March 22, 2007

The Burmese story

Yesterday's excerpt from J Milton Cowan's "American Linguistics in Peace and at War" was "The Chinese episode". Today, for your historical pleasure, we have the Burmese story.

It is difficult today to visualize some of the obstacles we had to overcome. To illustrate I will tell the Burmese story because it has multiple punch lines. In the lottery of languages William S. Cornyn drew the Burmese straw. This frightened him a bit but Leonard Bloomfield promised to hold his hand. Nobody knew where to find any native speakers of Burmese and the files of the Alien Registration Act were classified. The Department of Immigration and Naturalization said there were no Burmese legally in the country at the time. There were supposed to be some sailors who'd jumped ship in New York and San Francisco but they hadn't caught up with them yet.

Mortimer sent me to the Pentagon to see a young fellow in G-2 (Military Intelligence), Major Dean Rusk, a name not so well-known in those days, but known to Mortimer. I described the non-existence of known Burmans and why we wanted some. He volunteered to see what could be done with the roster of Alien Registration. He phoned our offices the same afternoon, saying tht he had over a hundred names and he'd call back as soon as he could have them decoded. Next morning he phoned to say there was something funny, there were Abernathys, Browns, Davenports, Fitzgeralds and so on down through the Youngs. It turned out that the Roster listed those foreigners residing in the U.S. who had been born in Burma, regardless of their current nationality. These were the names of children born to business people and missionaries while living in Burma. There were only two names that sounded exotic enough to be possible Burmans.

We zeroed in on the first, Alamon, Tung. He was shown to be in New York, unemployed, on relief. That was a solid lead so Cornyn, Bloomfield and I met at the Biltmore. They waited at the hotel while I went off looking for Mr. Alamon. His place was on the lower East Side and I was viewed with suspicion by everyone I met, especially by the 'super(visor)' of the tenement whom I found in a basement apartment. He and his wife listened a long time to my story until they were convinced I wasn't from the police. Then they led me to Alamon. He listened patiently to my story and to my offer of employment and agreed to meet with my colleagues to talk over details. While he was changing his shirt I went out to telephone Cornyn and Bloomfield to meet us in the hotel lobby within the hour.

The meeting was interesting. Neither of my colleagues knew any Burmese or had ever heard any. Leonard did the initial interrogation and decided that, though Alamon's Burmese was rusty because of long disuse, it would come back enough to get started on an analysis. I had already offered Alamon a salary of $400 a month for the duration of the work which was expected to take at least a year. Then they got down to details on where the work would be done. Alamon didn't mind going to New Haven if his rent in New York was maintained, but Spotty would have to go with him. Suddenly I remembered the large bibdool-type dog in Alamon's apartment and told them who Spotty was. It ended by their agreeing that Spotty and Alamon would live together in a Yale dorm, the first time that those quarters had ever had a canine occupant.

Things went well for about a month then one day Franklin Edgerton turned up n our office looking very embarrassed. He said that Alamon had not been entirely frank about his sources of income, and although he rather enjoyed the atmosphere at Yale and Spotty was happy and well-adjusted, he was losing money on the deal. It seems he had been running a little numbers racket in lower Manhattan. Our work was so far along and the problem of getting a replacement so great that we finally settled for doubling his salary. The unwritten history of Burmese linguistics is loaded. Alamon's successor, the other Burmese-sounding name on the Roster, gave rise to an embarrassment of the Yale linguists and the University which was as funny to outsiders as it was painful for those involved. But enough for Burmese.

No, I'm sorry, that's NOT enough for Burmese -- we need to know more about the "embarrassment of the Yale linguists and the University" than that it "was as funny to outsiders as it was painful for those involved"! I mean, like, what happened? Alas, "Uncle Miltie" Cowan is dead and gone, so I can't write to him and expect an answer. So if you know, please tell me. And one more question -- what is a "bibdool-type dog"? I'm shocked to find that {bibdool} is unknown to Google.

[And let me point out in passing that $800/month was a considerable amount of money in 1941. Even without adjusting for inflation, it's more than I was making when I got out of the army in 1972. According to an online inflation calculator, the corresponding inflation-adjusted monthly salary in 2006 would be $11,112.91. It's a tribute to the flexibility and bureaucratic inventiveness of Graves and Cowan that they were able to manage this.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 22, 2007 08:07 AM