Stanko Day?

Yesterday was, as always on 4/1, April Fool’s Day, and just for this year, Census Day; but also Leonard Bloomfield’s birthday, an occasion with meaning for linguists. Yesterday was the 123rd anniversary of his birth.

On Facebook, I said of the occasion, “That ought to be some specially named anniversary” — and got two different proposals: one for naming a 123rd anniversary, one for re-naming Bloomfield’s birthday.

But first, Bloomfield. Some highlights from the (extensive) Wikipedia article:

Leonard Bloomfield (April 1, 1887 – April 18, 1949) was an American linguist who led the development of structural linguistics in the United States during the 1930s and the 1940s. His influential textbook Language, published in 1933, presented a comprehensive description of American structural linguistics. He made significant contributions to Indo-European historical linguistics, the description of Austronesian languages, and description of languages of the Algonquian family.

Bloomfield’s approach to linguistics was characterized by its emphasis on the scientific basis of linguistics, adherence to behaviorism especially in his later work, and emphasis on formal procedures for the analysis of linguistic data. The influence of Bloomfieldian structural linguistics declined in the late 1950s and 1960s as the theory of generative grammar developed by Noam Chomsky came to predominate.

… Career: Bloomfield was instructor in German at the University of Cincinnati, 1909–1910; Instructor in German at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, 1910–1913; Assistant Professor of Comparative Philology and German, also University of Illinois, 1913–1921; Professor of German and Linguistics at the Ohio State University, 1921–1927; Professor of Germanic Philology at the University of Chicago, 1927–1940; Sterling Professor of Linguistics at Yale University, 1940–1949. During the summer of 1925 Bloomfield worked as Assistant Ethnologist with the Geological Survey of Canada in the Canadian Department of Mines, undertaking linguistic field work on Plains Cree; this position was arranged by Edward Sapir …

Bloomfield was one of the founding members of the Linguistic Society of America. In 1924, along with George M. Bolling (Ohio State University) and Edgar Sturtevant (Yale University) he formed a committee to organize the creation of the Society, and drafted the call for the Society’s foundation. He contributed the lead article to the inaugural issue of the Society’s journal Language, and was President of the Society in 1935.

Bloomfield and Sapir were the most influential American linguists of the 20th century until Noam Chomsky came along, and they both were huge influences on me personally, but Bloomfield especially, through his 1933 Language (which was sort of a textbook but also an extended study in the foundations of linguistics).

(In more personal terms, Bloomfield was roughly my grandparents’ age, and parts of my life history tracked his, but 50 years later: he went to UIUC in 1910, I did in 1965; he went to OSU in 1921, I did in 1969; he was president of the LSA in 1935, I was in 1992.)

The 123rd anniversary. On FB, Julian Lander suggested that the 123rd anniversary might be called the sequencentennial — with sequence referring to numbers in sequence, in this case 1, 2, 3; and with centennial referring to a 100th anniversary (stems cent– ‘hundred’ and –enn– ‘year (ann-us)). The coinage sequencennial might have done for any anniversary with numbers in sequence (so not only 123, but aso 234, 345, etc.).

An alternative to Bloomfield Day. Here Dennis Preston had the bright idea of Stanko Day, because

in the Bloomfield home, especially at dinner, Leonard would ask if anyone had heard any silly comments about language during the day

— which the family called stankos.

I replied to Dennis:

I must have known this story — this is the Boomfield of “Secondary and tertiary responses to language” (1944), after all — but I didn’t remember the stankos. It would be nice to declare April 1 as Stanko Day in honor of ths work and as a counterweight to the uninformed, downright nasty National Grammar Day [March 4th, a date I remember only because it’s my grand-daughter’s birthday]

Dennis and I then churned around trying to find the source of the stanko story. Dennis finally nailed it this afternoon:

It was Robert A Hall Jr. in Lingua 2:117-23 (1950), reprinted in Hockett’s (1970) A Leonard Bloomfield Anthology (pp. 547-53):

One particular form which his humor took was the collecting of ignorant or stupid remarks about language (known as stankos in the Bloomfield family dialect); this collection of “stankos” served as the starting-point for one of his few polemic articles (“Secondary and tertiary responses…”), which exemplifies the bitter sarcasm of the scientist when badgered beyond endurance by misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

(I certainly didn’t see bitter sarcasm, from the usually mild-mannered Bloomfield — that sounds like the irascible Hall — though there certainly was pointed reportage, often sorrowfully funny, sometimes straightforwardly angry.)

As for the source of stanko, we have no idea, but Dennis opined:

I’ve assumed (with no evidence) that it was the stink preterite stank plus a comic-prosodic o [AZ: as in cheapo, kiddo, sicko].

and that was my speculation as well.

Then, as for Stanko Day, I posted my own Bloomfieldian manifesto for the occasion on 12/2/14 in “Getting it all wrong”:

what [Nathan] Heller wrote [in The New Yorker] is a monstrous fruitcake of flat-out wrongness, misunderstandings of both terminology and facts, and unexpressed (and confused) assumptions about language.

I recommend going light on everyday false beliefs about language and routine misguided peeving (though it’s worth collecting and categorizing these), in order to focus on appalling wrong-headedness by people with pretensions of authority, in weighty publications.

3 Responses to “Stanko Day?”

  1. julianne taaffe Says:

    Thank you for this article!
    I do like Stanko Day, especially because of its family dinner time origin. (It makes me think of Taaffe family dinners.) For some reason I also like the fact that when I first saw the word stanko I thought, “Put some stank on it!”

  2. Bob Richmond Says:

    Stanko – a word I learned reading Leonard Bloomfield maybe 50 years ago – should have gained currency but never did. Googling it is complicated by its being a Slavic personal name, but I never did find any usages of it.

  3. Mark Mandel Says:

    «I recommend going light on everyday false beliefs about language and routine misguided peeving (though it’s worth collecting and categorizing these), in order to focus on appalling wrong-headedness by people with pretensions of authority, in weighty publications.»

    Hear, hear!

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