Short version: I hold the German degrees of "Abitur", MA ('magister artium') and "Dr. phil" (equivalent to a PhD).
In more detail:
I received my primary, secondary and higher education in Germany
, mostly in Hamburg
. As most readers will probably be unfamiliar with the German educational system, some explanation may be in place here:
School finished with what is called "Abitur", the degree that a type of school finishes with that is (confusingly for English speakers) called "Gymnasium". Note: that's NOT a sports complex but something vaguely akin to 'grammar school' in the British system, or college prep school in the US; though (mostly) state-run and less elitist than 'grammar school'. As my major subjects for the exams I picked English
as my main two subjects, and biology
as the secondary exam subjects. I did alright, though not as well as I could have, but it was still OK for entering university. And so I did.
I simply cannot work out in hindsight what possessed me but for some crazy reason I chose Law as the subject of my first university course. It took me one semester to find out it wasn't really for me and another for me to pull the plug. It was more the people, not so much the subject that was incompatible with me. In fact some of the issues were quite fascinating – and I'm glad I had a bit of a glimpse into the subject. However, there were just too many pampered, rich kids – the next generation of would-be lawyers … with Daddy's used law books under the arm. And they were often of a pre-set ultra-conservative persuasion which they had no qualms harping on about loudly in a very unsavoury, arrogant manner. It was more uncomfortable than I could handle. So I switched. I made myself remember what I was really good at and what I really enjoyed, and so went back to the subjects I had specialized in for my "Abitur": language and music.
The system was such that you picked one of two alternative pathways. One of them included teacher-training and was meant to produce new teachers, the other was more academic and would lead to a masters degree. I chose the latter. English
was my main subject, which I had to cover broadly in a first phase, but then in the latter half one had to specialize in either literature or linguistics
. Again, I chose the latter.
As the secondary two subjects that I had to do ("Nebenfächer" – literally 'side subjects') I chose German linguistics
(the easy choice, given I had already specialized in English linguistics, so there was a lot of overlap) and musicology
– I've always been into music
, but not skilled enough in practical terms for studying an instrument, so I picked the theoretical, analytical side instead.
In musicology it turned out that I was best at analysing the nitty-gritty of pieces of music (called "Werkanalyse" – roughly 'opus analysis'), especially modern classical pieces, which I always preferred over the older, more traditional standards like Mozart or Haydn. (Out of the composers of the Vienna classical period I always preferred Beethoven – his music has more oomph and emotion!) I took my five-hour written exam in analysing Bela Bartok's 4th string quartet. Lucky – I find it the most fascinating of the lot. I poured out all my analytic skill over dozens of pages and got top marks. In the oral exam I had to "discuss" an essay by some philosopher (whose name I can't remember) written in conjunction with contemporary composer Hans Werner Henze, whose reasoning I would totally unhinge and refute in the exam – in the end we kept the discussion up well beyond the time the exam was supposed to last. It was great fun and despite the disagreement I came out with top results in the orals too. It felt like a battle victory!
In German linguistics I had a fairly easy ride. I took the exam with the professor I had already been working with as an assistant for his intro course for years (see teaching
). I'm sure it helped in the exams … In the written exam I had to do some German-specific structural grammar stuff and muddled though sufficiently to get a top mark (if only just). In the oral exam I was able to do one of my favourite topics in linguistics, biological foundations of language (which I wasn't able to do in English). And so I sailed through the exam with flying colours.
By far the most challenging bit was the main part: English linguistics
. Back then you could sniff around a bit in the early phases of studying, which was cool, as you were allowed to find out for yourself what was suitable for you, both as regards specialized subjects but also compatible professors. Theses days – when all that matters is the quickest path to obtaining the desired degree – such freedoms must sound idyllic and utopian. Which isn't far off the mark, admittedly. I was lucky to have slipped into the system at the time I did. I don't think I would have ended up in academia otherwise.
I did my experimental sniffing around for the first two semesters or so … i.e. in the modern understanding of studying I "wasted" them, but I don't see it like that at all. In the process I found out that literary criticism wasn't the thing for me and that of the linguistics I had seen, one professor stood out in several ways: His name was Werner Welte. He was tough. But that was what I needed. His reputation also meant that his classes were not so overcrowded as many of the other Profs' – overcrowding has long been a problem at German universities; it wasn't rare to see seminar rooms built to hold 40 people crammed with 70 students and more spilling out into the corridor outside … not exactly an ideal learning environment! At Welte's seminars, on the other hand, there were often no more than 10 to 12 other participants. But even when it was more, e.g. 30 or 40, it was still very intense. No dozing off while boring seminar students' presentations were given. There were such presentations, but they would be cut short by the Prof if they were not up to scratch. In a Welte seminar you knew you had to do the work – or be shamed! There were no few students who feared, or even hated him. But he was just so awesomely damn good in his field and at presenting complex issues in a concentrated fashion, and then forcing you to digest it properly. And it would then be continually tested in strings of practical exercises. I felt I had to take on the challenge. And I'm glad I did. In my first seminar with Welte I finished up with a pretty poor mark. I simply hadn't received the necessary grounding in the crappy intro course I had randomly picked in my first semester. So I had to work to catch up. Gradually I did.
And so I received a very broad, eclectic, undogmatic grounding in linguistics, including a lot of generative grammar stuff, but at no point was that direction (or any other) pursued "religiously" (as it often is elsewhere). Everything was always open for criticism, if the criticism was sound. Over the years I covered various aspects of syntax, semantics, phonology, morphology, phraseology, textual linguistics/discourse analysis, history of traditional grammar, philosophy of language, terminology of linguistics, the theory of generative grammar, metalinguistics, forms of address, negation, and whatnot.
In the process I learned not only about linguistics and language theory, I was also given countless aids for perfecting my own English. So much for those misconceptions that linguistics has no practical ends. It certainly had for me. I still benefit from it.
For the degree I had to write an MA thesis and was fortunate to come across a subject that apparently nobody had ever written anything more than just some superficial or patchy little article about. It had never been tackled properly before. This was the topic of nonce word-formations
. To explain as concisely as possible: that's the formation of words not with the intent of adding to the lexicon (as permanent labels), but instead it's rather about on-the-spot word-formation to fill some fleeting communicative need (of a wide variety) without the word being "kept" beyond the situation in which it arose (in this use as a technical term, 'nonce' has nothing to do with the other meanings this word has in informal British English, and is etymologically related simply to 'once', without any dodgy connotations).
The issue of such real-time word-formation, as it were, was only ever mentioned in passing (if at all) – and of course that had to do with the fact that such words were so evasive, not normally leaving any permanent trace. By definition, you can't look such words up in a dictionary (which most researchers in word-formation solely relied on). But with a lot of empirical effort you could track nonce-formations down. And I soon found myself hooked and building an ever growing collection. But that's already seeping over into the issue of research – see under that heading for more details.
Suffice it to say here that I had found my special niche in research to make it my MA topic. Once I had won Prof Welte over, it just took off. I ended up having to reduce it for the MA to leave scope for a PhD
– by then I had more or less been told by Welte that this topic had to lead to a PhD thesis and a thus book. I hadn't begun my studies with the intention of obtaining a doctor's degree. Ultimately, it was the topic that left me no other choice.
Apart from the thesis I also had to sit exams in English too, of course, and they went alright. Again not as well as they should have been but OK. On balance, however, through the weight of my top-marked thesis, I came out with an overall First all the same.
And then straight on to the PhD. And that dragged on. The topic had become so huge (that's the sole element where working on this website has some deja vu aspects). I discovered more and more angles, of more and more relevance for adjacent subjects and theories. And when you get the chance to do a pioneering study, you want to do it right and you want to do it all – find out and say everything that can be said about every single aspect of it. I ended up with some 380 pages of text (plus appendices). But it was sound. And nearly comprehensive – the remaining loose ends I picked up in later years …
Again I got a top mark and a raving review by my supervisor. But it still needed to be published – in Germany
you can't use your doctor's title until the thesis has been published.
Around this time, things had become difficult from the outside, as it were. I was struggling with my private life – and my supervising Prof had become seriously ill. It was a monstrous blow when he died, shortly after I had defended my PhD – but before it was published. The blow was thus not just personal – over the years we had developed a good relationship as close colleagues – but also had practical repercussions. The plan had been that my thesis would be published as part of a series he had edited. That too was now dead. And the original publishers asked for a sum of money that I could simply not raise.
Ironically, it was at the funeral that I met a representative of another publisher – and he asked me if would consider publishing with them instead. So I did. They asked a third of the money for the printing costs. With the help of my parents I was able to scrape that sum together. And so the book went to press. After a total of five years, including some very difficult times, I was eventually able to hold my first major work in my hands. It felt good – but also strangely anti-climatic.
I had achieved the more immediate goal. But I was left high and dry career-wise. I had lost my mentor. And especially in the German academic system that is a crucial factor. Without a mentor pulling strings and writing references, the inroads into academia are pretty much shut-off. So what to do?
Then I bumped into a former fellow student and she told me she had just returned from England – where she had a post sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). There was an idea …
I was "free" (i.e. dumped by my first wife), didn't know where else to turn, and so I applied for such a job in Great Britain
, got a post in England and off I went, for a five year contract at the University of Bradford
, West Yorkshire.
It was an enormously intense time in many ways – possibly the most intense few years of my entire life. Gradually I also managed to expand my teaching experience, and pick up and diversify my research, paving inroads into the British academic world … see more details under teaching
, and list of publications
… and: I found a new private life (i.e. my second wife) – see personal background