Dear Members of the Yale Community in Germany,

As a "part 2" to our spring '21 newsletter, this is a new feature for the club: Yalies interviewing Yalies.

Unlike other clubs around the world, our members are not in one city or town, but rather spread all across the country. In order to celebrate our diversity, we thought this would be a fun way to get to know more about who exactly is here and active with the club.

Thanks to Lutz and Maria for the interview. Maria now has the baton and will interview someone for our next newsletter.

Hope to see you are one of our upcoming events:

May 18th - an evening with Prof. David Blight

May 21st - Zoom happy hour to celebrate and thank outgoing president Laura Sprague

Boola boola and Happy Spring,



YCG Interview with Maria Kouneli

Assistant Professor, Institut für Linguistik, Universität Leipzig
Yale College Class of 2014

YCG: Maria, you are originally from Greece. Then you went to Yale, did your Ph.D. at NYU and then took up the post in Leipzig. Was this your master plan all along? What brought you to Yale in the first place?

Maria: (laughs) This was definitely not a master plan. I am from Karystos, a small town of 6000 people in Greece. I come from a working class background; my parents did not go to college. My parents first trip abroad was to visit me in New Haven. I was a good student in school, and I got a scholarship to go to a private high school in Athens. They encouraged me to explore my options abroad. I went to Harvard summer school, and they organized a trip to visit Yale, which I liked a lot. [Interviewerís note: Serves Harvard right!] Back in Greece, I decided to apply to US colleges. Yale was on the top of my list, my early action application was accepted, the financial aid package worked out and off I went.

YCG: And how did you end up in Germany?

Maria: At Yale, I double majored in linguistics and economics. I wanted an academic career, but at the same time I wanted a fallback option. After Yale, I decided for the academic career and for the Ph.D. at NYU. Linguistics is a very small field, and there are not a lot of good academic positions, especially with tenure track. When I graduated from NYU, I got this great opportunity at Leipzig, so after nine years in New England I headed for Germany.

YCG: In your researcher profile on Google, your research interests are theoretical syntax and morphology, with a particular interest in DP structure (especially number, gender, and adjectival modification), argument structure, and case. As a mechanical engineer myself, I need a bit of explanation here. What is so fascinating to you about this topic?

Maria: The broad field is theoretical linguistics. We are looking at language from a computational view. In other words, the underlying mechanics of language and the ability of human beings to speak. My two research areas are syntax, which is how phrases are built from words, and words, which is how words are built from smaller units, e.g. friend-ship. The fascinating thing is that in any language, the grammar varies, but not as much as one would imagine - there are universal principles: nouns, verbs etc. My field of linguistics studies the underlying computational mechanisms that all grammars share. This is a very analytical approach. Other growth fields in linguistics are neurolinguistics, which studies the connection between language and the brain, and computational linguistics, e.g. natural language processing.

YCG: Can you give an example of what this looks like in your daily work?

Maria: I focus on languages in East Africa, for example Kenya. The theories of how grammar works are traditionally very Eurocentric, plus a bit of Japanese & Chinese. In the past twenty years or so, there has been a shift in the field where people are doing detailed work on so-called "understudied" languages. We are trying to update our theories, based on what we learn about these other languages. I study the Kalenjin family of languages, which is spoken in the Rift Valley in Western Kenya.

YCG: Naturally, coming from Greece, you would choose East African languages...

Maria: I got involved with the Kalenjin family of languages because one of my best friends from Yale is from the region and speaks Kipsigis. As a linguist, this spiked my interest, especially as I found that the language had not been researched empirically.

YCG: You built your own empirical area, based on where one of your Yale friends was from?

Maria: Yes, I think you can say that. This only became a serious academic topic for me during my Ph.D., when I started to specialize. In the same language family, I got involved in studying Didinga, which is prevalent in South Sudan. This came through another Yale connection. So, one phrase I hear a lot is: "How do you know people from all those places?" Well, there is Yale for you.

YCG: When I was at Yale, there was no need-blind admission, and the number of international students in my class on a full scholarship could be counted on one hand.

Maria: I can certainly say that the full financial aid is huge for bringing diversity to Yale, also in international students, and especially in reaching economically underprivileged people.

YCG: We Germans like to brag about the incredible difficulty of German as a foreign language. I think that is just a face-saving way of admitting that German is not a particularly beautiful sounding language. Which language is your personal favorite?

Maria: (laughs) I would say that German can be beautiful, depending on who says what. As a linguist, looking at it from an analytical point of view, my favorite is Kipsigis - the complexity of the grammar is fascinating. In terms of enjoying the learning and speaking, I think it is Spanish. I have always liked the way it sounded, and the culture is very nice.

YCG: How is language related to culture?

Maria: As a language learner, the language is one key to understanding the culture, its people, its literature etc. So, coming as an outsider, it is useful. But this does not mean that language and culture have a fixed or strong mutual influence. After all, the underlying computational system in all languages is similar. The differences between different language families may seem big, but really those differences are rather superficial. Even in languages that look like they have nothing to do with each other, the commonalities are bigger than the differences. And there are surprising similarities in languages that culturally are worlds apart. There are certain West African languages, for example, that look quite similar to Chinese.

YCG: Looking back at your time at Yale, what were the highlights? What do you miss?

Maria: What I miss most are the people. Aside from the fact that the people as individuals shaped my career. The people at Yale were very motivated to make a difference in the field, they were open-minded, from all sorts of places and backgrounds - diversity in all sorts of dimensions. In New York, some of this atmosphere could be replicated. Outside New York, even though I am in academia, there is not the breadth of interests. In Leipzig, students are interested, but their interest tends to be more focused than at Yale.

YCG: You speak six languages, read Ancient Greek and find your way around several more languages. What is next?

Maria: Well, I am learning German! now is a time for depth, not breadth...

YCG: You recently became involved in the Yale Club of Germany. What do you hope to see more in the Club in the future?

Maria: I miss the Yale people, so hope to participate in events. Leipzig is not far from Berlin, so that would be an easy option for me. It would also be nice to have impulses from the young alums, since there is a good number of us and I think it is important to have a good mix of experiences, backgrounds and ages in a group.

YCG: Maria, thank you for taking the time, and we are looking forward to your impulses in the YCG!

Interview by Lutz Berners, Yale College 1999




Lutz Berners at his 20th reunion with his wife Lei and children Lisa and Leander


The Yale Club of Germany e.V.


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Club Officers


Bartley Grosserichter (Yale College ’88)


Hans Christian Siller (GSAS ’12)


Alexander Schmitt Glaeser (LLM ’89)


Rebecca Haltzel-Haas (Yale College ’90)


Jana Striezel (LLM ’02)