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Faculty Highlight: Elena Bashir

Apr 12, 2021

Doan: How did you become interested in studying linguistics?

Bashir: Ever since childhood I have loved thinking about language and words and their meanings. When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, however, there was no such thing as routine advising for undergraduates, so I didn’t hear about linguistics while I was selecting classes. I pursued my interest in languages by doing a double major in English and Slavic languages. I was exposed to linguistics only later, in an English course, when we were assigned to read the works of Sapir and Whorf, which really captured my imagination.

Doan: Why did you decide to focus on Urdu?

Bashir: My teaching Urdu resulted from a fortuitous combination of my interest in languages and academic training in linguistics with life experience. I have spent much of my adult life in Pakistan, where exposure to Urdu, the lingua franca and national language of Pakistan, through travel and the media was a part of everyday life.

Doan: How have the pursuit of South Asian scholarship and the resources available evolved over the years?

Bashir: When I started my studies, getting access to rare articles meant spending much time flipping through physical card catalogs, and searching the stacks for physical journals or books, then either taking notes with pen and index cards, or occasionally photocopying a few important pages (in those days photocopying was quite expensive). Access to published scholarship on small or less-studied languages was difficult, and restricted to the few people fortunate enough to have access to major research libraries. Now, with the internet and increasing interest in promoting open-access publication, many more people can read the things they need in order to nurture their own scholarship. This is especially important for the speakers of the languages which so urgently need to be studied and documented while they still exist.

Doan: You published a book in 2019 titled, A Descriptive Grammar of Hindko, Panjabi, and Saraiki (Elena Bashir and Thomas J. Conners, in collaboration with: Brook Hefright). Can you give us a summary of what it is about?

Bashir: This book covers the phonology, morphology, and non-theoretical syntax and semantics of these closely related languages. It employs a version of R.M.W. Dixon’s Basic Linguistic Theory, which is a general approach using concepts and terminology accessible to all stripes of linguists and to the educated lay public. The book is descriptive, and does not attempt to promote any particular theory. Rather, it is an attempt to fill the gap in basic research and publication on Panjabi, especially in Pakistan. There is considerable work on Panjabi in India, but not yet in Pakistan. It also compares Panjabi with the two closely related languages Hindko and Saraiki, in the hope that reading such a book will stimulate interest and discussion among speakers of these languages, and other indigenous languages of Pakistan. Hopefully, too, it will encourage young people there to study linguistics and to work on their own languages.

Doan: What projects are you currently working on?

Bashir: I am continuing my work on languages of Pakistan, focusing on Khowar, a Northwest Indo-Aryan language spoken in District Chitral. This language is rapidly undergoing change, and I hope to capture a snapshot of it during the late 20th century.

Doan: What is a hobby that you have picked up since retiring, if any?

Bashir: I haven’t felt any need for new hobbies, as linguistic research has been and continues to be both a hobby and a profession for me. I continue to work on the same things I was working on before retirement.

Doan: What did you enjoy most about working at the University of Chicago?

Bashir: The most enjoyable aspect of working at the University was my interaction with students, both those whom I taught in my classes and those with whom I interacted informally. Some of them still remain in touch, and have transitioned from being students to being friends.

Lauren Doan is the Programs and Operations Manager at the Committee on Southern Asian Studies.

Elena Bashir is a Member Emerita of COSAS.