Talk of the town: Vassar’s new linguistics club

Linguistics Club logo. Courtesy of Michael Pincus
Linguistics Club President Michael Pincus ’24 and Secretary Gioia Marchiano ’24. Courtesy of Michael Pincus.

In my favorite book, “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman, college freshman Selin explains her reasoning for becoming a linguistics major: “The highest law, higher than Holy Scripture, was ‘the intuition of a native speaker,’ a law you couldn’t find in any grammar book or program into any computer.” Aiming to better understand human communication, Selin studies the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the way we perceive the world is determined by the structure of our native language. Since reading “The Idiot,” I’ve become totally bewildered by the formation of languages, the discrepancies within translation and verb tense and the innate human quality to talk, which brought me to the first meeting of Vassar’s brand-new Linguistics Club. 

Vassar does not have a linguistics department, which is largely what pushed president Michael Pincus ’24 to start the club. Pincus explained,  “There’s not that linguistics major or linguistics correlate that a lot of people want. And this [Linguistics Club] kind of exists as a space for people to talk about linguistics and a space for people to talk about the stuff that they’re passionate about that maybe they don’t have that many opportunities to in classes.” 

Pincus was sitting in front of a cheerful projector slideshow when I walked into Rocky 310. Scattered on the table in front of him were stickers with the Linguistics Club logo on them: “VC,” for Vassar College, written in the international phonetic alphabet. The room was crowded for an interest meeting, with high energy in the air as students around me babbled about what had brought them there. Pincus introduced himself and the other board members: Vice President Robert Downes ’22, Secretary Gioia Marchiano ’24, and Treasurer Francesca Lucchetti ’22. 

The meeting began with an informative presentation outlining what the Linguistics Club has to offer and hopes to accomplish. Pincus intends to focus on multiple branches of linguistics. He began: “Historical linguistics is something that’s really interesting because you get to see language evolve over time. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those YouTube videos where it’s like, how far back can you go until English becomes unintelligible––it’s like that situation.” Historical linguistics is often concerned with etymology as well as the anthropologic estimations of the beginning of human language. Of comparative linguistics, Pincus said, “Comparative linguistics is also cool, you get to compare different languages. Spanish is related to Italian and French, German is related to Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian…if you want to become a person who learns a lot of languages, that stuff is interesting.” Drawing parallels between different languages makes the study of foreign languages much more accessible. 

Linguistics is special because it is so multifaceted. As Downes put it: “Questions about linguistics come from this very interdisciplinary background, with English, anthropology and the social sciences. So the question of linguistics itself is kind of inescapable.” In terms of STEM fields, linguistics is on the up-and-coming, Lucchetti explained. “I joined this club because I want to expose people to computational linguistics. It’s like an emerging science right now, the science of natural language processing…[There are] tons of applications…that are now able to understand natural languages. I’m interested in the ethical side of it.” She mentioned leading the club in some game applications to demonstrate how AI exponentially generates cohesive sentences.

Once the slideshow concluded, Pincus invited us all to join a group Kahoot to test our knowledge on different aspects of linguistics. As I have very limited experience within linguistics, I believe I came in 18th place, but the embarrassment was worth the knowledge I learned. Did you know that Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse place on the planet, with almost 850 different languages spoken throughout the island? Or the word sprachbund, which describes a geographical area of linguistic intersection?

The overall takeaway after attending the first Linguistics Club meeting was that this would be a space bubbling with intellectual passion and curiosity. Pincus told me: “One of the most important things, when you’re running a club, is to have the sort of environment where people are comfortable coming here…I really want to shape the club in that image.” I am eager to watch the Linguistics Club blossom over this next semester, and I encourage anyone interested in language to check it out.

 

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