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'Language Surrounds Us at All Times'

Anton Buzanov

Holds a bachelor's degree in Fundamental and Applied Linguistics from HSE University. Works as an assistant at the School of Linguistics of the HSE Faculty of Humanities while also studying on the Master's programme in Linguistic Theory and Language Description. Teaches courses in Theory of Language, Programming and Linguistic Data, and Digital Literacy at HSE University and the HSE Lyceum. Junior research fellow at the RAS Institute of Linguistics.

The most likely place to find Anton Buzanov is at the HSE building on Staraya Basmannaya Ulitsa, where the researcher spends nearly all his time. In his interview with the HSE Young Scientists project, he recounts his experience of leading a field expedition to Sami communities, shares his affection for teenage television shows, and observes that engaging solely in activities that bring joy can prevent burnout.

How I Started a Career in Science

I am from a tiny town in Amur Oblast called Zeya. Before almost completing the 11th grade of school, I had never considered pursuing a career as a linguist. Instead, I was thinking of enrolling in Novosibirsk State University to study physics, engineering, or applied mathematics.

But when I made it to the final stage of the All-Russian Olympiad in the Russian Language for School Students and won a prize, I felt it would be a mistake to miss the opportunity.

The olympiad provided me with a clearer understanding of what linguistics is about and prompted my decision to enrol in Fundamental and Computational Linguistics at HSE University. Then I started eagerly learning all I could about linguistics and eventually developed a genuine enjoyment of the subject.

My Areas of Research

There are a lot. One area is field research: I am involved in three expeditions to study small languages. As a master's student, I have been studying the Bystrinsky dialect of the Even language during field expeditions to Kamchatka. I also serve as the deputy head of the expedition to Karachay-Cherkessia to document the Apsuan dialect of the Abaza language, and I am in charge of yet another expedition to Murmansk Oblast to document the Sami languages in Russia.

In addition to this, I engage in theoretical linguistics, conducting research on small languages as well as languages in general. This is known as typology, where we analyse a wide array of languages concentrating on a specific phenomenon within them, and subsequently summarise the findings.

Photo: HSE University

I also conduct research on the Russian language and engage in formal linguistics, which operates within a distinct framework. I also instruct first-year Bachelor's students in programming and contribute to fostering interaction between the digital and theoretical realms of linguistics at the HSE School of Linguistics.

About Small Languages

The languages and dialects I am currently studying are not in their best shape. They are only spoken by people aged 50 and older. The youngest native speaker I have interviewed was a woman in her forties. The younger generation does not use these languages.

This is true primarily of the Sami languages and the Bystrinsky dialect of the Even language. There is an ongoing intensive process of Russification in these communities. Members of the older generation do not communicate with their children and grandchildren in their native language, leading to its gradual disappearance. Efforts have been made to compensate activists for teaching children to speak their native language, but it's evident that this alone is insufficient. It remains uncertain for how much longer these languages will survive; therefore, we are working to document as much as possible before the entire local community transitions entirely to the Russian language.

The situation is slightly different with the Apsuan dialect of the Abaza language. Abaza has a standard version, which is very different from this dialect. Children do not speak the dialect; they speak the standard Abaza language and Russian. Although they can understand the dialect when spoken to, they are unable to express themselves in it. The dialect is thus under threat of extinction not only from the Russian language, but also from the other small language considered the literary norm.

Whether Linguists Need to Speak Languages They Document

Linguists must have an understanding of the internal structure of the studied language and the aspects relevant to their research. However, it is not obligatory for linguists to be fluent in the language; they may choose to speak it, but it is not a requirement. Our perspective is that of an outsider. In linguistics, there are theories and data on other languages that suggest to us how a certain language can operate and how its grammatical system can be structured. We examine a language trying to understand whether it aligns with existing linguistic systems or not. If it does not, we reflect on the necessary changes to the existing theory and consider how the new data on this language contributes to our knowledge.

To me, science is a means to have fun and explore the real world. Admittedly, we do not know how real a language is, especially in terms of our attempts to describe it.

When I reflect on why I study linguistics, why I study languages, I realise that language surrounds us at all times in human society. We read and talk, and the manner in which we do so is organised in a non-random fashion. It's fascinating to try and understand some of the non-random patterns in a language and to explore why it's organised the way it is.

What languages have in common is that despite their considerable differences, they can all be learned by a child. It is widely believed that any child can learn any language, a notion supported by numerous experiments. This means that languages are fascinating to learn in their multitude. It is unlikely that we will fully understand in the near future how human language works, but we are striving to progress in this direction by exploring the diverse strategies languages employ for their evolution. Our objective is to determine the number of such paths and their distribution across various languages.

What Languages I Can Speak

I am fluent in English and can express myself in Serbian. I am proficient in the grammar of the Korean language, but I struggle with the vocabulary—I find it challenging to learn. Give me a dictionary, and I can read and comprehend most texts in Korean. However, being able to express myself or read without a dictionary is unlikely.

What I Take Pride In

Being appointed leader of the Sami expedition has perhaps been the most significant achievement for me. The history of this project has been challenging, with leadership changing numerous times and the team almost completely replaced since their first field trip, in which I did not yet participate. When I assumed leadership, many of my friends at the School of Linguistics doubted that this expedition had any future. But as it turns out, it does have a future. In particular, we won a competition and received funding from the Rediscovering Russia project. We used the funds to go on a field expedition, present our findings at several conferences, and publish a paper.

Photo: HSE University

Last year, our expedition proposal was not approved, but that did not stop a small group from going to the field on their own. I was not with them, but I supported and assisted them. The outcome included two master's term papers and an article submitted to an academic journal. We hope that this year we will be funded and embark on another expedition. We are doing well, and I have made a meaningful contribution to it.

My Dream

My dream is to always sustain my passion for linguistics and enjoy studying it.

If I Hadn't Become a Scientist

I might have pursued a career as a programmer or system administrator. Even in my current role, I assist people with computers and enjoy it, but I don't perceive it as a creative process. Programming itself can be a creative process, but to a lesser extent than the creativity inherent in science. Programming is a more pragmatic pursuit, but can also be fun.

By the way, when I began my first year at the university, I had no programming knowledge whatsoever. Now, as I welcome students to my class, I say: 'Hello everyone; a few years ago, I was studying here just like you and didn't know a thing about programming. And yet, here I am, teaching this course. This means that you can also learn how to program if you want to. There are no barriers to hold you back, except for those inside yourself.'

Famous Linguists: Are There Any?

Everyone knows Noam Chomsky, but not for his work as a linguist, but rather for his role as a political activist. He is the founder of generative linguistics. Few people know about Martin Haspelmath, although he has authored a number of highly influential papers. In Russia, there is Maxim Krongauz, and there are linguists who work to popularise linguistics. However, it should be understood that popularisation of linguistics and academic study of linguistics are two vastly different things. Alexander Pipersky is a populariser of linguistics. Notable deceased figures include Andrey Zaliznyak, who comprehensively described Russian inflection in a single book.

However, few people are familiar with contemporary linguists. Linguistics has always remained out of the public eye, and perhaps for the best. I don't believe the world necessarily needs many linguists. It is a science that requires a particular mindset. Even among the enrolment in our bachelor's programme, typically consisting of around a hundred students, only eight choose to pursue theoretical linguistics. Those in computational linguistics are far more numerous, partly because it is much easier to earn money in this field. It's quite challenging to earn money in theoretical linguistics, especially at the beginning of your career. One can earn bonuses for journal publications, but before these publications are released, one must be patient—it could take a couple of years or more.

Photo: HSE University

A Typical Day for Me

It’s pretty boring, in fact. I wake up in the morning and go to the office on Basmannaya Street. It is referred to as the Academic Staff Room, but it is actually a friendly communal space for both faculty and students, where one can use the printer, share information, engage in discussions, and even catch some sleep if you're really tired and it is feasible. It was designed as a safe space, although not everyone perceives it as such.

If I have a scheduled class, I go and teach it. Or I put on my headphones and call my colleagues. I spend most of my time here. When I don't have evening classes for master's students, I can leave earlier, but still around 8 pm. If there are classes, I don't go home before 9 or 10 pm. If we stay too long, we are often urged to leave by the security, because they need to lock the building. This space is truly convenient, and many of the friends I studied with and now work with are also here with me. Even having meals is not a problem. There is a dining hall in the building and grocery stores nearby, or you can bring your own food from home. There's a microwave in the hallway, which I brought from home.

My Interests Besides Science

Travel. In fact, I developed a particular liking for it after it became much more difficult. Various things keep happening to me as I travel, like losing things, missing my flight, or experiencing delays in the metro. But each time, I find a solution, and it becomes easier and easier.

The most recent time I travelled abroad was to Greece. There was a conference in Athens where we presented our research. Then I planned to fly to a summer school in field linguistics to observe how it is organised in Europe. But on the day of departure, I misplaced my passport. I went to the Russian consulate in Greece, where they issued a travel document for me. Afterward, I purchased a new ticket and instead of flying to Paris, I returned to Russia.

In the future, I would like to travel to the Southern Hemisphere—to South America, New Zealand, Australia, or Africa. But perhaps only for vacations.


The last time I experienced it was during my bachelor's studies. Since then, I have been trying to do more of what I enjoy doing and less of what I no longer enjoy. At some point, I realised that I had the right to do so. If I'm tired of doing something, I can calmly say, 'I can't do it anymore; let's find someone else who can.' This is much better than trying to force yourself to work on a project that you have no interest in. Forcing yourself will ultimately make the situation worse for everyone involved—yourself, your colleagues, and the project, since it will make minimal progress.

Photo: HSE University

What I Have Been Watching

I have a Netflix subscription, and I enjoy watching various teen TV shows on the platform. Most recently, I watched the new season of Sex Education. Some of the storylines may not be specific to our society, but they are interesting to reflect upon. To be frank, at 22, I am not very far from adolescence. I enjoy watching these shows where the characters’ experiences are portrayed in a somewhat caricatured manner. This prompts you to reflect more on your own life and perhaps project certain things onto yourself, although not necessarily.

My All-Time Favourite Show

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency based on the novel series by Douglas Adams. It is a science fiction/fantasy show that relates to the real world and involves time travel. It is a comedy, incredibly amusing and well-crafted, addressing serious issues in a light-hearted manner.

What I Have Been Reading

Most of what I usually read is related to science: academic papers, monographs, other people's handouts and presentations. It's been a while since I've had enough time to read fiction. The Witcher was the most recent book I was trying to read. I had been intending to read it since my teenage years, and I watched the TV series on Netflix. I enjoyed the book, both the storylines not featured in the TV show and those which were included, because the logic of the story in the book differs slightly from that in the show.

My Favourite Place in Moscow

HSE University's building on Staraya Basmannaya Ulitsa. This place is associated with just about everything that has happened in my life over the past five years. I studied here, I work here, and I spend most of my time here. I'm not sure if this is my favourite place, but it's where I enjoy spending my time the most.

As for parks, Izmailovo is my favourite. There is a cultural area with recreational activities, and then there's just the forest, which is wonderful. You can walk and wander around, or you can sit down and relax. Usually, there aren't many people, so you can experience a sense of unity with nature.

Advice for Aspiring Scientists

Do what you are passionate about and what brings you joy, and if possible, let go of activities that no longer bring you joy. This might not be feasible in the early stages when you're eager to complete your first projects, add accomplishments to your resume, and establish a reputation.

When collaborating with faculty members or researchers, you naturally want them to remember you as a conscientious and responsible person. But make sure not to overdo it: if you start feeling uncomfortable about what you're doing, it's better to take care of yourself and have an honest conversation with those you are accountable to. In my experience, it always helps.