November 18, 2006

Find that mystery linguist woman

Linguists often arouse suspicion. They make field trips to unusual regions; they sit down to have lengthy conversations with members of minority populations who speak strange languages that the security forces do not know, and they make copious notes involving strange phonetic symbols. Who knows what they are really up to. They have frequently aroused the interest of police and intelligence services in various countries of the world. African linguist Jack Mapanje spent time in jail in Malawi (he still doesn't know why); Harvard linguistics student Victor Manfredi was arrested as a spy and spent three days in jail before a judge set him free (Victor spoke Igbo, and that turned out the be the judge's native language; piece of luck!). MIT-trained syntax and semantics specialist Tanya Reinhart has been jailed in Israel more than once for pro-Palestinian activism. But, to my knowledge, only one member of the theoretical linguistics profession in the USA has been taken for a domestic terrorist to an extent so serious that a major US post office had to be shut down in direct response to the threat posed. I'll tell you the story, if you wish.

The scene (picture it) is a post office in Salt Lake City three or four years ago. A dark-haired woman approaches the post office counter, and says in a slight foreign accent (ah! an alien!) that she wishes to mail a number of slightly bulky letter envelopes, all to American universities (just like the Unabomber!). But something else was noticed about the envelopes, and about the woman. Something that chilled their blood.

The mystery woman paid for the postage, and remembers being slightly surprised to see as she left the post office that the envelopes had been left on the counter untouched, rather than tossed into the outgoing mail bin. The staff seemed not even to be going anywhere near them, in fact.

Once mystery woman had exited, the whole place went into panic mode. The postmaster was called; customers were hustled out; the entire post office was closed and sealed. Specialist teams in protective suits were called in to pick up those envelopes. Police were contacted, and set off to track down the foreign-accented dark woman of mystery.

For what the post office counter clerk had noticed was that the envelopes bore light traces of a white powder, and the garments of the mystery woman had showed traces of it too. Obviously it was weapons-grade anthrax.

Only it wasn't anthrax. The mystery woman was theoretical syntactician Barbara Citko. In her first year of teaching, she had neglected a cardinal rule of our profession, which she never forgets today: don't wear black when teaching a class using white chalk.

The white chalk dust got not only on her clothes, but also onto the envelopes she had rushed to the post office straight after class. The contents was not lethal doses of lung-destructive anthrax spores, but job applications.

The police soon got to the bottom of things, and she was not charged with terrorism. Just one more day in the exciting life of a linguist. And the letters were not destroyed in an effort to kill the putative spores; they were ultimately delivered unharmed. Through one of those letters she got a job teaching at Brandeis, and after a year of that she secured a permanent tenure-track position at the great linguistics department of the University of Washington in Seattle, where I had the pleasure of seeing her again when I visited there to give a talk a few days ago. She told this tale over dinner. With its happy ending.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 18, 2006 10:22 PM