Fulbright Model: Erica Shafran

  • Personal Statement

    Erica Shafran, Austria, Linguistics

    "Ain’t ain’t a word, and it ain’t in my dictionary!” At first I was slow to understand, because “ain’t” flowed effortlessly as any other word off my tongue. By sixth grade I felt compelled to write “clean up” instead of “redd up,” but it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that I realized no one else called a rubber band a “gum band!”

    As a child, my mother would rouse me from my Jane Austin books with: “Erica, can you wush dishes while I redd up the kitchen?” I desperately wondered why my working-class parents could not speak like Mr. Dashwood’s family. For fun, I sought new words in the dictionary, still a current pastime. A second language acquired in college quenched this incessant need for new language input and strengthened the idea that language was a tool to manipulate, but only according to pre-set rules.

    As an English major, I felt the need to excise vernacular words from my vocabulary. I naturally adopted the language of academia. Thus, with every semester in college, the distance increased between my family and me. The education for which my parents sacrificed so much caused the alienation I felt from my home. I felt intensely disconnected from the world of my family because my identity had altered while theirs’ remained constant. One day, I told my sister about my problems with alternating between the languages of two worlds. She was outraged when I told her I felt alienated from my department store coworkers because of language. “How can you say your coworkers didn’t understand you! They’re not stupid. I don’t know why you think you’re better than us!”

    Until my sophomore year of college, I thought a sensible career for a “good girl” would be a teacher. Like my reduction of vernacular words, I chose the “right” career path. Once I made my first independent decision to add a German major to my education degree, more were to follow. I re-evaluated what was more important: “right” according to society or “right” according to me.

    In a linguistics class my senior year, I realized what language has in common with my dilemmas. I was struck by the real-life consequences of language: dialects, like my decisions, were not “bad;” they should be treasured and preserved for the diversity they offer to our language smorgasbord. Just as I decided to claim my life by making my own rules, so, too, did I decide to own my vernacular language. After all, Pinker points out that all dialects have their own complex set of rules. If one would ever hear me at home, it would be noticeable that I pepper my speech with “ain’ts” and other such novelties. B.L. Whorf holds that “language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about,” while I hold that decisions shape how we live and determine what we are able to dream about. Language has certainly altered my dreams—it is my goal to become a researcher in the area of linguistics, studying how different definitions of reality affect the way we approach language and language learning in America.

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    Statement of Proposed Study or Research

    Erica Shafran, Austria, Linguistics

    The Effect of Yiddish on National Identity in Austria

    I propose to study Yiddish in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Austria, at this time, contained a large variety of languages: German, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, and Yiddish (arguably a German dialect and not a separate language, but for my study I classify it as a language) were all everyday languages of the Empire. Yet, some argue that the Habsburger Empire dissolved because of the burden of too many languages, rendering effective communications impossible. Can a country be made to falter because of the undue weight of too many languages? I propose to explore this question at the University of Vienna, under the direction of Dr. Elisabeth Leinfellner, a linguist who specializes in political discourse and the works of Fritz Mauthner.

    I believe firmly, along with linguist B.L. Whorf, that language influences the way we think and how we experience life. Language, therefore, can be closely linked with national identity; the way a country speaks (i.e., the languages it uses) will affect attitudes and emotions. I have noticed the influence of the Spanish language in the United States, and, even a few years ago, I would not have thought Spanish could become so widespread. Now Spanish is so common that directions and signs are bilingual. However, Spanish has and continues to spawn debates over its presence in the U.S.

    How did Austria change from a country of multiple languages to a city where German became the primary language without altering its diverse atmosphere? By exploring one dialect in use in Austria, specifically fin-de-siècle Vienna, I can plot its influence on those who spoke it. While not spoken by the majority of Austrians, there were pockets in both Vienna and the Austrian Empire where Yiddish was the sole language. The Yiddish language allowed many Jews to preserve a sense of their Jewish identity in a culture where Germandom was the culture of the social elite. Vienna experienced a large influx of immigrants due to industrialization at this time, including Jewish parents hoping to procure a brighter future for their children. These children easily grasped the German language spoken in the schools, while they conversed with their parents at home in Yiddish. With German replacing Yiddish for those who sought social and political success, did the national identity of the speakers suffer?

    I plan to examine Austria’s response to the burden of multiple languages, and to do so according to the theories of Mauthner, a prominent Viennese linguistic philosopher. Mauthner’s work identified language as a tool for exploring reality. By focusing on one dialect—Yiddish—in Austria, I hope to better understand how language changed the climate of this city using the theories which both developed there by Mauthner and changed the face of continental linguistics forever. Multiply the impact of one language’s effect by the number of other languages spoken, and then we can truly see the effect such a configuration of languages had on the country.

    I do not know the answer to this language question. I want to study how languages affect the attitudes of a country. Habsburger Vienna harbored anti-Semitic feelings at the time, and those who spoke Yiddish invariably suffered discrimination. These same negative feelings directed at speakers of certain languages are present in the United States today. Proposition 227 recently aimed to make California an “English only” state by eliminating bilingual education, much like the Jewish children were forced to speak German in the schools. Proposition 227 was overturned, but it is evident that Spanish speakers are growing in number and influence. By looking at one country’s approach to Vienna’s nineteenth-century “language problem,” I hope to gain insight into the way we approach languages in the United States.

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