Table of contents:

"It's more important to keep communicating than to appear smart." Interview with linguist Alexander Piperski
"It's more important to keep communicating than to appear smart." Interview with linguist Alexander Piperski

About feminitives, artificial languages and words that piss off.

"It's more important to keep communicating than to appear smart." Interview with linguist Alexander Piperski
"It's more important to keep communicating than to appear smart." Interview with linguist Alexander Piperski

Alexander Piperski is a Russian linguist and popularizer of science, laureate of the Enlightener Prize for the book Construction of Languages. From Esperanto to Dothraki”and Senior Lecturer at the Higher School of Economics. We talked with Alexander and found out why linguistics cannot be fully attributed to the humanities, whether new feminitives can survive, and when people will speak Dothraki from Game of Thrones.

Linguistics is moving closer to programming and mathematics

Your family is closely related to the word: your mother is a professor at the philological faculty of Moscow State University, your grandmother is a literary critic, and your grandfather is a journalist. Have you dreamed of learning a language since childhood?

- I wanted to be a football goalkeeper or a subway driver - these are professions more attractive for a child than learning a language. On the other hand, I have a multilingual family: my dad is Serb and my mom is Russian. I think it is quite natural that I was interested in linguistics. Even as a child, I understood that Serbian and Russian languages are similar, but still different. Now I know what the differences are, and I can explain them, but in childhood the very fact aroused interest and surprise.

Did your relatives push you to enter the Faculty of Philology?

- I was very hesitant to choose between mathematics and languages. Once I decided to go to the Olympiad in linguistics and became even more interested in it. In particular, because all the participants were given sandwiches and I was very moved. The fact that I dearly loved my teacher of the German language also played a role. I wanted to study Germanic studies and study in German-speaking countries, so I chose the German department at the philological faculty of Moscow State University. As a result, I am quite successful in combining different interests. I am actively using mathematical methods in linguistics, so I did not lose much.

Linguistics is a humanitarian science, and mathematics is an exact one. How do you manage to combine everything?

- Now linguists actively use statistics in their work and rely on big data from linguistic corpuses, so I cannot say that this is a completely humanitarian specialty. You can study languages and not count anything at all, but this is more the exception than the rule. Linguists are now less and less often say: "This is correct, because I decided so." All statements are proved by quantitative indicators, therefore, without mathematics, at least at a simple level, nowhere.

How many languages do you know?

- This is a question from which linguists are always very cleverly dodging - it is not an easy one. I can speak in such a way that it doesn't annoy me, I can in five languages: Russian, Serbian, English, German, Swedish. Then, like any linguist, gradations begin: I can easily read French, Italian and Spanish, but I speak quite poorly. I know some languages only at the level of grammar: for example, I cannot read or say anything in Mongolian.

Linguist Alexander Piperski
Linguist Alexander Piperski

Why do you strive to learn different languages? Does it look like collecting?

- I do not think. Linguists are not the same as polyglots who can explain themselves in stores in 180 countries around the world. We often don't learn languages well enough, but we have an idea of how grammar works in them. With this knowledge, you begin to better understand linguistic diversity. If you are studying human anatomy, it can be helpful to learn something about the structure of birds or worms - this will help you understand how humans are compared to them.

However, in recent years, I have less and less time to sit down with a textbook and learn new words. Sometimes, of course, I read about grammar for different needs, but I still fail to consistently learn the language. More and more things are being done - both scientific, educational, and organizational.

What can a philologist do after university? What are the most promising areas now?

- There are very different areas of philology and linguistics that can be applied in practice. It is clear that traditional activities are always available: editing, translation. There is another possibility that is associated with computational linguistics - automatic natural language processing. This is a very fashionable, popular and important trend that helps to develop voice assistants and chat bots. If a person has an interest in technical activities, this is a great option: linguistics is moving closer to programming and mathematics. Otherwise, the possibilities are the same as for people with a different education. You can deal with related areas, there are many options.

How much can a philologist earn?

- It depends a lot on where he works. Editors do not get very much: the bill goes to tens of thousands of rubles. In computer development, salaries are higher: you can get hundreds of thousands.

Changing norms makes our life much easier

Why do you love linguistics?

- Most of all in this profession I like the opportunity to constantly be in contact with the object of research. I study a language and use it every minute or hear statements from others. At any time I can find something interesting around me and think: "Why did she say that?"

Just recently, a friend wrote a post on Facebook and used the word "laptop" in it. Linguists have come running, and now everyone is excitedly discussing how to speak Russian: a laptop, a laptop or a laptop in general. Quite unexpected questions and phenomena constantly arise, which are quite interesting to observe.

What do you dislike about this profession?

- How not very enlightened people perceive my activity. The most common idea of a linguist is a person who knows English and will translate something into it right now. This is a little annoying.

In a sense, the advantage I just talked about is also a disadvantage. You live in the language all the time and you just can't get away from it. This is not an office job from 9:00 to 18:00, after which you rest. Linguists are always in their business, and from time to time it gets tired.

Philologists often turn into nerds who try to teach everyone in the world how to correctly emphasize the word “ringing”. Do you do that?

- I try not to do that. If I correct someone, then only other linguists. Most often these are people with whom I am friends, so I know for sure that it will turn out to be an entertaining discussion. I will never correct people of other specialties, because our communication will immediately collapse. The interlocutor will begin to look at me as a bore, who is in a teaching position.

You need to understand that in most cases it is more important to continue communication than to seem smart and very literate. In addition, it is much more interesting to notice changes than trying to fix everyone in the world. I don't see a situation in which I say: "Ha, look, in the 1973 dictionary it is written like this, and you are not speaking correctly." It seems to me that this is superfluous.

That is, you are not at all annoyed when people around you speak incorrectly?

- I have my points of irritation, but they are not of a general nature. Words like “ringing” and “turning on” do not evoke anything in me, but I don’t really like the word “comfortable”. It pisses me off, and I can't do anything about it. When people ask me: "Will you be comfortable?" - I really want to give in the face. If they say: "Is it convenient for you?" - it will be much nicer.

What mistakes in language do people make most often?

- The question is what we consider to be mistakes. Accepted mistakes are when there are several options and one of them is suddenly declared incorrect. These include, for example, the stress in the word "include".

It seems to me that there are much more interesting things that can be called errors, but many do not notice them. Lately, I want to investigate why people confuse genitive and prepositional cases. For example, they say “no new tables” instead of “no new tables”. The error is almost invisible, but very common in real life. It is more interesting not to struggle with such things, but to observe and study them.

Linguist Alexander Piperski
Linguist Alexander Piperski

How do you feel about the fact that the norm of the language changes depending on how people speak? Do these decisions provoke illiteracy?

- If this does not happen, we will find ourselves in a very difficult situation. The norm will freeze, and spoken language will change, so we will have to know two languages: normative and everyday. In some societies, this happens: for example, literary Arabic is very different from the living dialects in which everyone speaks. In Russia, at the beginning of the 18th century, Church Slavonic was considered the written language, and everyone spoke Russian. I would not want us to find ourselves in such a situation. Changing norms makes our life much easier.

How do you feel about feminitives?

- Neutral. I cannot say that I am a fierce opponent or supporter. The only thing that bothers me is that for the sake of using feminitives, communication is broken. Instead of discussing meaningful topics, people begin to argue about who is called a researcher and who is a researcher. The original theme is forgotten and I don't really like it.

Do you think the word "author" will eventually take root in the language?

- The word "author" is so often discussed that it has become the same marker as the word "call": it is difficult to use it without strain, because people immediately stand on their hind legs. At the same time, there are many other feminitives: for example, a PR woman. The word exists, and there are no special claims to it.

I think the points discussed are often associated with deep linguistic problems. The fact is that words ending in "ka" are well formed from lexemes with an emphasis on the last syllable: for example, there are no contradictions in the words "student" and "student". If the stress is on the second syllable from the end or earlier, difficulties arise. The word "author" causes rejection, because it contradicts the derivational models of the Russian language, but this is a surmountable moment. If there are more such tokens, we will cease to be surprised.

Are there any completely new language changes that people have not yet noticed?

- New words appear constantly. Recently, schoolchildren taught me to say "chill" and "flex", and I happily picked up and now use these words with pleasure. In addition, it is interesting to notice changes in grammar, they are often not so noticeable to the general public. For example, the word "jury" used to denote a group of people, but now it is used in relation to an individual: "the jury has decided." In the plural, this phrase sounds like "the jury decided." The agreement on the meaning, which is in the English language, makes itself felt. It is interesting to see how it will develop in Russian. Are we going to say "Rosgvardia dispersed the rally"? I am not sure, let see what will happen.

The languages from Game of Thrones are very difficult

They say that if you do not use the language constantly, it is forgotten. Do you travel often and apply your knowledge?

- It is quite difficult to use knowledge of languages in the modern world. I travel a lot, but I speak mostly English. Although right now I have a pleasant exception: at the Slavic conference in Finland, they speak either in Slavic or in Scandinavian languages. Before our conversation, I listened to a report in Swedish, and we can say that I used my knowledge, but this is still an exotic situation.

Even the German language I use quite rarely, although I studied in Germany for a master's degree and wrote a dissertation in German. In fact, I only use it with a few foreign friends.

Do you feel that knowledge is weakening because of this?

- It all depends on the language. My knowledge of German seems to be retained because I speak it well and Swedish has to be refreshed. An interesting story with the Serbian language, which I consider my second language. When I visit Russia for a long time, it fades into the background, but literally within a week, knowledge is restored in Serbia. I don't really understand how it works.

Some are sure that learning languages is simply not given to them. Is this true or more like an excuse?

- It's more of an excuse. If you have the motivation and time, then at any age you can master the human language. Of course, there is a critical period hypothesis, which states that children under 12 years old can learn a foreign language as their native language, once they find themselves in a suitable environment. It’s not that good at an older age, but we don’t need a carrier level. Anyone can learn the language. The main thing is not to give up and work.

You study artificial languages - those that were invented by man on purpose. How are they generally created?

- The process is highly dependent on the purpose of creation. Some artificial languages are invented to change the world. People think that natural languages are illogical and inconsistent, so they create another - one that is devoid of flaws. Another goal is to offer a language that is easy for everyone to learn to use for international communication. This includes Esperanto. Some languages are created for fun: they are spoken in fictional universes. The most famous example is Tolkien's languages.

Linguist Alexander Piperski
Linguist Alexander Piperski

Are there any rules that you must adhere to when creating artificial languages? I can't say that the bow in my universe will be called differently, and that's it?

- It depends on how detailed you write your language. For example, George Martin in the books "A Song of Ice and Fire" did something like you say. The Dothraki and Valyrian languages were limited to a few dozen words, that is, they were very undeveloped. When they started filming the series "Game of Thrones", they hired linguist David Peterson, who came up with grammar and a bunch of other words.

After the success of Game of Thrones, not only Emilia Clarke became very popular, but also the Dothraki language. Is there a chance that someday it will actually be spoken?

- No. The languages in Game of Thrones are very complex, especially Valyrian. Now there is a course on it on Duolingo, but it's more of an entertainment. It is rather difficult to imagine people who will actually start using it. Moreover, the excitement around "Game of Thrones" is gradually dying down.

Of the artificial languages of fiction, only the Klingon Language of the Alien Race from Star Trek lives on. - Approx. ed. … Several dozen people actually speak it and get together to chat. For this to happen, interest in the product must be fueled constantly. New series and feature films are being shot along Star Trek. Without such support, it would be difficult for the language to survive. But people learn Tolkien languages, but in reality they do not speak them, so they are rather dead.

I heard that you are developing an artificial language for a Russian film. How long does it take to create it?

- It all depends on what we call artificial language. If this is the Game of Thrones version, it will take a long time. In my case, active work took about a month, and then I was engaged in improvements. So far, unfortunately, I cannot tell you anything specific about this language, sorry.

I love to lie in bed with a laptop

What does your workplace look like?

- Like many modern people, my workplace is a computer. It can be anywhere, but most of all I like to lie with a laptop in bed. I think this is the best way to work. However, if it is necessary to lay pieces of paper next to the computer, it is no longer very convenient, you have to move around the table. I also keep all scientific books on my computer so that I can refer to them from anywhere. This is much more convenient than having a physical library at work.

Do you use any time management techniques?

- At one time I thought that I should use something like that, because I do not have time for anything and can not cope with anything. More often than not, my thirst for productivity ends up writing an entry in my diary or looking for a to-do list on a piece of paper that I safely lose. I only use Google Calendar on a regular basis. In it, I enter meetings, lectures, timetables of classes at the university. I also use Evernote - it is on both my phone and my computer. Sometimes I write something in Todoist, but not on a regular basis.

Workplace of Alexander Piperski
Workplace of Alexander Piperski

What applications do you use in everyday life? For example, to relax?

- For such cases, I have games. At one time I often went to Mini Metro, and now I play Bubble Blast - I break balls. I do not like shooters and active simulations, which require tension and quick reactions. I get much more pleasure from games that help to unload and not think about anything.

I use apps for city trips. When Yandex. Transport appeared in Moscow, I hung up and for 10 minutes watched the icons of familiar buses moving along the map. I also like the Citymapper app - it works pretty well in the capital and builds routes better than Yandex. However, I still trust my knowledge of the city more: usually I cope better than software myself.

I also have an application “Poems of Russian Poets” on my phone. From time to time, when I want to relax, I launch the display of random verses and read. If I liked it very much, I can learn it by heart.

What about apps or services that help you learn languages and expand your vocabulary?

- For these purposes, I have Duolingo installed. At one time I used it to learn Hungarian, but nothing really worked out. Recently I went as a member of the jury to the International Linguistics Olympiad in South Korea and before leaving I learned a little Korean. Again, I cannot say that I have achieved great success.

Alexander Piperski is fond of curling
Alexander Piperski is fond of curling

What do you do in your free time?

- Recently I began to get involved in non-trivial sports - I am curling. It turned out that this is not just strange people pushing stones on the ice, but a very exciting game. Other activities appear in the summer. Tomorrow I will fly to Moscow for a yacht ride on the reservoir. In general, sometimes it is pleasant to just take a walk and read a book on a bench.

Life hacking from Alexander Piperski


From fiction, the books that I became interested in as a teenager influenced me the most. I will immediately name two authors: Bertolt Brecht with his plays and Nikolai Gumilyov, whose verses I know by heart in the volume of a complete collected works. These people made the strongest impression on me in my life, so I am still inseparable from them.

If I move somewhere, I make sure that a volume of Gumilev appears on the shelf - preferably the one that my grandfather bought in 1989. And I not only reread Bertolt Brecht, but also watch the performances of his plays. 15 years ago I was collecting the recordings of the Threepenny Opera. Now it is no longer so interesting, because most of the productions can be found on iTunes, but I still listen to them with great pleasure.

From non-fiction literature, the encyclopedia from Avanta + influenced me the most. There are several absolutely wonderful volumes: mathematics, linguistics and the Russian language, as well as the history of Russia in the twentieth century. I reread them with great pleasure and even now I come back to them from time to time.

Films and series

I have a much less close relationship with cinema than with books. Usually I do not have enough attention to watch a full-length film: immediately it turns out that there is a phone nearby, I want to drink tea or read a book. In general, watching a movie for two hours is an ordeal, but sometimes I succeed.

I was fascinated by "Game of Thrones", which I enjoyed watching not only because there are artificial languages. There is beauty and an interesting plot in this story. True, I love the warmth and the south too much, so the northern scenes annoyed me a little - I wanted them to end quickly. I would also like to note the film "We are the prodigies" about the reconstruction of Germany after the war. I love him dearly and sometimes revisit.

Podcasts and videos

I won't be original here. From what I constantly follow - "PostNauka" and "Arzamas". It's a little funny, because in both projects I perform, but I'm not watching and listening to myself, so it's not as scary as it might seem. Then I act according to the situation: if an interesting link arrives on Facebook, I can go and see.

Blogs and Websites

I usually find news on Meduza, and read analytics on Republic. From time to time I go to LiveJournal, but the feed there mainly consists of the posts of Varlamov and a couple of other transport activists - for example, Arkady Gershman is happy to read.