As an undergraduate student studying philosophy of language, Moira Saltzman supplemented her academic studies by teaching English in South Korea. Over the course of five years, Moira eventually discovered what she really wanted to do: help revitalize minority languages.

After receiving her MA in linguistics from Wayne State University, Moira chose to pursue her PhD at U-M, largely due to the research and influence of her primary advisor, Professor Sally Thomason. Today, as a 5th-year graduate candidate, Moira is fulfilling her plan: she is currently living and doing fieldwork on Jeju Island (South Korea) and in Osaka (Japan), researching the minority Koreanic language Jejueo.

Moira’s fieldwork in Jeju and Osaka is funded by a Rackham International Research Award, a SeAH Haiam Arts and Sciences Scholarship, a Rackham Merit Fellowship, a Rackham Graduate Student Research Grant, the Linguistics Department, and the Nam Center for Korean Studies.

Exploring the History of Koreanic Languages

The goal of Moira’s dissertation project is to develop a clearer picture of the history of Koreanic languages by examining Jejueo’s linguistic development over time. Moira hopes to shed light on the relationships both between Jejueo and Modern Standard Korean, and the earlier linguistic relationships between these Koreanic languages and the neighboring languages Japanese, Mongolian, and Manchu. 

Although it is widely believed by Jejueo linguists that the Jejueo spoken in Osaka is a more conservative form of Jejueo than the Jejueo spoken under heavy Korean influence on Jeju Island, little linguistic research has been conducted in the Osakan Jejueo community. Moreover, explains Moira, “the nature of the genetic and historical relationship between Japanese and Korean is a hotly contested issue in the historical linguistics literature.” 

As most Korean linguists consider Jejueo a dialect of Korean rather than an independent language, historical linguistic research has relied on dialectal and philological research on Korean, and has left comparative research on Jejueo largely untouched, says Moira, adding: “I hope that my dissertation research will fill a gap in knowledge of Proto-Jejueo, and in turn, shed light on some features of the early development of Korean.”

Jejueo Talking Dictionary

In addition to her dissertation project, Moira is also collecting data for two secondary projects: 

  • Further research based on her Qualifying Research Project (QRP) that analyzes the development of a tonal distinction in Jejueo as produced by different age groups of speakers, and 

  • A “talking dictionary,” which Moira began developing in 2014. The Jejueo Talking Dictionary will be a free online database of audio and video files of Jejueo with a multimodal interface so that it is accessible to various user communities, such as Jejueo speakers, learners and the scientific community. 

Throughout her doctoral linguistics research, Moira also enjoys the opportunity to be closely involved with U-M’s Nam Center for Korean Studies. In 2018, Moira was asked to serve as the chair of the NEKST, the annual Korean Studies conference at U-M, which, says Moira, “was a huge learning opportunity.” She hopes to attend the upcoming NEKST conference, to be held at U-M in May of 2020.