Linguistics bridges science, languages, and personal experience

By Christine Buckley, CLAS Today

Linguistics graduate student Miloje Despic was 27 and serving in the Serbian military when he got a call from his future PhD advisor, UConn linguistics professor Željko Boškovic.

“I remember I was washing my socks when I got his phone call,” Despic jokes. “He told me I had been accepted to the linguistics program.”

A Serbian native hailing from the western city of Užice, Despic was completing six months in the army, which at the time was a requirement for all Serbian men. Until then, Despic had spent most of his adult life studying languages and how they’re structured.

After attending a science high school in Užice, Despic studied Turkish language and literature in college in Belgrade, Serbia and went on to do a master’s degree in linguistics in Ankara, Turkey. His interest in both science and language led him naturally to the study of linguistics, he says, and in 2005, to UConn’s internationally renowned linguistics department.

“Linguistics is a nice bridge between science and language, and I thought that was really cool,” he says. “It’s what our society needs – we have all these results in different fields, but we might not see the benefits of them. To really improve our knowledge, we should combine science and the humanities.”

Despic’s dissertation research focuses on syntax, which he says can be defined at its most basic level as the branch of linguistics that studies how the words of a language can be combined to make larger units, such as phrases, clauses, and sentences.

“Language can create infinitely many unpredictable sentences, but words, the objects that create them, are finite,” he explains. “Kids don’t hear all the sentences they produce, but they acquire the ability to produce them.”

With Boškovic’s guidance, Despic’s dissertation research focused on the existence of definite articles – in English, the definite article is “the” – in different languages. Unlike English, Despic says, many languages, including his native Serbo-Croatian, don’t use definite articles.

“The languages that do and don’t have them show some surprising but systematic differences,” he says. “For example, there are differences in the order of phrases in the two groups.”

Despic was a fellow in CLAS’s Humanities Institute for the year 2010-2011, which he says was an enriching experience – especially the periodic talks by other fellows in the program.

“The other fellows in the program were great,” he says. “It’s a good exercise to explain your work to someone who is smart and an expert in some other field than you.”

Boškovic says that Despic has already achieved stature in the linguistics field, producing influential papers and proposals that researchers at UConn and other institutions are testing with respect to the languages they study.

“The progress he has made since he came to UConn from Ankara University in 2005 is truly amazing,” says Boškovic. “He has already produced high quality, influential research in several areas of linguistics.”

Despic will continue his syntax work in a post-doctoral fellowship at Cornell in the fall. He says that his experience at UConn has prepared him for a career in academic linguistics. Especially for someone coming from a foreign country, he says, UConn was a good fit.

“Trying to adjust to a new environment isn’t easy. Nobody here speaks Serbo-Croatian,” he laughs. “But I’ve learned a lot from everyone in my department, and I’ve made friends here that I will have for the rest of my life.”

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