The Armenian Language and Armenian Studies: An Interview With Linguistics Professor Bert Vaux (Excerpts)

By Jason Sohigian

The Armenian Weekly, June 5 and 12, 2003

Bert Vaux is an Associate Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics at Harvard University. Beginning in the Fall, Professor Vaux will begin teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. He is the Editor of Oxford Surveys in Generative Phonology and the Editor of the Annual of Armenian Linguistics journal. He has published The Phonology of Armenian (Oxford University Press, 1998) and Introduction to Linguistic Field Methods (Lincom Europa, 1999), along with articles such as "Syllabification in Armenian, Universal Grammar, and the Lexicon," "Feature Spreading and the Representation of Place of Articulation," and "The Laryngeal Specifications of Fricatives" in Linguistic Inquiry and "Notes on the Armenian Dialect of Ayntab" in the Annual of Armenian Linguistics.
In addition to his work on the Armenian language, Vaux has mapped America's dialects and has been featured in articles by the Harvard Gazette, Boston Globe, Associated Press, and elsewhere such as "Standing on line at the bubbler with a hoagie in my hand," "It's still a mahk of distinction: The accent sets Bostonians apart," and "The great pop vs. soda controversy." The Harvard Crimson also reported in February 2003 that his dialects class was the second largest at the college. This interview was conducted on Tuesday, June 17, 2003. A mutual colleague, Hagop Hachikian of Watertown, MA, also participated in the interview.


JS: What is your impression of the Armenian Chair at Harvard, and
is there anything you think the community can do to make the
Armenian Chair at Harvard better?

BV: It's a tough challenge to improve things there because of the
immunity that a chairholder has. But the first step is to make
the community aware of what is being done and not being done by
the chair. The next step is to take a stand and stop "kowtowing."
Many people just don't know what is going on there, and the
people that do know have not taken a stand.

Until recently that included me, for the same reasons as everyone
else. It's difficult to stand up to a bully--there are political
consequences. Whenever you say "the emperor has no clothes,"
there are people that will think you are crazy. In the case of
the Soviet Union, everyone knew it wasn't working, but no one was
willing to stand up and say it because they were afraid they
would be scapegoated, killed, ridiculed, or lose their job. The
next step is to stand up and say there is something wrong here,
and we need to do something about it.

After that, then it becomes harder because you can't just replace
someone. You can put pressure on them to shape up, and say, "Here
is what we want out of the chair."

JS: Do you mean through the university? Does NAASR have anything
to do with the chair anymore, or do they just play a supporting

BV: They play a facilitating role politically, in the sense that
they still defer to the chair, but they don't have any power over
the chair at this point.

JS: I think the community looks at Harvard as something that is
untouchable, and the chair as something they want to protect.
There is not much self-criticism in the Armenian world, so not
many want to go public with something and hurt an Armenian

BV: It's reasonable to not want to hurt your own people or your
own group. But that's one of the reasons that action needs to be
taken, because the chair is actually hurting the community at
this point. When you call the Armenians neo-Nazis, that isn't
helping the community and it's not leaving it alone--it's hurting
it. You are providing fodder for people that want to attack the

JS: Professor [James] Russell is an expert on ancient Armenian
and Persian history, but the period he often talks about is
1930s-1950s, mostly Armenian-American community life. Why do you
think he gets into these current affairs?

BV: He's like most academics, and many non-academics, who think
they are an expert on many things outside the area of their
training. His training is actually in Iranian Studies.

JS: Does he have many students? Do you have to have a certain
number of students to keep a chair?

BV: No. He typically has one new student each year. The Near
Eastern Department is actually very reasonable. In theory a
department could say we are only admitting the best 10 students,
regardless of whether they want to do Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian,
or whatever. Then they would probably mostly end up as students
that do Hebrew. Instead, they give every professor the chance to
have a student each year or every two years. They are making the
commitment to let every professor have students.

What it means is that every year or two years there is a new
Armenian grad student, but they have all dropped out or switched
since James came in 1993. But they'll keep coming because of the
Harvard name. There will always be people who want to do Armenian
Studies at Harvard, regardless of who is in the position. To
their credit, they don't know. Who would ever suspect these
things that have been going on? But then they find out, and then
they leave.

JS: How does the application process work? Does the department
recruit the students for him, and drag them in?

BV: No. The students apply blindly to Harvard. Then the
department says, for example, this year it is the Akkadian
professor's turn to get someone, or the Iranian or the Armenian.
Then James can pick one of the three applicants that he likes the
most in that year.

JS: The student doesn't choose what to study?

HH: The student does apply, but there's no guarantee that he or
she is going to be chosen for that year.

BV: In our department [linguistics], it works the other way. The
chairman has total control over who gets in, and they just pick
who they want for themselves each year, regardless of whether the
other professors should be getting people. So NELC [Near Eastern
Languages and Civilizations] is actually very kindly and wisely
run, in my opinion. The opportunity to get one Armenian student a
year is squandered, but the students have no choice in it.

JS: So one person has graduated from the program in the past 10

BV: Yes, Sergio LaPorta finished two years ago. He is in
Jerusalem now. He did his thesis on Grigor Tatevatsi, who was a
14th century theologian in Tatev.

JS: I read the text of Russell's recent public lecture series at
NAASR, which is posted on their Web site. It is very cryptic and
probably difficult to understand for a general audience. I
imagine many in the audience show up, and if they can't really
follow what he is talking about they just assume he is brilliant.
It seems that no one wants to be critical of him, because of his

BV: They also give him the benefit of the doubt--I think humans
are designed to be this way. They assume that other humans are
acting rationally.

At the Kars conference at UCLA about a year ago, he was talking
about the main Armenian church there and the carvings around it.
Some of the Soviet-trained scholars there were very angry at what
he said, which was partly justified and partly not. He had made
up what he was saying about the significance of the images on the
church, and they didn't like the fact that he couldn't
substantiate what he was saying. But they were also annoyed that
he was talking about Christian imagery of a sort they didn't
agree with. One of them got up and said it was just "men," and
not Gregory the Illuminator or whoever James was saying it was.
So each side was not entirely justified in this case, but then
James launched into an incredible tirade against them in front of
everyone, and then another one in private in the hallway.

It was the usual arguments for him, that the Soviet Armenian
scholars are all Nazis or were poorly trained.

JS: So what can the community do with Harvard or with the
Armenian Chair?

BV: I am sure there are Armenians who can meet with the President
of Harvard to let him know what's been going on with the chair
and what they think are reasonable goals or activities for a
chair--things that have nothing to do with academic freedom.

What you need to watch out for is the defense that academics need
to be free to do their own research and you can't censor them--
but this isn't about that. This is about basic goals like
producing students, doing things for the community, allowing
people to take your classes, and so on.

JS: So you have seen him in other academic settings where he
reveals a bad temperament? I have read his criticism of the ARF
in many places, but his attacks are not only directed toward us?

BV: It is just what happens to be a convenient attack against
you. When someone attacks him, he will pick on whatever variable
is available for that group. If it is the ARF or an equivalent
Armenian organization, he could call them neo-Nazi, or
reactionary, or nationalist. But if it is a group that doesn't
have that attribute, then it will be anti-Semitic or homophobic.
But he can't call me a rabid Armenian nationalist.

JS: I think this really comes down to sponsorship. NAASR gives
Russell a forum to give lectures, where he might not have many
classes at Harvard, and it also gives him exposure in the
community. And the person that has run NAASR for so many years--
Manoog Young--his background/interest is in that period of
history, in Avedis Derounian/John Roy Carlson and the anti-
communist reaction from the Armenian community. He has
Derounian's papers at NAASR, and that is the period Russell is
taking an interest in. Russell has told me that his parents were
somehow affiliated with the Communist Party in the US, so this
subject is very personal for him, and he has that connection with
Manoog because of those loyalties.

BV: In my opinion, this stuff about communism is not relevant
today. It has no place.

JS: You are right. This is not relevant in the Armenian community
today. People within the community don't have these kinds of
loyalties and conflicts anymore, especially since the fall of the
Soviet Union. People like Russell are trying to keep these fights
going, but I don't think he has much of an audience for it. It is
bothering people, but I don't think people are really responding
to it the way he would like. I am not sure why he is getting into
these political debates, and why he is "throwing stones." Do you
think the chair is supposed to get involved in the community and
make friends in the community? Is that how a chair advances

BV: It would help. If the community endows the chair, I as the
chairholder would feel an obligation to serve the community. But
you shouldn't have to say things that are not true. In the case
of the Genocide, if you look at it in an academic way it's clear
that it happened, and as a scholar it is your obligation to make
that known, whether it is your area or not.

The Armenian Chair at Harvard is what everyone looks to from
around the world for things involving Armenians and Armenia. That
makes it the most important position for representing Armenian
interests--meaning, what actually happened. So it's important for
the chair to consider the consequence of their actions and to
think about what they should be doing and where they should be
going with the program.

It's also important for the community to keep a close eye on what
is happening. And I do think that building the program should be
a goal of the department or the chair. And if you want to build
it, you need to maintain good relations with the university, your
department, and the community. Those are the people who can help
you build the program. But I would never advocate selling out or
lying about things.

JS: Why are you leaving Harvard?

BV: The short answer is that I didn't get tenure, and I have a
full-professor offer at Wisconsin. The longer answer is that our
department is the last holdout of the American equivalent of the
school that Adjarian came out of. In America it died out in the
1950s, when Chomsky came on the scene.

But because of the way the Harvard tenure process works, you can
maintain older traditions in the face of changes in direction in
academia, because you don't have to defend hirings and non-
hirings. You can do whatever you want and get away with it. At
other schools, where the tenure process is explicit, the hirings
directly reflect the currents in the academic world within a 10-
20 year level of fineness, where at Harvard it is more like 100-
150 years.

This field of 19th century linguistics died out by 1955 in the
US, but we had someone come to our department in 1950 in this
area, and he's still here. He's the guy who's just leaving, and
he's built up a set of his students around him who protected our
department from the currents of change in our field. That's the
person who kept me from even getting reviewed for tenure, which
is illegal according to the Handbook For Tenure Review at

For your tenure review, it has to happen in a specific year.
During that year, you hand in all of your publications and your
teaching records (handouts, ratings). The department faculty
looks them over and makes a decision of whether or not to put you
forward for review.

In my case, they made their decision without telling me and
without having my materials for review and without knowing the
details of my record. I went to the administration and told them
that they made the decision without looking at my record. I filed
a protest in the middle of December, and I still haven't heard
anything. I just have to leave, and there is no recourse against

JS: So you got an offer elsewhere, in another linguistics
department? Are you happy to be starting there, or do you have
any regrets?

BV: I like Wisconsin--their linguistics faculty is actually
better than at Harvard. But I am upset for reasons parallel to
the Armenian case, which is that we have more potential here than
anywhere. With no effort at all, Harvard could easily be in the
top five in our field, and they could be number one in Armenian
if they wanted.

JS: Are you glad to just be getting out of here, and to be able
to start somewhere else, where you can be more productive?

BV: I'm glad about two things. First, running the department here
was taking its toll on me, with 16-18 hour days taking care of
several hundred students. The other thing is that having my plans
and proposals shot down or negated by my chairman and by James
constantly over the last nine years was extremely frustrating.