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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Masterpiece (5)

Masterpieces often come when you least expect, and just when you feel that you are struggling and are heading out in failure, you may just be hitting the peak of your life. Just as a caterpillar reaches the end of its lifespan and hits a new low in its energy level, it bursts through its shell and becomes the best version it can ever be, namely a butterfly. This is a strange paradox, but an absolutely stunning one. This is the case with such all-time classics like The Godfather Parts I and II and Jaws, and I have mentioned an episode from personal experience which supports this idea too. As we learn from Greek tragedy, the problem with man is that we are sometimes too clever for our own good, to the extent that we often second-guess our fortunes and over-analyse our situation, and this gives us an illusory impression of ourselves and our environment and leads us to make wrong decisions. Surprises can go either way, either pleasant discoveries of the true extent of one’s ability or the horrible disappointment at one’s lack thereof, but it all comes down to the mismatch between man’s estimation of oneself and one’s surroundings and the true extent of both, the latter of which, in Graeco-Roman religion, is only accessible to the gods. Unless one claims to be divine, one cannot boast to have knowledge of one’s destiny, which technically constitutes ‘hubris’ (ύβρις), a classic folly of man punishable by death. I have been thinking about this a lot lately and another piece of personal experience comes to mind. It was Spring 2010 when I was in the second semester of my Master’s in Linguistics at Manchester. Linguistics is a funny field since it is as yet a baby discipline with much yet to be done, but on the whole linguistics, being the empirical study of language, consists of two branches, namely data and theory, the former known more traditionally as philology (i.e. hardcore data-analysis) whereas the latter as modern linguistic theory (syntax, phonology, psycholinguistics, biolinguistics, and the like). In 2010, I was very much new to linguistic theory, since my undergraduate degree at Oxford was in foreign languages (Classics and Romance languages) where I did almost exclusively data-analysis of Indo-European and Romance languages and very little by way of linguistic theory. At Manchester, I was introduced to lots of linguistic theory and was taught that there was no mutual exclusivity between data and theory- indeed, we were always encouraged to pursue and combine both disciplines, since the most fruitful scientific investigations could only be achieved via a mutually informed approach between empirical adequacy and theoretical analysis. Nonetheless, it is customary for linguists to choose an orientation in their work by either concentrating on linguistic data (married with an impeccable understanding of linguistic theory) or linguistic theory (supported by lots of empirical coverage and analysis). I have to admit that I was a little scared of linguistic theory the first time I approached it, since it was very new to me and I initially felt much more comfortable with philology which I had been doing for four years at Oxford, and in Spring 2010 I chose two research papers for my course, Latin philology (supervised by Professor David Langslow) and syntactic theory (with Professor Nigel Vincent). Naturally, I thought that I was going to ace Latin philology, since it was a natural extension from my undergraduate education (and David is indeed an Oxford man and a world class philologist). The paper on syntactic theory worried me the most, since it consisted of highly technical approaches to language which had not been introduced to me before. I hence prioritized my studying of syntactic theory and kept philology in the background for regular checking. Things went on as usual and when it came to writing the term papers, I realized that I had done so much work on syntactic theory that I had discovered something rather exciting. I felt enthusiastic about it and went on reading and exploring more and finally when it came to the submission date, I submitted a substantial paper in which I proposed something quite original (which underlies my first publication in 2012). When the marks came out, I was surprised to learn that my paper for syntactic theory was by far my best mark for my entire course (and my marker/supervisor, Professor Nigel Vincent, was known to be a tough marker, which made this even more remarkable- all my coursemates were ‘wowed’ when they heard my mark). My mark for Latin philology, on the other hand, was disappointingly low, all because I had taken it for granted that it would be easy given my previous education and hence put it to one side. I have subsequently fallen in love with linguistic theory which is now firmly my focus of research, though, as explained above, empirical coverage is paramount in linguistic analysis so I still use lots of examples. However, my style of work has shifted so much towards linguistic theory that I have actually been accused and criticised (mainly by philologists) for being too theory-heavy and have been advised to focus more on data. It is funny how one’s perceptions of oneself can lead to totally different results, which, in my case, has led to a totally different career pathway. In 2010, I assumed that data-analysis would be easy and theory-analysis would be hard, given my levels of familiarity with the material, and while my ability in doing theoretical analysis improved significantly due to my initial insecurity, my data-analysis went awry due to my complacence. Why, then, do we make assumptions about ourselves and the world before we even take on the task at hand? Why jump to conclusions before we have seen all the facts? In the words of my old Spanish tutor at Oxford, ‘Cool it… if you go too fast, you miss things… I only wish that you would move slower so that you notice what’s around you and not miss things.’ Couldn’t agree more. Thanks Eric (Southworth).

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