A Houston, Texas native, Thomas didn’t expect to wind up studying some of the world’s less commonly taught languages—let alone the languages of the Caucasus region. Although he was always interested in foreign languages and studied linguistic theory for his undergraduate degree, it wasn’t until Thomas—inspired by the deep historical depth of the region—entered graduate school with a serious interest in pursuing the languages of the Caucasus.
Thomas moved to Georgia on a Title VIII Combined Research and Language Training grant: upon completing the program, he decided to remain in the country. He now calls Tbilisi home, teaches linguistics and the history of English at the Free University of Tbilisi, and conducts several language research projects. Read on to learn what Thomas thinks about being a linguist studying the world’s fading languages.
— — —
On studying the languages of the Caucasus Region: I had always been interested in languages, and I studied linguistic theory as an undergraduate, but it was not until I got into grad school that I took a serious interest in Caucasian languages. Chicago was an amazing place to study linguistic diversity–I also studied Nahuatl and Meskwaki, two unrelated Native American languages–but Caucasian languages had a unique combination of challenging the paradigm of what is possible for a language with deep historical depth. For example, Georgian has been written for more than 15 centuries longer than English and provides a great wealth of materials to work with.
Documenting a centuries-old Chechen culture in Georgia: The Kist variety of Chechen was essentially an undocumented relative to other varieties of Chechen, and though partly intelligible with knowledge of standard Chechen, it was not really known how different it was. The Kists had always had more in common culturally with the Georgian highlanders than with their linguistic kinsmen on the other side of the mountains in Chechnya, and it became clear that modern day Kists had assimilated a large number of loan words and constructions from standard Georgian and highland Georgian dialects.
“Linguistic consequences”: Another reason to study Kist was that the Kists had been host to thousands of refugees from the recent Chechen wars, and these new Chechen immigrants spoke very different varieties of Chechen. It was likely that the speakers of Kist would be under pressure to assimilate to more standard forms of Chechen, so there was some urgency to document the language variety now. That is, a conflict not originally based on linguistic identity might be having linguistic consequences.
The perks of being a polyglot: It’s sometimes thought that linguists are the kind of people who can learn Finnish on a flight to Helsinki. That’s definitely not me; I would say that I’m only really comfortable in three languages: English, German, and Georgian–and the latter two took years of work. The other dozen or so languages–such as Ancient Greek, Old Babylonian, Tonkawa or Lak–kind of exist in the linguistic ether for me: either they are no longer spoken, or are spoken in such out-of-the-way places I have no chance to use them.
[However,] all of these languages have given me insight into the great diversity of speech around the world. But even for non-linguists, learning foreign languages provides a window onto foreign cultures that simply cannot be replaced by cultural sensitivity training since it forces you to meet other people on their terms, even to become one of them for just a little bit.
Teaching and conducting research at the Free University of Tbilisi: At the Free University of Tbilisi, there aren’t distinct departments. The demand for English language training is growing everywhere in the world, and so I help provide English composition and history of the English language courses. When not teaching, I have several projects, including a new book on Tonkawa, an extinct language unrelated to any other that was once spoken in the Texas Hill Country, as well as ongoing research on language contact in the Caucasus.
About the Title VIII Combined Research and Language Training Program
The U.S. Department of State’s Program for Research and Training on Eastern Europe and the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union provides fellowship support to graduate students in policy-relevant fields who wish to participate in the Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program (RLASP), the Eurasian Regional Language Program, and the Balkan Language Initiative.