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Graduate Student Profile - Natalie Operstein (Indo-European Studies)

Natalie Operstein In recent years, Natalie Operstein has spent her summer vacations in Veracruz, Mexico, working with native speakers to write a dictionary and grammar of a language that may no longer be spoken by the end of this century. If this seems a bit quixotic to non-linguists, it is a summer program expanding and supplementing her graduate work in Indo-European studies, which is concerned with reconstructing a language several millennia old. Obviously, fieldwork in a reconstructed language can be rather hard to come by, so Natalie was pleased to be accepted as a field linguist for the Project for the Documentation of the Languages of Mesoamerica, which is making records of several Mexican languages that are currently on the verge of extinction under pressure from the more prestigious Spanish.

"If we can't preserve the languages, we can at least document them before they die," Natalie says. Listening to local speakers of this language, Natalie, with the help of one of the project directors, Professor Terrence Kaufman, has developed a practical orthography to give the language a written form. "I am responsible for creating a dictionary of the Zaniza Zapotec language and writing its descriptive grammar," Natalie says. Among languages of this kind, Zaniza Zapotec is relatively fortunate to have nearly 400 fluent speakers left, she says. "One of my friends is working on an Otomanguean language that has only seven speakers, all of whom are elderly."

Linguists provide a vital link in the cultures that used these languages. For example, a 23-year-old Native American is learning Maidu, the traditional language of his people, from William Shipley, a linguist who had learned the language from the young man's great-aunt while carrying on fieldwork in the mid-fifties.

Creating dictionaries and descriptive grammars of endangered languages is part of an effort to preserve languages, which may lead to developing teaching materials and training native linguists. The collected linguistic data are also useful among the small group of scholars working to reconstruct what are called proto-languages – the hypothetical ancestors of today's languages. For example, modern Zapotec languages are assumed to go back to an ancestral language, Proto-Zapotec, which is estimated to have been spoken around 1,500 years ago. Linguistic work on Proto-Zapotec is still in its initial stages, and Natalie's reconstruction of the pronominal system of this language, which will shortly appear in the International Journal of American Linguistics, is one of the first published works to pursue this line of research.

"Scholars also assume that about 7, 000 years ago, there was one language that gave birth to contemporary languages as diverse as Hindi, Greek, Spanish, English, and Russian," Natalie says. "Since the 19th century, they've been trying to reconstruct that language."  .

This is the research thread that Natalie is pursuing for her dissertation. How does one become interested in a language that has no oral tradition, no written literature? For Natalie, the interest evolved in increments, beginning as an undergraduate in biology at Moscow University. Studying foreign languages was customary there, and foreign students speaking their home languages were other resources. Besides taking classes in English and German, Natalie acquired a basic knowledge of Spanish, French, and Italian. "My professor of English introduced us to elements of linguistic analysis," she says, "and, along with my growing interest in the study of different languages, that provided the basis for my later interest in linguistics."

But the route was not direct. Migrating with her family to Israel, Natalie became fluent in Hebrew. She picked up Portuguese during a summer in Brazil on a student exchange program. "As I became familiar with four of the major Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese), the similarities between them spurred my interest in comparative linguistics and also in the study of Classical Latin, the ancestor of the modern Romance languages," Natalie says. "I started reading linguistic literature and was captivated by the many insights of Otto Jespersen's Philosophy of Grammar, which was my first real introduction to linguistics."

She decided this might become her profession after marrying and moving to Canada, where she completed an M.A. program in Spanish at the University of British Columbia. For her thesis, Natalie studied Black Spanish, the language spoken by the African slaves in the 16th- and 17th-century Spain and Spanish America. Much of the linguistic literature at the time defined these as creole languages, but her study showed that this language represented a continuum of learners' varieties instead.

Continuing graduate studies at the University of British Columbia, Natalie began to work with Lingua Franca, a Romance-based speech form that was widely used in the Mediterranean from the 13th century until the end of the 19th century. Her research showed that this was not a creole language either, and she presented her findings at an international conference in London, England, and published them in the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages. Her research on the linguistic status of Lingua Franca is summarized in her paper appearing in Orbis.

Natalie continued learning new languages (Catalan, Provenšal, Medieval Latin, Classical Greek, Classical Arabic), deepening her knowledge of general and comparative Romance linguistics. "In particular, I became interested in problems of reconstruction of Proto-Romance, and methods of reconstruction in general," she says. "My knowledge of languages from various linguistic groups also made me interested in problems and methodology of long-range comparison."

Both of these interests—in language reconstruction and comparative linguistics—led her, at long last, to Indo-European, which is the best studied and the most fully reconstructed language family of its size and time depth. It turned out that UCLA was the only North American university with a program fully devoted to Indo-European studies, and Natalie applied and was awarded a Chancellor's Fellowship.

At UCLA, Natalie has added new languages to her portfolio: Sanskrit, Old Norse, Hittite, Tocharian, Mycenaean Greek, Ugaritic, Coptic, Turkish, and Romanian. A degree in Indo-European studies requires passing five qualifying examinations, and Natalie has passed three. Fulfilling her program requirements and research in Mesoamerican and Romance linguistics is still occupying much of Natalie' time, but she has also begun original research in Indo-European linguistics and long-range comparison, working with her graduate adviser, Professor Vyacheslav Ivanov.

She hopes to pursue a career in university research and teaching, concentrating on comparative and historical linguistics, descriptive linguistics, and language preservation.

Published in Winter 2003, Graduate Quarterly