Mar. 6, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 11

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    Friedman, like so many other faculty members, understands the pleasure and adventure of living ‘the life of the mind’

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Victor Friedman
    Outside the University, scholars usually cross our radar screen through the books they publish or when they appear as experts in newspaper articles or TV or radio interviews.

    They appear knowing a frightening amount about some small thing, but it is always a little mysterious why they bothered to learn it–what kept them in the library or the field, pounding through these obscure facts that nobody else knows? Sometimes a small, even peculiar artifact reveals the emotional depth in difficult work, giving a window into what makes people care about their disciplines and the human beings who populate them.

    Victor Friedman’s titles are scholarly enough–he’s the Chairman of the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, as well as a Professor in the Linguistics Department and an Associate faculty member of the Department of Anthropology and the Division of the Humanities.

    And he certainly knows a lot; he is an expert on one of the most linguistically diverse and complex areas in the world, the Balkan peninsula, and he has been called on to help settle questions of language and politics in the Macedonian census (he called that “a statistical success and a political failure.”)

    He is the author of the first book on modern Macedonian published in the United States, as well as important articles analyzing why Macedonian is the site of such conflict: he explains that a dialect is often thought to “belong” to one language group for political and cultural reasons, just as a territory is. “Bulgarians have said Macedonian is a dialect of Bulgarian, Serbs have said it’s a dialect of Serbian.”

    He’s a longtime Hyde Park resident who attended the Laboratory Schools and returned after college to get his Ph.D., rising swiftly through the ranks after graduation.

    But to understand what has motivated Friedman to gain such precise knowledge of so many difficult things, you could do worse than to look at a toast in verse that he gave at a retirement party. The party, in 2001, was for his teacher and colleague at Chicago, Kostas Kazazis. The toast, a poem written in English, Greek, Hebrew, Macedonian, Serbian, several varieties of Albanian, a couple of dialects of Turkish, Bosnian, Romani, Romanian, Gagauz, Aromanian (Vlah), Moldavian, Bulgarian and Old Church Slavonic, addresses Kazazis, who died in December 2002, as “My dear Kostas, my dear teacher...” It expresses Friedman’s affection and warm wishes, larded with private jokes and off-color interlingual puns that do not translate and probably should not be translated anyway.

    The toast takes on special meaning once you realize Friedman learned many of the toast’s languages from Kazazis himself, including one he almost died studying.

    “When I was a third-year grad student,” Friedman remembered, “I got a bleeding ulcer from eating too much aspirin. I was bleeding internally, but it was painless. I didn’t know what was happening. I knew I was feeling weaker, but I had a class in Balkan linguistics with Kostas that day; right after that I had Georgian with Howie Aronson. Kostas’ office was on the third floor of Foster Hall, Aronson’s was on the fourth. I went upstairs and sat down in the Slavic Department office, where I fainted from loss of blood. If I hadn’t been a good student and come to class I would have stayed in bed and died.

    “A book had just come out with a crucially important article of his–it was very expensive. When I was strong enough, he came to the hospital and taught the class there, and he gave me the book as a present.”

    The poem testifies to a student-teacher relationship that gave Friedman a model of what it meant to truly know a language or a culture–and the pleasure and adventure of learning one.

    “Kostas spoke literary Albanian so beautifully that people thought he was Albanian,” said Friedman. “I remember he was at a Russian art exhibition, looking at the paintings and saw a Russian word he didn’t happen to know. He turned to some Russians who were there and asked what the word was, but they looked at him like he was crazy because his Russian was so good they couldn’t believe he didn’t know the word.”