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12.7.17

Peter Guekguezian: Armenian Jeopardy! Champion and Champion of Languages

 Shamiram Barooshian

“On June 17, 1929, this airline’s first passenger flight left Dallas, making stops at Shreveport, Monroe, and Jackson. Thirty seconds, good luck,” says Jeopardy! host, Alex Trebek. Then the music starts: that ubiquitous tune signaling impatience, waiting and mounting pressure.
Peter Guekguezian is one of the contestants on the June 19th broadcast of the popular game show. Guekguezian is a linguist from Fresno, Calif., and a defending Jeopardy! champion, having won $18,401 on the previous show. This time, he is up against a history instructor from Tucson, Ariz. and a writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., whose score going into Final Jeopardy! is almost double.
Guekguezian feels the pressure and writes, “Southwest.”
“I heard Dallas and thought Southwest, but they’re too recent,” he recalls. “Then it hit me that Monroe, Shreveport, and Jackson are all in the Mississippi Delta… Most of the time they give you clues within the Final Jeopardy! question.” With time to spare, he crossed out “Southwest” and wrote “Delta” to win the round with $7,198.
Guekguezian went on to play twice more for a total of four games—and during his three-day winning streak, he earned $44,800.
He describes the airplane carrier question as one of the most memorable of his Jeopardy! run, and speaks with excitement about the experience:
“The other contestants and the production crew are all very intelligent, really nerdy, very funny. You have a good time there, ” Guekguezian says. He had auditioned three times for the show before being placed into the contestant pool. When he was called in for the show, he had a month to prepare: practicing with quiz games and reviewing almanacs, studying how to wager, and also preparing mentally for those high-pressure moments of competition.
Also of use to Guekguezian during the game was his PhD in Linguistics from the University of Southern California; knowing a little bit about a lot of different languages and etymologies often helped in parsing the clues.
“I speak some Spanish, some Armenian, a little bit of French…and I have a working knowledge of the two languages I’ve done a lot of documentation on.”
These are Chukchansi Yokuts, a Native American language spoken in the central valley of California, and Saisiyat, a language spoken in Taiwan. Both are what linguists call endangered languages, or languages that are at risk of being lost in the near future. Languages can become endangered for different reasons, but the two Guekguezian studies are endangered because of colonization and displacement of the speakers.
In the fall, Guekguezian will head to the University of Rochester for a postdoctoral fellowship. In addition to continuing his research there, he plans to participate in a project aimed at using computational methods and natural language processing to make the collection and transcription of endangered language data more efficient.
Another endangered language Guekguezian is interested to explore at some point in his career is Armenian. He hopes to get funding to attend the Armenian Linguistics Conference in Yerevan this October to meet with other attendees about efforts to preserve varieties of Armenian that are less common.
“It’s a crisis that we don’t talk much about as a people: what’s going to happen to people who speak non-standard varieties of Armenian?” Guekguezian nasks. He says many of the languages and dialects of Western Armenia are already long-gone, while some still exist in places with enduring Armenian populations, such as Kessab, Syria. With those languages, we lose characteristics of those villages, and old-world Armenia.
Even Western Armenian is in what Guekguezian calls a “precarious position,” because there are no monolingual speakers—most speakers of Western Armenian also speak Arabic, English, French or Spanish, among others. To make sure these dialects survive, he says, we have to create spaces for the language to be spoken—and encourage its transition from generation to generation.
“It’s hard to pass on a language,” says Guekguezian, “One parent has to speak that language to the child most of the time in order for them to have a good grasp of it. They have to be able to speak to other kids their age. It has to be a functional language. Children are smart…if they can get by with a different language, they’ll learn that one.”
Guekguezian faces a similar challenge in his own life. Though he says he speaks very basic Armenian, he is working to pass the language on to his two-year-old son.
“He knows a few words. He can understand quite a bit,” says Guekguezian. “I’m giving him the foundation as best I can.”

"The Armenian Weekly," July 12, 2017

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