April 03, 2006


Turning sharply from recent Language Logs about really mean and nasty language, let me turn our attention, if only briefly, to the very positive speech act of thanking. A few years ago I decided that it was high time for me to say "thank you" to a lot of linguists who had taught me in their classrooms, at meetings, and through their books and articles. So I carefully composed and sent letters (not Emails) to many of them. I tried to include specific things about their special acts of kindness to me and to mention the little things about them that often aren't given notice. Today, many of them I wrote to are no longer with us, including Charles Ferguson, Bill Stokoe, Fred Cassidy, William Moulton, and Charles Hockett. Others are still here, but not as active as they used to be, including Gene Nida, Dell Hymes, and Eric Hamp. I deeply regret that I began writing these letters too late to thank many others, including my own mentor, Raven McDavid.

In most cases, the letters initiated a continuing correspondence that lasted until these friends passed away. Among other things, I grew to know them in a new and better light. Most of all, they knew that someone remembered them and cared about them as they approached their imminent deaths. My letter to Fergie reached him while he was suffering greatly during his last days. He was too ill to respond but, after he died, his wife, Shirley Brice Heath, telephoned me to tell me how much Fergie appreciated being remembered that way. She related that he had asked her to read my letter to him over and over again because it comforted him so much during his final moments.

Saying "thank you" (with specifics) to people you honor doesn't take much time and it isn't that hard to do. I encourage linguists to give it a try if they have't already been doing it. Think of those who encouraged you when you needed it, whose work and life has benefited you, and whose spirit you admire. Then drop them a cheery letter.

I'm sure they'll love it but the best part is that doing this will make you feel good too.

Posted by Roger Shuy at April 3, 2006 12:38 PM