Wednesday Geek Woman: Sasha Aikhenvald, specialist in linguistic typology

This is a guest post by Tara. Tara studies Law, French and Linguistics at the University of Newcastle and tries to keep a cooking blog.

Sasha (Alexandra) Aikhenvald was born to a Jewish family in Moscow in 1957. The environment at the time was not helpful to Dr Aikhenvald in her ambitions. Interest in languages other than Russian was not encouraged, and as a Jewish person Dr Aikhenvald faced many limits and discrimination. Yet, as she says in an interview with ABC radio, “I am stubborn, so in spite of all the difficulties the Soviets confronted me with, I did make an effort to develop myself intellectually.”

Dr Aikhenvald has worked with many different language groups throughout her career, including Berber languages, Hebrew, and some languages from the Papua New Guinea region. Some of her most interesting and beneficial work, however, was done and is done in Tariana, a language from north-west Brazil.

In this area language is strongly linked with culture and heritage, and a large number of languages existed in the area. Sadly though, various outside influence have lead to the decline of the majority of these languages. Tariana, for example, had approximately 100 speakers remaining when Dr Aikhenvald first started working in the region, even though around 2000 people identify with the Tariana ethnic group. In conjunction with local people, Dr Aikhenvald has produced a comprehensive grammar of this language, as well as a large dictionary and many starter lessons for learning the language. Not only is this information tremendously useful to the field of linguistics as a whole, Tariana being a a very interesting language where it is mandatory to express how you know something whenever you speak, but it has enabled the local people to attempt to reclaim an important part of their heritage and identity.

Dr Aikhenvald currently holds a position as Professor and Research Leader, People and Societies of the Tropics at the Cairns Institute within James Cook University.

Wikipedia: Alexandra Aikhenvald
James Cook University: Prof. Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald

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