whom from long ago

In the NYT Magazine on Sunday (the 15th), an article, “The Last Volunteer”, with an account, as told to Dan Kaufman, from Del Berg:

Del Berg, 99, is the last known surviving veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a contingent of nearly 3,000 Americans who fought to defend the democratically elected government during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

The beginning of his story:

It was 1937, and the Fascists had already revolted in Spain. I was walking down a street in Hollywood when I saw a sign — “Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” — written on the side of a building. I turned the corner, opened the door and went in. The people inside said, “What can we do for you?” I said, “I want to go to Spain.” They couldn’t legally send people to Spain, they told me, but did I want to help? I did. My life started with poverty and then came the Depression. I felt a certain responsibility to help the Spanish workers and farmers.

They told me to go to an organization called the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy. I was put to work there helping organize meetings and collecting clothes for the Republic. There was a younger guy working with me. One day he turned to me and said, “Do you want to go to Spain?” I said yes, I sure do. He said, “I’ll tell you whom to go see.”

That whom caught my eye; it sounded awfully formal for the context.

Here’s the problem: People’s verbatim memory for speech is normally just terrible; people recall gist, and often a few very significant words. But unless you’ve been specially trained in recalling speech verbatim, all the rest is fleeting. In particular, grammatical details go by the board. Unless the younger guy used whom and Berg found that so remarkable that it stuck in his memory, we have no idea what the guy actually said to Berg.

Presumably Kaufman recorded the interview, so that we could check what Berg reported the younger guy as saying. (It’s possible that Berg reported the guy as saying who, but Kaufman altered the informal variant to the formal whom, either tacitly or in an attempt to “correct” the grammar — or that everybody had who but a zealous editor at the Times “corrected” Kaufman’s manuscript. (Similar things have happened.)

In any case, we really have no way of telling, especially at this distance in time, what pronoun form the young guy actually used. Or, in fact, whether he said to go see or to go and see or just to see, or even who you should see or who you need to see, or something similar. The story is the same, just with different words.

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