December 07, 2006

Happy birthday, Noam

Happy birthday, Noam. (Noam Chomsky, unquestionably the most famous member of the linguistics profession, turned 78 today.)

And by the way, here is a very little-known fact about wishing people a happy birthday. The song "Happy Birthday To You" was written in 1893 by two sisters, Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill, who were schoolteachers in Louisville, Kentucky. They died unmarried and childless, but left behind a foundation, the Hill Foundation, which had a share of the royalties. The song is still earning two million dollars of royalties a year, for a company that bought the rights; see this page for some history. After Patty Hill passed away in 1946, some of the Hill Foundation's money went to their nephew Archibald A. Hill. And he was a distinguished linguist, formerly of the University of Texas. When he died, he left some money to the Linguistic Society of America. Thus some of the money earned by "Happy Birthday" ended up making the LSA significantly more prosperous. I have been told that it was primarily the Hill bequest that made it possible for the LSA to purchase its present office suite in Washington, DC. Thanks from all linguists, Arch. And thanks to Mildred and Patty as well.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 7, 2006 06:51 PM