The thread drifted in my direction

Conversations typically drift in topic, as one thing suggests another. (Occasionally, the conversation is reset when one of the participants introduces a new topic or external events intrude with fresh things to talk about.) On-line threads similarly drift, sometimes in unexpected directions.

Case in point. I posted enthusiastically on this blog (with links elsewhere) about John McIntyre’s book The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing (2/2/19, “The crusty old editor speaks”), and John then noted my review on Facebook. I expected the Facebook discussion to continue with more observations about John’s little book, but since my name had entered the thread, several commentators shifted the topic to me. Whoa!


(1) [from Kay Richardson] Praise from Arnold Zwicky is high praise indeed.

(2) [from John Lawler] Indeed. I’ve heard Arnold described as “the linguist’s linguist”.

Now, since in (1), KR has introduced a play on the proverb Praise from Sir Hubert is praise indeed (in its most common form), I’m going to run with that. And then, since in (2), JL has introduced an instance of the snowclone X’s X, I’m going to run with that too. In the first of these, I will vanish completely as a topic of the thread; in the second, I’ll reappear briefly as an aside. Hey, threads drift. (I know: you came here for an argument — but this is abuse.)

Sir Hubert. From the Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, ed. by Elizabeth Knowles, on Praise from Sir Hubert is praise indeed:

popular saying, a misquotation of a line from [English playwright] Thomas Morton [(1764 – 28 March 1838)] A Cure for the [Heartache, Act V, scene ii] (1797), ‘Approbation from Sir Hubert Stanley is praise indeed.’

One of many instances in which an original quotation is improved by reshaping (Once more into — no longer untothe breach; All that glitters — no longer glistersis not gold): approbation becomes praise, so that we get parallel praise … praise; and the specific character’s name Sir Hubert Stanley is shortened to a generic, place-filler, name Sir Hubert, the better to convey the idea that praise from some source is especially valuable, either because this source is unusually sparing with praise (the original intent, it seems) or because this source is exceptionally knowledgeable in the area in question (now, I gather, the most common intent).

A linguist’s linguist. An instance of a familiar snowclone X’s X, noted in this Language Log posting of 4/16/07, “X’s X”, but without any discussion of its semantics and pragmatics.

Generally, the form seems to connote eminence within the set of Xs, such that other Xs consult, refer to, or defer to this particular X as an X — but this eminence may be confined to the set of Xs, without necessarily being recognized in the wider world.

In many cases it is so recognized, as in many who’ve been called a politician’s politician:

A Politician’s Politician: John Boehner has planned his speakership for years, and he’s not about to blow it … Boehner is a politician’s politician. He is constantly taking the temperature of his members, balancing their interests against each other, checking the polls, and coordinating a unified message. (link)

In Sir Gerald Kaufman, who has died aged 86, the Labour party had not only one of its longest-serving MPs, but also one of its loyalest, if most waspish, members. He supported a succession of leaders from Harold Wilson onwards through all vicissitudes, regularly coming high in MPs’ polls for the shadow cabinet through his earlier years in the Commons, and was a committed and outspoken frontbencher. He was described by an ally as “a politician’s politician, a sublime operator, brilliant in committee and at persuasion”. (link)

“[speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.] loved politics and government because he saw how politics and government could make a difference in people’s lives,” [President Bill] Clinton said. “And he loved people most of all — his neighbors, his constituents and his family.” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) called O’Neill “a politician’s politician” and said the compliment he valued most was “when Tip O’Neill called me his pal.” (link)

These three men were highly visible, publicly recognized wielders of political power — though you could argue that their expertise in this role was especially appreciated by their fellow politicians.

(A sub-theme here is that obituaries seem particularly likely to move journalists to use the X’s X figure.)

On to linguistics, where I found a linguist’s linguist in contexts celebrating the work of particular linguists: in obituaries, in interviews with distinguished linguists about their careers, and in Festschrifts. A few examples of each.

Two obituaries. For, alas, good friends of mine. From “In memoriam Ken Hale (1934-2001)” by David Nash:

Ken Hale was a linguist’s linguist: he was a polyglot who combined an extraordinary language learning ability with exceptional clarity and insight in linguistic analysis, and he is remembered for his humanity and respectfulness as much as his contribution to linguistics.

And from the Metaphor Hacker website on 2/15/14, “Linguistics according to Fillmore” by Sue Atkins:

While people keep banging on about Chomsky as being the be all and end all of linguistics (I’m looking at you philosophers of language), there have been many linguists who have had a much more substantial impact on how we actually think about language in a way that matters…

Sadly, one of these linguists died yesterday. It was Charles J Fillmore who was a towering figure among linguists without writing a single book. [Not quite true: there’s the 1965 Mouton book Indirect Object Constructions in English and the Ordering of Transformations; and the Santa Cruz Lectures on Deixis, distributed in 1975 by the Indiana Univ. Linguistics Club — both short monographs.] In my mind, he changed the face of linguistics three times with just three articles (one of them co-authored). Obviously, he wrote many more but compared to his massive impact, his output was relatively modest.

… In my earlier post, I compared him in stature and importance to Roman Jakobson (even if Jakobson’s crazy voluminous output across four languages dwarfs Fillmore’s – and almost everyone else’s). Fillmore was more than a linguist’s linguist, he was a linguist who mattered (and matters) to anyone who wanted (and wants) to understand how language works beyond a few minimalist soundbites. Sadly it is possible to meet graduates with linguistics degrees who never heard of Jakobson or Fillmore.

Atkins draws a sharply pointed contrast between Chomsky on the one hand — the most famous linguist in the world — and Fillmore and Jakobson on the other. My own intuition, shared by a small sampling of linguist colleagues I’ve consulted, is that it’s inappropriate to refer to Chomsky as a linguist’s linguist — though no doubt you’d disagree with that judgment if you were one of what Jakobson once called (in my hearing) Chomsky’s epigones. For many of us, Chomsky is the world’s linguist, painting in big bold strokes, not a meticulous scholar of breadth and depth.

Then from the introduction to “An interview with Paul Newman” by Alan S. Kaye:

Paul Newman is an amazing linguist — a linguist’s linguist, if you will. Having known him for over three decades, I can personally vouch for the outstanding quality displayed in his multifaceted career as linguist, fieldworker, Africanist, anthropologist, Department Chair, editor and, of fairly recent date, attorney-at-law.

About Paul, from Wikipedia:

Paul Newman (born 1937) is an American linguist active in the study of African languages. He writes on the Hausa language of Nigeria and on the Chadic language family. He wrote the Modern Hausa-English Dictionary (1977), co-authored with his wife, Roxana Ma Newman, and The Hausa Language: An Encyclopedic Reference Grammar (2000). He is the founder of the Journal of African Languages and Linguistics, a journal in the field of African-language studies.

… He is currently Distinguished Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Indiana University after serving two terms as chairman of the department.

Newman is a strong advocate of the theories of his mentor, Joseph Greenberg, and has published a work in defense of Greenberg’s classification of African languages entitled On Being Right.

Newman is also interested in the relation of language and law and is a strong advocate of civil liberties. In addition to degrees in anthropology and linguistics he holds a JD (IU Bloomington, 2003) and is a member of the Indiana state bar.

And, finally, two Festschrifts with linguist’s linguist in their titles. First, from The Linguist’s Linguist: A Collection of Papers in Honour of Alexis Manaster Ramer, ed. by Fabrice Cavoto (Lincom, 2002):

This collection of papers, presented in two volumes, is dedicated to one of the most innovative theoreticians and practitioners of linguistic research (in the widest sense of the term) in our time.

A central goal behind this publication has been to represent as many areas of linguistics as possible — reflecting one of the most striking characteristics of Alexis Manaster Ramer’s work. A hallmark of his research has been a powerful and precise method, which was made possible in large measure by his experience with many more branches of the discipline than most linguists usually manage today. His numerous publications have brought depth and rigour to such varied fields as a dozen branches of comparative linguistics, phonetics, phonology, syntactic theory, typology, mathematical linguistics, mixed languages, and history of linguistics, quite aside from his work in several fields outside of linguistics.

About Alexis, from Wikipedia:

Alexis Manaster Ramer (born 1956) is a Polish-born American linguist (PhD 1981, University of Chicago).

[Manaster] Ramer has published extensively on syntactic typology (esp. in relation to Australian, Eskimo, and Austronesian languages); on phonological theory and its relation to phenomena such as versification and speech errors; on comparative linguistics and etymology (Indo-European, Uto-Aztecan, Yiddish), on glottochronology and genetic classification of languages (Nostratic, Altaic, Haida-Nadene, Pakawan/Coahuiltecan, Tonkawa-Nadene); on poetics (Vedic, Homeric, medieval Yiddish); and on the history of linguistics.

Manaster Ramer is the founder of the ACL special interest group on Mathematical linguistics (SIGMOL) and the organizer of the first Mathematics of Language conference.

Then, from A Linguist’s Linguist: Studies In South Slavic Linguistics In Honor Of E. Wayles Browne, ed. by Steven Franks, Vrinda Chidambaram, and Brian Joseph (Slavica, 2009):

For nearly fifty years E. Wayles Browne has been a unique and almost irreplaceable intellectual resource for specialists in Slavic linguistics, working on a myriad of topics in a variety of languages and from a range of theoretical perspectives. He has been a subtle yet persistent force in bringing Slavic puzzles to the attention of the larger world of linguists and in defining the larger significance of these puzzles. The present volume brings together a leading cohort of specialists in South Slavic linguistics to celebrate Wayles Browne’s body of works in this area.

On Wayles, from Wikipedia:

Eppes Wayles Browne (born 1941, Washington, DC) is a linguist, Slavist, translator and editor of Slavic journals in several countries. Browne is Professor of Linguistics at Cornell University, with research interests in Slavic and general linguistics, notably the study and analysis of Serbo-Croatian, where he is one of the leading Western scholars. [extensive details follow]

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