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Tjeerd de Graaf
Markus Bergmann, Nynke de Graaf and Hidetoshi Shiraishi
Tjeerd de Graaf was born on January 27th 1938 in Leeuwarden, the capital of the province Fryslân in the Netherlands. Fryslân is the largest of several regions on the North Sea where Frisian is spoken, a West Germanic language whose genetically closest relative is English.
Tjeerd’s parents were both Frisians, and at home they spoke exclusively Frisian. As most other children in Fryslân at that time, Tjeerd grew up bilingually. His first native language was Frisian, and at school he learned Dutch, the official language of the Netherlands.
The coexistence of Frisian at home and Dutch at school was Tjeerd’s first experience in a fascinating world of different languages. For Tjeerd, the difference between the two languages had a very illustrative spatial implication: when he and the other children in his neighborhood went to school in the mornings, there was a railway crossing along the way. Once they had crossed it they stopped speaking Frisian and switched to Dutch, their official school language.
At the age of 18, in 1956, Tjeerd graduated from the Leeuwarden High School and became interested in languages. His other big passion was the science of physics and astronomy. The oldest planetarium in the world is located in Franeker, an old academic place in Fryslân. Intrigued by the laws governing space and time, Tjeerd studied physics at the University of Groningen from 1956 to 1963. In 1963 he received his master’s degree in science (Doctoraal examen) in theoretical physics, a combination of physics, mathematics and astronomy. From 1963 until 1969 he continued as a research associate at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Groningen.
Tjeerd was already a “polyglot” at that time, speaking not only Frisian and Dutch, but also German, English and French. Other languages would follow. In the former Soviet Union the study of astronomical sciences was enjoying an era of superiority. Tjeerd understood that learning Russian and other East European languages would be the key to enter the field of scientific knowledge. Along with his theoretical physics’ studies, he also enrolled for the study of Slavic languages. The new technologies and their application for future research fascinated him. In 1967 he received his Master of Arts degree (Kandidaatsexamen) in Slavic languages and computer linguistics. In the meantime, after having obtained his MS, he continued his research in theoretical physics, combined with a study abroad in Poland, where he lived for half a year and mastered the language.
By 1969, he finished his dissertation entitled “Aspects of Neutrino Astrophysics”.
The cover page of Tjeerd’s dissertation in Theoretical Physics in 1969
Tjeerd’s quenchless thirst for knowledge led him to England together with his wife Nynke and their children where they spent a year from 1970 to 1971 and where he worked as a research associate at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge.
Upon their return to Groningen, Tjeerd became assistant professor in physics at the Institute of Astronomy, a post he held until 1975. This was to be a turning point in his professional career when he decided to switch to his second passion, namely the study of languages. One of his dissertational theses dealt with the question as to how exact a person’s identity could be defined by his or her speech. This thesis symbolically defined one of Tjeerd’s later linguistic interests: the aspects of spoken language, the study of phonetics.
In 1975, Tjeerd became associate professor at the Institute of Phonetic Sciences, Department of Linguistics, University of Groningen.
Being a native bilingual in Frisian and Dutch, Tjeerd was aware of the numerous phonetic differences between the languages. Having studied many other languages as well, Tjeerd understood how important phonetic descriptions are not only for theoretical linguistics, but also in learning and teaching foreign languages.
Language coexistence and language change would become another focal point of his research. In most regions of the world, people are bilingual or even multilingual. Language variety appears both in space and time. Listening to radio programs or TV broadcasts dating back ten or twenty years, reveals a distinct difference in speech as compared with today’s custom of speaking. It is still the same language, the same place, and yet the speech is not the same as before. Not only the lexicon of a language changes but also the manner in which people speak, their pronunciation and intonation. This is an extremely intriguing topic for a person interested in languages and their varieties.
Tjeerd started to trace the oldest recordings of spoken examples of languages. He analyzed Frisian recordings from the province of Fryslân as well as recordings from North and East Frisian regions. Recordings of the spoken language of former times are not only a historically important heritage, but they also offer valuable information pertaining to language shift processes. A practical problem with the oldest sound recordings is that they were made on wax cylinders and their quality decreases tremendously every time they are listened to. Tjeerd was aware of the fact that one of the main tasks was to transfer these recordings to modern media in order to preserve them. In the beginning of the 1990s, together with Japanese colleagues, Tjeerd started to investigate the possibilities of preserving old language recordings via modern audio technology. At that time, Tjeerd acquired yet another language, namely Japanese.
Tjeerd working on wax cylinders with old recordings of Dutch
Tjeerd started to contact the most important sound archives of the world, which are in Vienna, Berlin, and St. Petersburg. Through his collaboration with the sound archive of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, he renewed his contact with Russia, which had begun with his studies of Slavic languages in the 1960s.
After 1990, the world had experienced dramatic changes. The Iron Curtain had disappeared and Russia had once again opened her “Window to the West”. When Tjeerd came back to St. Petersburg in the 1990s, he was immediately fascinated by this city he had visited for the first time some twenty years ago when it was still known as Leningrad. As a Frisian and a Dutchman, he felt at home there. The picturesque canals and paths along the wide boulevards reminded him of his home region. This was no coincidence: Czar Peter the Great, some 300 years ago, had chosen Holland as the model for his new capital.
In the following years, Tjeerd organized joint projects with the Russian Academy of Sciences and St. Petersburg State University to preserve and transfer old Russian sound recordings onto modern digital audio media. Research on a vast collection of the most various sound recordings resulting from many linguistic field work expeditions from the end of the XIX and XX centuries served as an incentive for several projects related to different languages spoken in Russia.
Tjeerd started to initiate research projects on the language spoken by the Mennonites, a group of people in Siberia, who had originally come from regions in the Northern Netherlands and Germany and still speak the language of their ancestors – in fact a language with great similarities to the modern dialects spoken in North-Germany and northern parts of the Netherlands. The Dutch press even reported about “Siberians speak Gronings”.
Languages do not only divide people of different nations, but also build a bridge between them. Tjeerd showed this with his research work. Even in far-away Siberia there are people speaking almost the same language as in Groningen. When planning his expeditions, Tjeerd was concerned with both scientific aims and the organization of humanitarian aid from Groningen to the Siberian villages he visited.
Language as a cultural heritage became the core of Tjeerd’s linguistic activities. With his bilingual origin, he set the perfect example. Throughout his life, he showed that each individual can contribute to the survival of a language. With his Frisian wife Nynke, whom he met in his student years, Tjeerd used to converse in Dutch. After their parents had passed away, they decided to switch to Frisian. They personally experienced how a language slowly starts to become extinct if the children do not carry on the language.
This attitude defined Tjeerd’s successive research activities in Russia. Subsequent projects, which he coordinated now, had two goals: documentation of endangered languages, and revitalizing and preserving them for future generations. In the following projects, both aspects – preservation and further development – were present. Tjeerd made several expeditions, among others to Yakutia and the Island of Sakhalin, where he and other linguists recorded the speech of the local indigenous peoples.
Tjeerd de Graaf with a group of speakers of indigenous languages of the Island of Sakhalin in the Far East of Russia: Uiltas and Nivkhs, in the 1990s.
In the second half of the 1990s, Tjeerd coordinated several projects with Institutions throughout the Russian Federation funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and the EU INTAS organization in Brussels.
His main goal was to make young people aware of their unique linguistic heritage and stimulate them in supporting minority and regional languages. In 1998, Tjeerd was appointed Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion for his research and contribution in support of the preservation and construction of databases for the minority languages in Russia. Later that same year Tjeerd was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of St. Petersburg for his contribution in the joint language preservation projects.
Tjeerd de Graaf is appointed Doctor Honoris Causa at the University of
St. Petersburg, November 1998.
Tjeerd has retired from the University of Groningen in 2003 and vacated the chair of the coordinator of the 'Klankleer' (Phonology and Phonetics) group of CLCG (Center of Language and Cognition Groningen). Therefore, his colleagues compiled this Festschrift exhibiting a diversity of research subjects on the boundaries of phonology and phonetics.
It is not a goodbye to our former coordinator. Tjeerd's passionate engagement for languages and linguistic projects continues. Since his retirement he became an active honoree member at the Frisian Academy in Leeuwarden and he is still in contact with the University of St. Petersburg for future research projects. That means more than enough commitments for Tjeerd combined with his role as a grandfather for his five grandchildren. Tjeerd’s enthusiasm is a stimulation for other researchers and the young generation to continue his research.