In the morning: the B list actor and the scholar

On the 20th, the morning name was W. Sidney Allen; if you’re not a linguist or a classicist, you’ve almost surely never heard of him — but then great scholars rarely work in the spotlights of public attention. On the 25th, the morning name was Lisa Whelchel, an actor you would probably recognize under the name of her most famous role: Blair Warner in the American tv sitcom The Facts of Life. So, in the penumbra of the spotlights, a B list celebrity.

On involuntary memory, see my posting on this blog earlier today.

W. Sidney Allen. From Wikipedia:


William Sidney Allen (1918–2004) was a British linguist and philologist, best known for his work on Indo-European phonology.

Allen was educated at Christ’s Hospital and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a Classical scholar. He taught first at the School of Oriental and African Studies as a lecturer in Phonetics (1948–51) and then in Comparative Linguistics (1951–55), then held the position of Professor of Comparative Philology at the University of Cambridge until his retirement in 1982. His teachers and influences included N. B. Jopson, Harold Bailey and J. R. Firth, and R. H. Robins was a close colleague. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971.

He was influential in the development of several important figures in British linguistics, including George Hewitt, John Lyons, John C. Wells, and Geoffrey Horrocks, who held Allen’s former position as Professor of Comparative Philology. He was also influential in developing linguistics as a distinct discipline in 20th-century Britain, lobbying the General Board of the University of Cambridge to set up linguistics positions in the 1960s, and in helping to found the section for linguistics (subsequently renamed ‘Linguistics and Philology’) at the British Academy in 1985. The University of Cambridge has a prize named after him, awarded for distinguished performance by a linguistics undergraduate.

Selected works: Phonetics in Ancient India (1953). On the Linguistic Study of Languages (inaugural lecture) (1957), Sandhi (1962), Vox Latina (1965, 2nd edition 1978), Vox Graeca (1968, 3rd edition 1987), Accent and Rhythm (1973)

Three of these were very important to me: Sandhi (the topic of my PhD dissertation); Vox Latina (on the pronunciation of Latin, a grotesquely complex topic); and Vox Graeca (on the pronunciation of ancient Greek). All three are immensely learnèd, manifesting a kind of scholarship both broad and detailed that I could never hope to achieve; but also written with as light a tone as possible for their subjects. I got the feeling that he knew almost everything in these domains and could back up what he said with textual evidence and citations from the whole of the literature, but that it would fun to talk with him about it.

We never happened to meet, I’m not sure why, since I met most of the other people listed in the Wikipedia entry.

John Lyons’s obituary for the British Academy — Proceedings of the British Academy 138.3–36 (2006) — gives a sense of the man as well as his scholarly achievements. Among other things, he rose from a very poor working-class family to his positions of eminence, and he was both energetic and charming.

Scholars of great accomplishment typically work entirely out of the public eye (though a few take on the mantle of public intellectual). Sometimes their public invisibility is startling. I give you the example of Erica Reiner, a scholar I actually knew and admired. From Wikipedia, with a crucial bit boldfaced:

Erica Reiner (4 August 1924 – 31 December 2005) was an American Assyriologist and author. From 1974, she was Editor of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, which was published in 21 volumes over 55 years, being completed in 2011 after her death. Reiner was associated with the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Her work concentrated on developing the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, the basic reference work for understanding the Akkadian language, the predominant language of Mesopotamia from 2400 BC to 100 AD.

She oversaw a team of scholars who, together, assembled this gigantic work that exposes details of life in the cradle of (Western) civilization over two and a half millennia. Drivingly energetic, but also fun to talk to; she could be quite chatty about the lives of the people who once lived between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Lisa Whelchel. The first thing memorable about her for me is that she has a unique-to-me name, a family name I don’t recall having registered as the name of any other person. Then, of course, she was Blair Warner. From Wikipedia:


Lisa Diane Whelchel (born May 29, 1963) is an American actress, singer, songwriter, author, and public speaker. She is known for her appearances as a Mouseketeer on The New Mickey Mouse Club and her nine-year role as the preppy and wealthy Blair Warner on The Facts of Life. In 1984, she was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Inspirational Performance for her contemporary Christian album, All Because of You. … In 2012, Whelchel participated as a contestant on the CBS competitive reality series Survivor: Philippines and tied for second place.

This is in fact a pretty thin career, and it’s gotten her second-level celebrity; B listers tend to be known by their character’s name rather than their own. (Of course, devotees of FoL will know all about her.)

Cross-cutting the A list / B list distinction in celebrity is the category I’ve called the acting corps (see my 7/20/15 posting “The acting corps”), filled by competent actors who are also versatile and hard-working; they have very long credits lists. Some of them are A listers (Meryl Streep, George Clooney), but many are B listers or are totally unknown to the general public.

In my opinion, Whelchel is just someone who’s managed to make a decent life acting, but she’s not in the acting corps.

Contrast her with another B lister, Margot Kidder (who died on the 13th), known to most people only as Lois Lane in the Superman movies. But she had a gigantic list of movie and tv credits (see her Wikipedia entry), playing many different sorts of parts, well. Acting corps all the way.



2 Responses to “In the morning: the B list actor and the scholar”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    I’d only heard of Allen in passing (I was a classicist at university but didn’t work at it) but the pronunciation of ancient Latin has always been something that interested me. I looked for Vox Latina on Abebooks; no dice. Got it on Amazon for a bit more than £30 incl. shipping for a used copy. A new one would have cost around £900. Anyway, I shall add it to my reading list. Thanks for provoking me into looking for it.

  2. Gadi Says:

    This article mentions a Jennifer Whelchel, the first time I’ve ever heard the surname other than Lisa.

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