Interview with Dr. Jaklin Kornfilt


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Would you give us a summary of your educational and professional background, your activities, and your research?

I graduated from the German High School in Istanbul, and was an undergraduate at Heidelberg University on a German Academic Exchange Fellowship; after my first degree from Heidelberg, I was a graduate student in linguistics at Harvard University, where I received an MA and then a PhD. I am a Professor of Linguistics at SU, where I teach courses in general linguistics as well as in syntax, morphology, historical linguistics, and pragmatics. My research is mostly on syntax (i.e. the aspect of language which has to do with word order and the structure of sentences and smaller parts of the sentence) and its relationship to morphology (i.e. the aspect of language which has to do with the structure of words). While I am interested in these aspects of all languages, I have concentrated my attention on Turkish and other Turkic languages, but I have also done some work on German and remain interested in that language, as well.

Your focus is Turkish language and syntax, can you tell us more about that? 

The Turkish language is very interesting from a cross-linguistic point of view; its sentences are verb-final, it doesn’t have prepositions but rather has postpositions, and all of its phrases have their heads (i.e. the most important part of the phrase) in final position. From all these points of view, Turkish (and most of the other Turkic languages) are similar in their syntax to languages such as Japanese and Korean. I am interested in seeing what other properties are common among such languages, and in what ways they are different (or also similar) to languages such as English, with a rather different word order and sentence structure. Other interesting things about Turkish is its morphology: its words can be very long, and can correspond to an entire English sentence. Should such words be built in the syntax, given that they can correspond to a sentence, or should they be produced in a separate component of language, i.e. in the morphological component? These are the kinds of questions which I have addressed in articles, conference papers, and edited books and journals.

Can you speak to the importance and necessity of understanding different languages when studying the Middle East?

You cannot appreciate the culture of a country or region if you don’t speak the language of that region; you may have knowledge of the region’s history or geography, but you need to understand the people and the way they think and feel, and also the way they write. Translations miss a lot of the most important aspects of a culture and the art that the culture produces; you have to have your own direct insights, and you can gain such insights only if you know the language. The Middle East is not an exception, and why should it be? What’s particularly challenging about the Middle East is that some of the most important languages spoken in the region are not genetically related to each other: Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. At least Hebrew and Arabic are related, so that if you master one of them, it is much easier for you to pick up the other. Yet, both Persian and Turkish have lots of borrowings from Arabic, and Turkish has borrowings from Persian, as well. Thus, the vocabulary of these three languages have large intersecting parts; however, their syntactic structures are quite different. Thus, after studying one of these languages, it is both easy and difficult to study another one, depending on what you focus on in your studies. This is the beauty as well as the challenge if you want to be competent in more than one of the languages spoken in the region.

What has been your personal favorite class to teach from the Turkish program?

Given my teaching load in linguistics, I am unable to teach classes in Turkish language myself; instead, I coordinate the language courses in Turkish, decide on textbooks, and oversee the syllabi. What I enjoy most in all the activities linked to the courses (some of which are activities outside the classroom) are the Turkish tea and coffee evenings, during which I meet not only the students in the language classes, but also Turkish students across campus and other students interested in Turkey and the Middle East. I also enjoy watching the Turkish movies we screen, and to discuss them with students during the Turkish Language Tables.

Turkey has a rich language and history. How would you explain the importance of the Turkish language and history to students studying the Middle East? 

There are various aspects to the importance of the Turkish language and Turkish history for the Middle East; for example, a good part of the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire at some point, which is another way of saying that even if you are interested in a region outside of Turkey, it is very likely that this region was part of the Ottoman Empire and/or was influenced by it in some way. Ottoman Turkish was the language of the administration and of the jurisdiction of the entire empire, and if you are interested in those general topics, you can’t do your research or your study without knowing Turkish. Currently, there is another reason why you may be interested in studying modern Turkish: Turkish soap operas on TV and/or Turkish movies; both are very popular in the entire Middle East, and they are usually not dubbed, and not always are they subtitled, either.