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PhD student investigates ancient languages, with a side of roller derby

Jason Hawkins

Nashville native Nakita Barakadyn's journey into the world of linguistics began with her curiosity about the origins of Japanese.

“I became a linguist in the first place because I heard the tantalizing statement ‘Nobody knows where Japanese came from,’” she says. “I was a kid at the time, but now I understand they just meant that Japanese is a language isolate—it has no known relatives.” Encountering this linguistic mystery imbued with her a lifelong passion for the study of language.

Raised in the vibrant cultural hub of Nashville, Barakadyn developed a strong background in the arts growing up, particularly music. She learned the flute and taught herself guitar and piano.

“When I was small, I actually thought that I was going to go into arts,” she explained. “Before high school, I went to public schools that were very arts-focused. I have a strong background in music, including orchestra performance. I've been in a few band projects. But that's also just very Nashville. Almost everyone has some sort of tie to music in Middle Tennessee.”

Despite her affinity for music, Barakadyn’s interest in languages eventually brought her to Knoxville for her undergraduate education, where she studied general linguistics. She knew from the start that she wanted to go into graduate studies for linguistics.

“I went into undergrad knowing that I wanted a PhD in linguistics and to go into research,” Barakadyn said. “That’s been driving me this entire time.”

Barakadyn’s drive has brought her to the University of Georgia, where she is an all-but-dissertation PhD candidate in linguistics. She focuses on historical linguistics, specifically Indo-European. With a keen interest in the syntactic structures of ancient languages, Barakadyn's research delves deep into the morphological case assignment and theta roles of Proto-Indo-European languages, which come down to, as she puts it, what parts of speech you have and what functions they’re performing in a sentence.

“My dissertation topic is about locative and dative arguments specifically,” Barakadyn explains, “and how a distinction between these two case forms may have presented in the earliest stages of Indo-European as a language and family.” Her theory is that dative and locative arguments were the same thing long ago, and her research seeks evidence of a potential split between them. To see these ideas reflected in modern language, one could think of how we say that we “go to the store” but also say that we “give a gift to someone.”

However, one of the challenges Barakadyn faces in her research of ancient languages is the absence of native speakers to provide 'grammaticality judgments', a crucial aspect in contemporary syntax studies.

“When you're working in a dead language, there's nobody to confirm whether what you're looking at is 'real' or not,” she Barakadyn says. Studying dead languages means relying solely on written texts, necessitating meticulous analysis to discern linguistic patterns.

While her current primary focus is Indo-European linguistics, Barakadyn’s initial curiosity about the origins of Japanese remains. She’s continued

Barakadyn shares her thoughts: “I think that what we're probably looking at is that Japanese is connected in some way to Austronesian languages—languages you would see in Oceania, though maybe not Polynesian languages specifically. Then we get a superstrate from the Korean languages or the Mongolian languages as people are coming through.”

Looking ahead, Barakadyn aspires to apply what she’s learned from Indo-European linguistics to Japanese and Asian linguistics. She also envisions a future where she can continue teaching—an unexpected new passion.

"Over the past few years, I've found out exactly how much I love teaching,” she reveals. “I'd like to get more experience in something where I am still educating and mentoring pre-professional adults.” The magic of igniting curiosity in her students and witnessing the spark of understanding has become a source of fulfillment.

Outside academia, Barakadyn finds enjoyment and exhilaration in the world of roller derby. She was introduced to the sport during the transition period between her undergraduate and graduate studies, and was “instantly enamored.” She found camaraderie and catharsis on the track. Roller derby offers a unique blend of athleticism and adrenaline, providing a much-needed escape from everyday anxieties.

“It's very physically engaging. It’s dangerous, and people get hurt a lot,” she says. “But the fear is part of what’s good for me. I'm a naturally fearful, overthinking person, and that's why I like physical outlets like roller derby. It gets me out of my head.”


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