Motivated by linguistic diversity
Professor of General Linguistics Michael Rießler is a multilingualism expert who hopes that computational methods will also provide better tools for research on endangered languages.
Professor Rießler’s journey to the Joensuu Campus of the University of Eastern Finland started in Germany, where he grew up in the German Democratic Republic, GDR, – or as he puts it: “behind the Iron Curtain”.
“The Nordic Countries have fascinated me since I was a teenager. Although they were neighbouring the country where I was growing up, I couldn’t visit them due to the restrictions in place in the GDR.”
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Sweden and Norway were the first western countries Professor Rießler visited.
“Soon after, I was also able to visit Finland. I am fascinated by the Finnish language, which I have been actively studying for some time now.”
Professor Rießler considers Swedish as his first foreign language, which he also uses on a daily basis with his Finland Swedish partner. His interest in the Nordic Countries eventually led to an impressive academic career in the field of languages spoken in the northern part of Europe, as well as to a professorship at the University of Eastern Finland.
Bringing minority languages into the Digital Age
Professor Rießler’s research and professional interests are in the fields of multilingualism and linguistic diversity. In his PhD dissertation, he focused on language typology, after which he wanted to zoom in on indigenous languages spoken in the area between the Nordic countries and Russia. He was familiar with the history of that area already and could also understand some of the majority languages spoken there.
“This made it easier to get started with fieldwork. I first started to collect data on the East Saami languages of Russia, which are scarcely used anymore in daily communication. Later, I also did fieldwork in the East Saami areas of Norway and Finland and studied the language contacts between Saami and Komi on the Kola Peninsula.”
Currently, Professor Rießler’s research focuses on describing Komi varieties, especially in the diaspora outside the Komi Republic. The project involves colleagues from Finland and Sweden and the Komi Republic in Russia.
“Another motivation I have as a linguistic anthropologist is to bring innovative computational methods into fieldwork in order to build extensive, multifunctional and sustainable databases available for future research on and for endangered languages.”
“Our group is currently working with automatic speech recognition for Komi. In the future, this technology will not only make our transcription of fieldwork recordings more effective. It can also help to enhance the use of the endangered and marginalised Komi language in the Digital Age.”
Fieldwork reveals the diversity of languages
Professor Rießler says that he is especially fascinated by multilingualism as a linguistic phenomenon.
“I want to understand and describe the grammatical structure of less well-known languages, while looking especially into how speakers permanently vary and change their languages as a result of multilingualism.
For instance, interviews carried out in the field show how native Saami speakers switch to Komi, or trilingual Nenets speakers use both Nenets, Komi and Russian.
“My own current approach in fieldwork, however, strives for an ethnography of speech and communication beyond individual languages. Restricting linguistic description to an individual language requires an abstraction which does not reflect the actual multilingual language use of the speakers I work with.”
Start of a fruitful collaboration
Despite its rather young age, the University of Eastern Finland is internationally renowned for its tradition in teaching and research in linguistics. There are only two professors of general linguistics in the whole of Finland, Professor Rießler being one of them.
“Coming here, I knew that the University of Eastern Finland is a center for research on Karelian language and culture, and many relevant projects use approaches that are similar to mine. There are also many new colleagues with whom I hope to start fruitful collaborations in the future.”
Since Professor Rießler enjoys sports and the outdoors, especially hiking and telemark skiing, the region is ideally suitable for him.
“Moving to North Karelia is also attractive for me personally.”
- Professor of General Linguistics, University of Eastern Finland, as from 1 August 2020
- Born in 1971 in Belzig, Germany
- MA, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 2002 and PhD, Leipzig University, 2011
- Title of docent awarded by the University of Helsinki, 2015
- Title of docent awarded by the University of Turku, 2018
Most important roles
- Fellow, Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies, 2014, 2017–18
- Visiting Professor, École Normale Supérieure, Paris 2016
- Professor of General Linguistics, Bielefeld University, 2017–19
Print-quality photo of Professor Rießler is available at: https://mediabank.uef.fi/A/UEF+Media+Bank/37877?encoding=UTF-8