'The very thing that makes humans human:'
The editor-in-chief of the largest encyclcopedia of Slavic languages and literatures of its type, and the Republic of Slovenia's ambassador of science shares the story behind his work in the study of Slavic language and the details of one of his current ongoing projects.
It was childhood boredom that initially led Dr. Marc Greenberg to his lifelong, accomplished career in Slavic linguistics.
Growing up, the professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Kansas was bored by his hometown environment of Los Angeles. He couldn’t find interest in what he says were the crowd-favorite pastimes—skateboarding and visiting Disneyland.
Dr. Greenberg’s interests and true passion lied elsewhere; he was fascinated by the stories of people who had lived through World War II, from surviving the Holocaust to working as journalists in the Soviet Union and Germany during the war.
He was especially fascinated by his family, who came from countries like Romania, Hungary and Ukraine, and spoke different languages such as Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian and even Yiddish.
Dr. Marc Greenberg, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Kansas, is the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Slavic Languages and Literatures, which is the largest encyclopedia of its type. CONTRIBUTED BY MARC GREENBERG
Curiosity for languages and his family’s past took him to the Slavic Department at UCLA in his hometown. At UCLA, he learned multiple Slavic languages, including Russian, Czech, Serbo-Croatian and Slovene, and studied in the languages’ home countries, including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Yugoslavia.
“That curiosity about where I was from and also curiosity about the things that happened when I was born before the Second World War were transmitted to me,” Greenberg said. “As soon as I got a chance to study the languages when I went to UCLA, which is where I grew up, it just seemed like I was in my element.”
UCLA, however, was just the beginning. Today, Greenberg has made many contributions to the field of Slavic linguistics. Greenberg wrote the first monograph on Slovene historical phonography. He co-founded one of the first open-access journals in Slavic studies. Amidst the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe, he “engaged in issues of language planning in the reorganization of Yugoslavia and other-post socialist states,” according to his professional University of Kansas profile.
Greenberg holds three higher degrees in Slavic languages and literature, including a doctorate and bachelor’s degree from UCLA, and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago.
Greenberg said he received his position as then-assistant professor of Slavic Languages and literatures during a beneficial time for the field when the brightest minds in Slavic languages immigrated from Europe after World War II and started spreading their knowledge through teaching in the U.S.
After working with Pavle Ivić, a leading South Slavic and general dialectologist and phonologist, during his studies, Greenberg began working on reconstructing the pre-history of South Slavic languages. Language variation, Greenberg says, is one of his main interests as a scholar.
Greenberg compares variation, which he says is prominent in the South Slavic languages, with cosmology.
One of Greenberg’s most significant projects has been going on since 2015. Greenberg is the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Slavic Languages and Linguistics, which is the largest encyclopedia of its type.
Greenberg said he first started working on the encyclopedia in 2015, after being approached by Slavic colleagues with the idea twice. He says the encyclopedia and the study of language itself can help mankind understand not only language, but also history, and who we are as human beings.
“Language is the very thing that makes humans human, as opposed to any other sort of living creature,” Greenberg said. “The most fundamental scientific fact about us is that we communicate with language. In order to study language, we need to understand deeply how it works.”
While Greenberg is the sole editor-in-chief of the publication, there is also one general editor and nine associate editors, including Stephen Dickey, who is also a professor at the University of Kansas Department of Slavic and Eurasian Literatures. Renee Perelmutter, an associate professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Jewish Studies at the University, also wrote for the encyclopedia.
The encyclopedia is online now for people to view what the scholars have written on the inner workings of Slavic languages—the largest group of Indo-European languages, led by Russian. However, Greenberg says the goal is for his team to finish collecting all the content for it by the end of 2022 and get everything ready for print by the end of 2023.
Due to delays because of COVID-19, the encyclopedia may be released in 2025, Greenberg said.
“[Variation] is like people who study cosmology and they want to find the background radiation from the Big Bang, so they use the triangulation of light shift from the stars to understand what elements are in different stars to understand how fast the Universe is expanding,” Greenberg said. “With language, we can come back and see earlier stages that we can’t see with the naked eye, but we can infer by looking at how the data from the present-day lines up and what it tells us about the past.”
Greenberg presents an overview of the Balkans from the perspective of its musical traditions in June 2014.
The cover of the Encyclopedia of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Dr. Greenberg and his team hope to print the publication by the end of 2023 at over 1 million words. CONTRIBUTED BY MARC GREENBERG
“We can always update the online edition and we will forever,” Greenberg said. “That’ll be the perpetual edition. But, we do want to have something for people’s shelves. We want to have that as a tangible memento, but it’s going to be outdated as soon as it’s printed because we’ll keep updating it even after it’s printed.”
As editor-in-chief, Greenberg is responsible for shaping the encyclopedia, determining how to present the encyclopedia, arranging the knowledge in the encyclopedia, selecting articles and determining what will ultimately go into the publication.
Greenberg and his team of editors network to contact experts in the field of Slavic linguistics who write entries for the encyclopedia, providing a target date, word count and formatting. Once the writers submit their entries, the encyclopedia editors edit the entries to make sure they are well-written, incorporate proper citations and also look for possible plagiarism—which, Greenberg says, the editors have found.
“It’s basically a big networking job,” Greenberg said. “We need to have somebody as editor-in-chief who oversees the whole thing. The associate editors generally do a lot of work that needs to be done because it’s way too much for one person to do.”
Greenberg says that he has put in hundreds of hours into the project, especially during his holiday breaks.
"Language is the very thing that makes humans human, as opposed to any other sort of living creature."
- Marc Greenberg
Greenberg’s study of languages has led him to more than a title as editor-in-chief of a large-scale encyclopedia.
Greenberg met his soon-to-be wife in the summer of 1983, where they were both studying Czech in Prague. Slovene is the language he uses to communicate with his wife, who is Slovene. His kids were raised as bilingual.
In November 2019, Greenberg was the first non-Slovene to earn the title of ambassador of science from the Republic of Slovenia, recognizing his work and research in Slavic linguistics.
Greenberg says the field of languages and linguistics, which is where he found his lifelong career starting in his childhood, is fundamental in understanding mankind.
“Language is a repository of knowledge about earlier contacts with people before there were written sources,” Greenberg said. “It helps us understand who we are as human beings in a general sense and a specific sense.”