Prof. Terttu Nevalainen’s farewell lecture

Prof. Terttu Nevalainen held her farewell lecture at the University of Helsinki on April 5. The place was packed and I want to share some observations from the day.

Terttu was introduced with the words “You can’t work in language variation and change without being familiar with Terttu’s research.” That isn’t hyperbole, it’s an understatement.

In her lecture, Terttu raised three points. First, she said that “choice is not random” and gave the example of how there are many synonyms in dictionaries, but there are very few true synonyms. As Terttu found in her research, Shakespeare used but rather than only in the line “Life’s but a walking shadow” because but and only had different grammatical properties in his time. Second, Terrtu noted that “choice leads to change” – people can make very different choices between alternative ways of saying the same thing. This fact is related to Terttu’s third point: change affects choice. During linguistic changes, people make choices about which form to use and as one choice forces out others, this can limit choices in the future.

Terttu showed data on how it only took about 120 years for people to start using you and stop using ye. 120 years! That’s it. Wild!

Terttu also showed something I know about personally: her kindness toward others. Terttu said “It is very important to bear the students in mind and make them co-researchers” and that we should remember “we were all once research assistants.” I’ve known Terttu for years now and I can say with certainty that she is a major reason that I have a career in academia. But besides working with each other, Terttu knows the names of my children and she asks about them. She knows about my PhD research and she asks about that too when we see each other. It’s a good feeling to be recognized by such a respected and accomplished person. But that’s the thing – Terttu has been this nice for as long as I’ve known her.

The great news is that Terttu’s not going anywhere. She still has work on the STRATAS project, for example. And there are more volumes of the eSeries coming up.

All in all, the farewell lecture was a great time and it’s nice to know that Terttu will be around for a while.

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