Lila Gleitman

🐇 🐇 🐇 Discouraged day yesterday, which I tried to find relief from by posting something small but entertaining, but every posting I started ballooned into a sizable project — including this one, but I’m going to ruthlessly cut out a big file on Lila that I assembled a couple of years ago, when she was still alive and I wanted to celebrate her, but then it just became one of hundreds of other similar merely nascent projects, so instead I’m going to ramble on about Lila and my life and Chuck Fillmore and probably my Aunt Marion, who like Lila was a sporty woman, direct and funny and tonic to be around.

The spur for this posting was Lane Greene’s Johnson column in the 8/21/21 issue of the Economist (which I finally got to yesterday; I’m hopelessly behind on my reading as well as my writing — though I got the bulletin about Lila’s dying — on 8/8, at the age of 91 — from Barbara Partee the day it happened).

From the Economist (no link, because it’s behind a paywall):

in print on 8/21: “What do they know, and when? A pioneering linguist, Lila Gleitman illuminated the way children learn to talk”

on-line, dated 8/19: “What do children know about language, and when? Lila Gleitman’s research illuminated the way children learn to speak”

with two important notes:

… Even her technical writing was witty and readable for the layperson.

…Gleitman was also a prodigious mentor to other scholars. Many of them were women, for whom she was a pioneer, beginning her own research while bringing up her own family.

(The New York Times had a full obit by Clay Risen, on-line on 8/27, in print on 8/28.)

Two photos of Lila that I like very much. My favorite of her later in life, from her personal web page at the University of Pennsylvania:

(#1) Apparently available only in this teeny-tiny form; it doesn’t have enough pixels to survive being embiggened

And then one from 1967, from the UCLA English Syntax Project conference:

(#2) At the conference, she was seated between Edward Klima on one side, Joyce Friedman and Sanford Schane on the other; another photo from the conference shows Barbara Partee and Charles Fillmore; still another (which I’m hoping has been lost) shows me and, I think, Emmon Bach

All these people were colleagues and friends from back in the 60s, which now seems almost impossibly long ago.

On to the 90s. From my 2/7/20 posting “The BDSR files”, about

the 1993 annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America [at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles], at which I gave (on 1/9/93) my 1992 Presidential Address to the society, “Mapping the ordinary into the rare: Basic/derived reasoning in theory construction”.

So I was the 1992 president of the society; the 1991 president was Chuck [Charles J.] Fillmore (mentioned above); the 1993 president was, yes, Lila R. Gleitman. Peripherally relevant fact: both Chuck and Lila were about 10 years older than I was; but we completed our PhDs  at roughly the same time, so in some sense we’re academically contemporaneous. More relevant fact: when you’re elected, you’re committed to three years of service to the society: service on the Executive Committee (which meets twice a year face-to-face and does other business by mail); plus a year as vice-president, one as president, and one as immediate past president, each with specific committee assignments and other responsibilities. I was Chuck’s vice-president, and Lila was mine.

Executive Committee meetings also come with social events and time for just hanging out, so they provide occasions to get to know colleagues better, both academically and personally. Chuck and I taught in the linguistics department at Ohio State for a year (before he moved on to Berkeley, where he spent the rest of his academic career, until he died in 2014), so I had a pretty good sense of him. He was a major figure in syntax and lexical semantics, examining topics in meticulous detail (he was a craftsman, and sometimes made me feel like an awkward rube bludgeoning phenomena into submission), then writing up his analyses and theorizing in an attractive plain style. He was also sweetly, playfully funny, one of the most decent people I have ever known, and also one of the least aggressive and competitive. (He was uncomplicatedly straight, but then nobody’s perfect.)

His work includes a masterpiece of academic writing (from linguistics), something that should be much more widely known, in part because it’s great fun: Lectures on Deixis (originally delivered in 1971; formally published in 1997).

The flip side of his decency and sweetness was that he was almost absurdly disinclined to take charge of things; administrative responsibilities made him anxious and miserable. So the year I was his vice-president, at the request of the society’s Executive Director, Maggie Reynolds, I took on the president’s daily decision-making responsibilities (for two years, then, Maggie phoned me every weekday morning to go through the day’s major business items for the society). As far as I know, Chuck never noticed; he thought the presidency was mostly a figurehead position anyway, with Maggie doing the administrative work, and she steered him deftly through the actual committee meetings. We thought of all this as a gift to a dear friend.

Lila was quite another thing. Like Chuck, she was a major figure in academia (in her case, in psychology as well as linguistics), a founding figure of several branches of modern psycholinguistics: child language studies, and language and thought, in particular.  But she was also good at getting and administering grants, running research groups, and the like: and she could be tough and direct, blunt and to the point. Ok, while cracking jokes.

You will recognize this as a normatively “masculine” style, and in fact (as I learned in the social times with her at Executive Committee meetings, which were a hoot), she was a tomboy as a child and a “sporty” woman as an adult, a fierce baseball fan who would happily trade statistics, run-throughs of endless games, predictions of coming action, and so on. I think she followed other sports as well in this fashion, but baseball was her special passion. (She understood that there were men — like Chuck and me — who had no sympathy at all with this passion and no interest in engaging in these social routines, and she was fine with that.)

Lila was quite funny about her childhood. She would ask for things like chemistry sets and baseball equipment for Christmas and birthdays, and her parents inevitably gave her dolls instead; her brother got the chemistry sets and the baseball equipment, and after a while, she said, she just appropriated them for herself, making her brother share them with her.

It wasn’t that she spurned dolls. Early on, Lila explained, she had assembled what she considered to be a sufficient collection of dolls for mothering play; she just wanted the train sets, the toy cars, and the baseball mitt too. (As an adult, she fully embraced the role of mother: she had two daughters she adored, and of course working with babies, toddlers, and young children was a major part of her academic life. I shouldn’t have to explain to you that, like Chuck, she was uncomplicatedly straight.)

(Here I note that a signal feature of my presidency of the LSA was that I was the society’s first openly gay president.)

The sporty of the vernacular opposition sporty vs. girly isn’t well represented in the NOAD entry:

adj. sporty: informal [a] flashy or showy in dress or behavior. [b] (of clothing) casual yet attractively stylish: a sporty outfit. [c] (of a car) compact and with fast acceleration: a sporty red coupe. [d] fond of or good at sports.

Sense d is as close as it gets, but the slangy usage is really an opposition of feminine presentations of self, of female “character types”. Familiar to me from my own family, in my girly mother vs. her sporty twin sister, my Aunt Marion. A legendary Cool Aunt, who back in my teen years introduced me to Elvis Presley’s music when it first broke on the scene, and (with her dyke friends from women’s golf and women’s softball) taught me to play poker (she was between husbands at the time, between the crude horndog Herb and the great guy Phil, who was, not coincidentally, a golfer).

I don’t think I ever saw Marion in heels, with earrings, with either mascara or eye shadow, or wearing anything either frilly or slinky. Stylish but simple. My mother, in contrast, wore high heels for the sake of fashion (and suffered terrible hammer-toe bunions as a result), enjoyed the ritual of putting on full makeup, had a collection of exotic perfumes and showy jewelry, and so on.

Marion presented herself as businesslike and quietly competent, my mother as girlish and coquettish. Marion found work as an executive secretary in big insurance firms, my mother opened a costume jewelry shop with my father as the business manager. She modeled their wares — she was a walking ad for glamorous costume jewelry, high-quality rhinestones especially, and she accessorized all the drag queens of Reading PA.

I suppose it’s a great pity that I wasn’t a fem boy; my mother clearly hoped for a while that I would show an interest in dresses, high heels, makeup, and jewelry, and then she’d have a child who would become involved in the trappings of her life, a child she could teach the ways of women. But none of it moved me. For a while, my dad hoped I’d share his love of playing sports, would learn to enjoy playing catch with him, tossing the pigskin with him, and shooting hoops with him, like a regular boy. But that was an equally vain hope.

There was a certain amount of desperation in these hopes on their part; it was just a stroke of luck that my mother was able, perilously, to give birth to one child, and they certainly weren’t going to get a chance at another, so they made their (blessedly brief) unsuccessful plays at coaching me in the gender roles familiar to them, and then just followed my lead, which went in the direction of books (so my mother could teach me to read at a very young age and then we could read imaginative books to one another), science and technology (providing connection points for my dad; we could learn stuff together, and, eventually, build stuff together), classical music (which pretty much baffled them both), cooking (a surprise, but useful to the household), and more solitary things, like exploring on foot and by bicycle.

They gave me the freedom to discover / compose a masculine gender identity of my own, my own masculinity, which seems to have started with inclinations and preferences from very early childhood and has continued to alter over time. I imagine that in similar fashion Marion — and Lila Gleitman — came to their sporty femininities. And for that matter, Chuck Fillmore to his empathetic, amiable, irenic masculinity.

artist, magician, scientist,
orator, debater, theologist,
must all conclude, so too, as we:
how the fear of Death dismays me!
[Timor mortis conturbat me]
— Michael R. Burch, June 2020, translation of William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makaris” (“Lament for the Makers”, that is, the poets)

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