Anatoly Liberman

Anatoly Liberman (Russian: Анато́лий Си́монович Либерма́н; born March 10, 1937, Leningrad) is a linguist, medievalist, etymologist, poet, translator of poetry (mainly from and into Russian), and literary critic.

Liberman's best-known works are in Germanic historical phonetics, English etymology, mythology/folklore, the history of philology, and poetic translation. He is a professor in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota, where since 1975 he has taught courses on the history of all the Germanic languages and literatures, folklore, mythology, lexicography, European structuralism, and Russian formalism. His blog “The Oxford Etymologist” is read in many countries.

For years he has been an active advocate of spelling reform.

Early life

Liberman was born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) on March 10, 1937. His father was killed in action in 1941. Though graduating with highest honors in 1954, as a result of the all-pervading climate of state-supported anti-Semitism, he was rejected by St. Petersburg University and entered Leningrad State Herzen Pedagogical Institute (now the Herzen State Pedagogical University, St. Petersburg). He graduated in 1959, and, though first on the official list of about 200 students, Liberman was not admitted to Graduate School, and taught English for three years at a boarding school for underprivileged children in the Leningrad Region.

During that time he studied on his own and passed what is known in Russia as the candidate minimum (Germanic philology, the history of English, German, and so-called philosophy, that is, Marxism and the history of the Communist Party of the USSR).

After returning to Leningrad in 1962, he taught English at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute (now St. Petersburg and University have been substituted for Leningrad and Institute) and became an extramural graduate student at Leningrad University (this status presupposed full employment elsewhere).

His academic adviser was Professor M. I. Steblin-Kamenskij, at that time the most prominent Soviet scholar in Old Icelandic literature and Germanic historical phonology. In 1965 he defended his Candidate of Philological Sciences (= PhD) dissertation on a topic of Middle English historical phonology, and in the same year Nikita Khrushchev ordered all the institutes of the Academy of Sciences to open groups for the study of what he called “the Scandinavian experience.” Steblin-Kamenskij was invited to head such a group at the Institute of Linguistics and invited Liberman to become his full-time junior assistant. There he stayed until his emigration in 1975. In 1972 he defended his Doctor of Philological Sciences dissertation (= West European habilitation) titled “Icelandic Prosody.” At Minnesota since 1975, he spent one year as a Hill Visiting Professor and two years as an associate professor; after that he was promoted to full professorship.

Phonological theories

Liberman's main ideas in phonology are as follows: 1) A non-contradictory theory of phonology is probably unattainable, because we lack the means of segmenting the speech current into phonemes. 2) The most adequate model of a phonetic change continuing for centuries, such as apocope and consonant shifts, is that of a change is caused by some event and is over once the potential of the initial impulse has been used up. The cause of every major change is another change. 3) Stress is not a force but a privileged position in a word, a position in which some oppositions occur that are not allowed in any other syllable. 4) The greatest phonetic changes in the history of Germanic were the concentration of all distinctive features in the root syllable and consonantal lenition as its consequence. 5) Allophones, that is, the phonetic variants of a phoneme, cannot be phonologized (by definition). 6) In Germanic, systemic changes of short vowels are reactions to changes in long vowels. Likewise, changes of voiced consonants are triggered by changes in voiceless consonants; what appears as voicing is really weakening.

Works on Etymology

Insisting on exhaustive surveys of all the previous conjectures and hypotheses on word origins, he has found it necessary to avoid dictionaries that recycle the limited information gathered in easily available sources. To that end, he and his team of students and volunteers have collected tens of thousands of articles on etymology from hundreds of journals, book chapters, and Festschriften. In 2009, he published A Bibliography of English Etymology, with the assistance of many hands. The book Etymology for Everyone: Word Origins and How We Know Them was published by Oxford University Press in 2005. He has also published numerous articles on individual words and groups of related words.

Poetical Works

His poetical works include translations and extended commentary on Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Tyutchev, and Shakespeare.

Original poetry has appeared in the journals Vstrechi [Encounters], Poberezh’e [The Coast], Novyi Zhurnal [The New Journal], and Mosty [Bridges].

Works on the History of Philology

Selected Linguistic Bibliography

Honors and Awards

At the University of Minnesota (a selection): Scholar of the College (1985–88), McKnight fellowship (1994–96), Bush fellowship (1995), Fesler-Lampert Professorship (1999-2002), inclusion in The Wall of Discovery (2006), and an award for distinguished contribution to graduate and professional education (2010). From outside sources (a selection): a fellowship from the American-Scandinavian Foundation (1982), Guggenheim fellowship (1982), Fulbright research fellowship (1988), NEH Summer Seminars (1980 and 1991), Fellowship at Clare Hall (Cambridge University, 1984), NEH Summer Scholarship (1995), summer scholarship (for research and lectures) from the University of Rome (1995), a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (2001-2002); a certificate and a prize for a meritorious paper at the International Phonetic Congress 1977, Miami Beach (Florida, 1977), The Katherine Briggs Folklore Award by the Folklore Society (1995), the Verbatim Dictionary Society of North America award for best project of the year (1996), MLA’s annual prize for “a distinguished bibliography” (2010). Word Origins… was a selection of the Book of the Month Club and three other clubs. In 2014 Liberman was elected President of the International Spelling Society, and in 2015 Fellow of the Dictionary Society of North America. In 1997 a Festschrift was published under the title Germanic Studies in Honor of Anatoly Liberman, NOWELE 31-32.

External links

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