December 19, 2003

Universities named after linguists

Mark Liberman recently remarked, having only just learned that Barcelona's Universitat Pompeu Fabra was named after a great Catalan linguist: "I can't think of another major university named after a linguist, but perhaps someone will inform or remind me."

But of course. There are quite a few. It's surprising that Mark, who seems to know so much about so many subjects, was not aware of them.

[Note added much later: Access records reveal that at least some people have come to this page looking for real information. This is terrible, because the whole of the rest of this page was written just to give Mark a giggle. Absolutely nothing below that pertains to university naming is true., despite the mentions of three real people (Partee, Ball, and Emonds). Sorry! Me and my deadpan humor... --GKP]

To begin with the most celebrated instance, Harvard University was named after Sir Walter Montmorency Belgrave Harvard, who in 1689-1691 traveled by donkey through much of what is now western Massachusetts and parts of upper New York State, recording food terms in the languages of the local Indians. (He died after failing to take note of a critical phonemic distinction: q'opuhi 'asparagus' vs. qhopuhi 'species of deadly poisonous asparagus-shaped fungus'. So let's practice distinguishing ejective from aspirated stops, okay class?)

In the west, the University of California, Santa Barbara, was named after the great semanticist and genuinely wonderful person Barbara Hall Partee, a UCLA faculty member at the time UCSB was founded (later a distinguished member of the faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst). Barbara was not officially canonized at that time, but the status was foreseen, and indeed, she is reported to be definitely on the current pope's next list, and quite rightly so.

There are many other examples. I am surprised that Mark didn't think of them straight away. Ball State University in Muncie was named for the computational linguist Cathy Ball, in honor of her service as program director for linguistics at the National Science Foundation; Emory University in Atlanta was named after the fine syntactician Joseph E. Emonds (this one shows how careful one should be about arranging such matters through handwritten notes -- but at least it didn't come out as Edmonds University, with that added "d" that is the common error with Joe's name); and Rutgers University was named after Henry "Reefer" Rutger, a little-known generative semanticist who published virtually nothing, but who once, in the early 1970s, remarked sarcastically at a Christmas party in front of two very young and impressionable future linguists that "What with all these deep structure constraints and surface structure constraints and stuff, pretty soon people are going to have to assign some kind of rank ordering to them all just so we'll know which overrides which!" The rest is history.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 19, 2003 08:43 PM