because in those days it was possible to cross
register for Harvard students who could take courses at MIT so I did I took a grammar course from him
and it was… it was quite a deal in those days he was just achieving top prominence in the
profession he would come into the classroom every day
with a retinue of students like ducklings following him into
the class and um he was very careful to produce only grammatical
utterances so he never allowed his lectures to be recorded
because he might have made a grammatical mistake here or there.
Competence and performance. and he would start writing on the board he’d make a big capital L and said “this is the class of all languages” and then
he would do L1 L2 L3 dot dot dot LN it’s like “WOW!” “And this is the class of possible grammars” G1 G2 G3 dot dot dot G sub – yep It just seemed
so scientific everyone was just wowed so I took that class and you know I actually, I became sort of the generative
young Turk and I went to Berkeley later but I’m jumping
ahead anyways spent this year in the Harvard PhD
program in linguistics but by a fortunate coincidence Susan my future and then wife had a brother also called Jim who was a linguistics student at Berkeley
and he told her what a good Department it was
and when he heard that his sister’s boyfriend was studying linguistics at Harvard he said what are you doing that for it’s not a good department to come to Berkeley. so that was another big decision and we decided
to do that. And so Susan had been given a little Volkswagen bug
for her graduation present and so we piled into that with all our worldly
possessions and drove across the country it took two weeks or so and got to Berkeley
and enrolled in the Linguistics department that
was a good decision the second summer we were there a then the graduate student at the University
of Arizona wrote to Mary Haas the chair of the department saying he would like to work with a linguist
on his native language which was Jinghpaw Kachin it was called in those days and Mary knew that I was interested in Asian languages so she thought I might like working with him that summer and so I said sure and Maran came up to Berkeley and he spoiled me for life what to expect from
an informant we called them informants in those days because
was a linguistics major at Arizona and very sophisticated about his language and
so we started working on Jinghpaw and I had the idea of taking Zhào Yuánrèn Mandarin primmer and translating it into Jinghpaw I still have that somewhere in a notebook And I began ask him things like today I’m going to the market, yesterday I
went to the market tomorrow we’ll go to the market and he didn’t
seem very happy with this and I soon got the idea this is not the way
the language worked and that there was no past, present, future
It’s a different kind of system they have a perfective or completive and a tentative a hypothetical but it wasn’t past,
present, future and so I was already getting skeptical about transposing western grammatical categories
to languages of this type well things might have ended there but another
coincidence one’s life is determined by these coincidences
I’m convinced one of the field methods… one of the field
method languages offered that year in those days every Berkeley graduate student had to take
a course in field methods so two were being offered that year. One was
in Amharic and one was in Burmese the Amharic course was taught by Harvey Pitkin
this guy who later got me my job at Columbia and I liked the first day because he said “I want to show you some interesting things” he asked the informant “How’d you say Peter?” the guy said [pˈɛtru] woah… ejectives! so I was all set to take that class but then
I found out that the other field methods class was in Burmese And I just spent that summer working with
LaRaw Maran and Jinghpaw So I thought ah! This is more to my liking.
So I went to Harvey Pitkin said excuse me I would like to switch to the other field
methods class and he said okay So we did… we started Burmese with Wally Chafe and a kind of very touchy
informant I’ve had a few of those over the years…
who was very impatient at being asked for too many repetitions. I
remember one day we were working on voiceless nasals and we had him repeat this [n̥] [n̥] [n̥]
many times and his nose started to run and he got very embarrassed, ran out of the classroom and came back He got more and more impatient as the year
went on but we eventually learned quite a bit of Burmese
from him and I began to see why some of these words Burmese look alot like these words in Jinghpaw I didn’t have much of an idea of how to reconstruct
in those days I Thought that every word that meant a certain
thing in one language would have to be cognate to the word that
meant the same thing another language I quickly got over that notion so that following summer there was a LSA Institute
in Bloomington Indiana and many interesting courses were being offered
Bodman was giving a course in old Chinese Cornyn was then teaching at Yale is giving
a course in Burmese… William Cornyn huh? and Lee yeah and Lee Fanguay it was giving a course in comparative Thai. Pullyblank was also giving a class there so it was a great feast to audit all of these
courses The chair of the department in those days
was Mary R. Haas who had two specialties one was American Indian linguistics and she
was one of the leaders in the field she was a
student of Sapir and the other field was Thai linguistics like other American linguists she had been
recruited during the war and after the war World War II this is to study exotic languages and since the United States had never been
a colonial power in Southeast Asia except for the Philippines we were lagging far behind the British the
Dutch and the French who were the colonial powers and there was money available to send students to that part of the world to learn the languages and this was also around Sputnik time when we were afraid that
the Russians were out-stripping us in technology things like that and so it was
very easy to get – relatively easy – to get fellowships to go abroad and study one of these languages so I didn’t have much of an idea of what languages
were available then I knew about Thai and about Japanese and Chinese but I somehow wanted to study a lesser-known language I didn’t have much idea of what would be a
good one to study so on my Fulbright application when asked
what language you want to study I wrote Miao, Yao, Lahu and/or Wa and that worked and I got this Fulbright-Hays grant to go
to Burma, it was called in those days. but that was 1964 and that was the year when
Burma underwent a spasm of xenophobia and kicked out all the foreigners in the
country even people who’ve been there the whole lives as missionaries or whatever… or Indian cloth
merchants they were all kicked out so I went to Miss Haas the chair of the department
said “what shall I do?” “I have this grant to go to Burma, but I can’t
go to Burma” and she said “Well, there’s another country nearby called
Thailand and there they speak many of the same languages that they speak in Burma “Why don’t you see if you can get the grant
shifted to Thailand?” And so I did that and that wasn’t much of a problem So…there we were. At this point we had a
nine-month-old baby named Nadja and We took off the three of us for Asia first
via Japan first to Tokyo and then to Bangkok and went up country to the then very charming city – still very nice city called Chiang Mai the biggest city in the north, the second
biggest city in Thailand and found a place to live and started looking
around for someone who could help me work on some language and by fortunate coincidence again this young
fellow showed up he was maybe early 20s he was never sure of his age – he had two
names he had an English name Paul and another name Ca-lor turned out to be Lahu and Paul or I guess I’ll call him Ca-lor from now on was a native born Lahu but both of his parents
died when he was about nine years old this is in Burma, in Shan State so he was
raised in a Shan family and learned Burmese very well and his English
was quite good and, uh… he I explained to him what I would like him to
do, go with me to Lahu villages and he was willing and I started off by asking individual words how
do you say this had to say that and he knew most of them but some words he didn’t
know even rather common words like like navel or fingernail or something like
that because he spoke Lahu like a nine-year-old basically he hadn’t used the language in a long long
time but through various contacts we heard about
this village about 60 kilometres north of Chiang Mai called Huey Tat a Christian village and we went up there together,
Ca-lor and I by bus first to a place called Chiang Dao
and then as far as the bus would take us on the main
road we’d had to get off the bus then and walk
up the mountain to the village which is about a three-hour proposition carrying a heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder
which I had bought those days no computers – this way before computers So the two of us would trudge up the mountain
windy, rocky road and quite impassable the rainy season but this wasn’t the rainy season yet so we went up to this village and met the
head man and the pastor the pastor was Ca-bo head man was Ca-bi by now you can probably tell probably tell
that “ca” is a prefix to male names in Lahu traditional male names and um… Ca-lor explained to them in his
kind of limited Lahu but I was there for and they said “We will help you” And so I whipped out a notebook and turned
on the tape recorder I started asking individual words and asked him to repeat each
words three times I started off with body parts and head and
hair, nose and so forth we got to the fingers and a strange thing
happened asked for thumb I got the thumb then asked for Index finger and everybody
burst out laughing when I said there were three times [pʰəχɛla]
no [pʰəχɛla] no [pʰəχɛla] no turns out the literal meaning of index finger
is dogshit finger I asked, “why?” They said “it’s just about
the same shape and size as a dog turd” so that sort of broke the ice We went through the rest of the body – not
the shady parts the first time and that began a rhythm of work that we observed
for like 12 months – whatever it was – we’d go to the village and record things and of course they were very
fascinated by a tape recorder to hear that what they had just said played back
to them they thought it was a great fun and I explained to them I wanted conversations
about various topics like hunting and building a house and the institution of the village headmen
and all that they got the idea and would actually rehearse
little skits and they would give each other different parts to play I mean with sound effects like they would
make noises like gunshots or bark like dogs to imitate hunting techniques and they enjoyed it and then played it back and sometimes I would turn the tape recorder
on when they were still rehearsing to get even more free conversation even free-er
conversation so this worked we would record stuff and then
go back to Chiang Mai Susan didn’t want to go live in the village
clearly with a nine-month-old baby so we had this nice house in Chiang Mai and
take trips to the village every couple of weeks and stay for a few days and then go back and
transcribe what I had recorded start to analyze it and of course there were
a lot of words which Ca-lor didn’t know at first But being a native speaker he had a perfect
accent and perfect ear for the language and after several trips his Lahu
just skyrocketed and began to talk just like any other Lahu of his age and we did this for a long long time and soon I got so I could go to village by myself if I wanted to which I did a few times and went to other
villages too mostly Christian villages and this went on for I guess for 15 months actually 15 months until February of ’66 hmm? May of ’66… Okay and uh then we had to go home back to San Francisco and Susan’s brother Jim who was a linguistics student then picked us up at the airport in his – he also
had a VW Bug with a roof rack there were four of us in the car, he and his
wife and Susan and I but he neglected to bring any string or bungee cords or anything just stuck the suitcases on the
roof rack was a little roof rack and so we got on to the freeway and after a few minutes we heard this thump looked
out the back window the suitcase was flown off the top of the
car onto the highway spilling out all the tapes all my tapes unrolled on the highway so there was a blanket or something a quilt in the car so I stopped traffic and gathered up everything all the spools put
’em in the in the blanket and in much much more dampened moods we continued on our journey but fortunately the people in the Berkeley language lab did a great job in saving the tapes which were never very high quality anyway but even less high quality after that but at least they were basically saved so it shows you should never count your chickens
before they hatch I got an offer from Columbia University to
join the faculty there this was due to the good offices of one of
my teachers at Berkeley called Harvey Pitkin who was an anthropological linguist who was now, then teaching at Columbia and he talked me up to them told the people there that we made
pot roast out of water Buffalos things like that made us sound exotic the chair the department then was a great
guy who became a dear friend of ours called Robert Austerlitz who was a polymath and polyglot he spoke about twelve languages Including well he had Romanian, German and Hungarian his native languages his wife was Finnish so he learned Finnish and so forth he worked on Gilyak which was a Siberian language that he tried to compared to Ainu but it’s not clear what it’s related to anyways he was a great mentor and supporter in the Colombia linguistics department so when I was there I started translating a few of the texts I had collected not to them, only about thirty of them since I was very busy teaching for the first
time a lot of time preparing classes I should say that I finished my dissertation
The first year I was teaching at Columbia that was in ’66 I sent it in and then and got the degree now that dissertation you had a
complete draft of it when we left Thailand in 1966 because I typed that so i’ll never forget that Yeah… and then you must have been re-working it yes… I was still sort of under the generative thumb then and so I thought I had to you know generative type rules so like when I was dealing with the relative clauses I would do the two basic sentences first the matrix sentence and all the relative clause and then the transformations to go from one to the other again after a short time It seemed
to me very tedious and So I rewrote the whole dissertation If I remember your retirement do you sort of had a notice about how Jim Matisoff will explain generative grammar to us when you were a Grad student, right? right… Yeah I had to explain
“Syntactic Structures” to them and uh… is that why Berkeley still is not too formal? No, just kidding so I’m glad I got out from under that burden and uh.. that was the year at Colombia 1968 when there were these student riots students occupying buildings on campus and students were inside the buildings the police are outside and the faculty formed sort of a sanitary cordon around the buildings to prevent the police from running in and
beating up the students… well that was sort of fun I should mention that before this when we
were still at Berkeley in 1964 that was the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley where the same sort of thing was happening so we got it bicoastaly first Berkeley and then at Columbia so this eventually blow over so somehow the idea came well since there’s so much interest in Sino-Tibetan now in Southeast Asian here at Columbia by the way Søren Egerod I just got a job at Columbia then so we had
to kind of escape velocity we could say well why don’t we have a meeting or a conference about these languages and so Columbia wasn’t quite
ready to do it then but there were a bunch of people at Yale who were including a guy called Roy Andrew Miller Hugh Stimson, Samuel Martin a Japanese scholar and a couple of others and a couple of other schools nearby had people interested in Southeast Asian languages Princeton had a Chinese program then
Mei Tsu-lin was there and Jerry Norman and at Cornell there was a Nick Bodman and so uh… group of eight of us met at Yale for the
first time we called it first meeting on Sino-Tibetan reconstruction and all the papers had to do with historical
reconstruction and it was you know tiny we would call it nowadays a workshop I guess and everybody had to read everybody’s paper in advance had to be submitted advance it was a lot of fun so the second time Austerlitz and I decided to do it at Columbia so the second one was there third one is a
Cornell with Bodman and by this time I’d gotten to know a guy
called LaRaw Maran who was Jinghpaw LaRaw by then had a position as a linguistics professor at University Indiana but that ended badly because they abolished
the department you understand the situation and he eventually went into computers but for a while he was a stalwart at the Sino-Tibetan conferences so the mid-seventies or so wasn’t that when you met Benedict also? Oh – yes! I should have mentioned Benedict when we were in Thailand I knew slightly
an anthropologist called Frank LeBar who I showed my first paper to – one of my first papers to called Lahu and Proto-Lolo-Burmese that was in ’69 or ’68 whenever it was and he knew this amateur linguist called Paul Benedict who was living in upstate New York a place called Briarcliff Manor just a short distance from New York and Westchester
County and he thought he would send this paper to him because he knew Benedict was doing Southeast Asian linguistics and he did and Benedict responded immediately a long long letter which I still have I still have his whole correspondence by the way I now have both ends of the correspondence because I inherited Benedict’s books and papers after
he died and included there were all our letters all correspondence which I’ve
now arranged chronologically someday I’d like to do something after I expurgate it so we quickly hit it off and got into this
custom of meeting every Wednesday at a place called the West End or the West End Cafe on….um… uh… what’s his s Street not Morningside Drive Broadway yes – Broadway right opposite the campus and that’s the first time I ever had kale
by the way that was one of the vegetables and Benedict would take out a napkin and he was just getting into Austro-Thai then and scribbled these illegible scrawls as
three syllable roots and deriving this in the first two syllables and deriving that from the second two syllables and I would listen and sort of nod and uh… he offered me… well in his first letter to me he said Shafer and I went over this ground years ago I thought this is interesting so we had a good time there every week and Benedict invited me to his home in Pleasantville – oh I mean Briarcliff Manor and went up there and he showed me his study he opened a drawer and pull out this yellowed
manuscript and said here you might enjoy looking at this so I did and it was a manuscript of the “Conspectus” which he had written in 1942 ’43 or so and he stuck it in the drawer cause nobody
else was interested in it and I read through it and blew my mind and yeah that’s when we really started our weekly
meetings so that was one downside of leaving New York for Berkeley that no longer was this weekly contact with Benedict
But we continued our correspondence for decades afterwards and he would come to the yearly – all the yearly Sino-Tibetan conference so I taught there for three and a half years
when I got this phone call from Professor Wally Chafe who was then chair of
the linguistics department inviting me to come to Berkeley as an acting
associate professor in those days you didn’t have to do much job
application or Job talks stuff like that It was definitely
the old boys network and so things were getting very touchy at Columbia in those days bad relationships in the department and I was very glad to accept this


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *