Mattie Wechsler’s essay won the 2014 Katherine Fullerton Gerould Award Prize at Bryn Mawr College.
When I was growing up, my father kept a pronunciation dictionary of the English language by his seat at the table. This way, if there were ever a dispute during dinner about how to pronounce a word correctly, he could dispel any doubt immediately, casting a firm authoritative judgment on the matter. He was a not a dictatorial man, by any means, but rather a meticulous one. Sometimes both family members were right in that they had each offered one of the acceptable variants listed in the worn volume. This, in and of itself, was neither particularly disappointing nor pleasing to my father. The pedagogical exercise was not one in competition, not a harsh lesson about winning, or losing, feeling embarrassment, or thinking before you spoke. The outcome was never meant to uplift or sting. Rather this was a teaching moment about humility, about utilizing access to knowledge, and about appreciating, and delighting in, descriptive scientific accuracy.
As the daughter of an amateur linguist, I was reared to understand the distinction between description and prescription of language quite keenly. Linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structure. Like any modern scientific pursuit, linguistics relies heavily on observation. A linguist, arriving in a foreign culture with the intent to study its language, has no interest in what grade school students are taught in their classrooms about grammar, a prescriptive enterprise, but has a great deal of interest in what these children say to each other in the school yard, a descriptive enterprise. My father has a joke he loves to tell in order to demonstrate what he perceives to be the absurdity of prescriptive grammarians. It goes like this: two young women arrive at a college campus in the Northeast. One of them is from the area, the other from the South.
The Southern woman asks her new classmate, “Where are you from?”
The Northeastern woman responds, disgustedly, “From a place where people don’t put prepositions at the ends of sentences.”
The Southern woman smiles politely and replies, “Ah, okay. Where are you from, bitch?” At this point in the joke, my father cackles delightedly. He does not wait for the other person to laugh; he is far too joyful, far too relishing of his own sense of humor.
Although perhaps lacking in the comedic punch my father perceives, this joke is particularly effective at demonstrating two competing issues. The first is that prescriptive grammar is often based on descriptive grammar, but, and this is an important but, only some descriptive grammar. To be more precise, the grammar rules often praised as correct usually represent a somewhat accurate description of what linguists call the “prestige dialect” of a language. So in the United States, for example, speakers of African American Vernacular English are taught that their dialect is grammatically incorrect, and it would be, if they were trying to speak Standard American English. But they aren’t. They’re speaking AAVE perfectly.
Important Linguistics Postulate #1: All dialects are created equal.
This means that every dialect meets 100 percent of the communication needs of its speakers. This means that no speakers speak their dialects incorrectly. Grammaticality is defined solely by what speakers will and will not say.
The joke my father tells about the one woman judging the other based on her dialect evokes this tension of regionalist prejudice. The Southern woman presumably speaks a non-prestige dialect and the Northeastern woman believes her own way of speaking to be inherently more virtuous, more learned, and more correct. So this humorous little anecdote introduces the idea that what might be right for one speaker could very much be wrong for another, and that, furthermore, what is considered right for everyone is usually based on what is right for the people in power. But I said this joke demonstrated two things, and the second, funnily enough, sort of undoes the first. Some prescriptive grammar describes the grammar of prestige varieties, but some is just plain made-up.
In 1672, John Dryden, an English poet, invented the prescriptive prohibition of preposition stranding, which is what linguists call it when languages put a preposition at the end of a clause. He was motivated by a desire to make English more like Latin. Latin genuinely disallows preposition stranding. English does not.
I’ll take this moment to clarify what I mean by genuine disallowance. It’s basically an issue of severity. A person may be prescriptively trained to dislike or, perhaps, be sensitive to the way a stranded preposition sounds, but any native English speaker can easily distinguish between the degree of grammaticality in the following two sentences.
(1) This is the chair that I sat in.
(2) *I don’t know where my shoes are, but I guess what I do know where is.
Linguistics, like any discipline, has its own particular methodology and formalism. Evidence is always presented in this fashion. It is numbered and referred to as language data, and ungrammatical sentences are marked with asterisks. The first example in (1) is a stranded preposition. Take it or leave it, I don’t much care, because my point stands that as bad as (1) may or may not be, (2) is much, much worse. And for Latin speakers, (1) would be as bad as (2) is to my own English primed ears.
My older brother uttered the sentence in (2) when he was two years old. My father loves it. It’s his favorite example of how a construction might be completely intelligible, but still indisputably incorrect. When he tells the story he always overdoes it. He imitates the high-pitched joy of my brother’s youthful shriek. He grins so wide his face splits open and you can see how his brain works. You can see how much he loves linguistics and how much he loves his children, how linguistics has allowed him to love his children more and how his children, too, make linguistics all the more lovable.
My father exhibits all the major symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome on the autism spectrum. He’s prone to long enthusiastic monologues about topics that interest him. Even though he is often very compelling, he is just as frequently excessive and insensitive to his audience, their attention and level of engagement, and to his own success in making the material transparent or understandable, for he often assumes prior knowledge and discusses very difficult, technical concepts at great length. He laughs too hard and at awkward moments. He makes inappropriate jokes and over-the-top hand gestures, assuming altogether too much affect in his humor. His silly voices are too silly, his goofy embodied motions too goofy and too embodied. It is for this reason that small children adore him, and he adores them right back. They are drawn to him like sugar. He is the best joker, the best tickler, and the best at turning children’s bodies into musical instruments.
He is, in fact, a talented musician by all accounts. His abilities extend far past back drumming and interrupting the toneless singing of insatiable little mouths by covering them with his hand at rhythmic intervals. In my living room at home sits a 1929 Steinway baby grand piano that we inherited from my grandfather, who inherited it from my great grandfather. My father plays passably well, but underneath the baby grand are the instruments he plays exceptionally: his fiddle; two guitars, one regular, the other 12-string; a banjo; a concertina; a huge accordion he can barely lift anymore because of his bad back.
My father absorbs knowledge like it were the air he breathes. He tutored me easily in chemistry, physics, math, and biology when I was in high school, and it was clear that he considered all of the material I covered quite beneath him. He knows something about almost every language I ever mention, which is saying something because one of the cool things about linguistics is that there are an estimated seven thousand discrete languages spoken on this planet.
And it isn’t just science he knows. He is very well-read and still continues to increase his familiarity with classic literature. Right now, his current hobby is a literary mission he calls “Project Project Gutenberg.” The principle of the thing is very straightforward. The website Project Gutenberg is an online archive of literary works in the public domain. Every text is numbered sequentially in the order it was uploaded. My father has a theory that the upload order reveals a cultural consciousness about hierarchical importance in the canon. For instance, the first text is the Constitution of the United States, and somewhere in the first hundred are the complete works of William Shakespeare. My father’s intent is to read the texts in order of their upload indefinitely and to blog about his progress. He is well past the hundredth text, but hasn’t yet reached number two hundred. In almost every way, he is an intensely prodigious person, and, as far as I can tell, he always has been.
When my grandmother died, I met my father’s childhood nanny at the wake. She told me that when she first met my father he was three years old, sitting in a high chair, and, completely distracted from his breakfast, reading the newspaper out loud to anyone who cared to listen. At first, she said, she didn’t believe it, but then she realized it was that day’s paper, and that he couldn’t have memorized the content the way some children are prone to do. She came over to his high chair and introduced herself. Seeing that his shoes were untied and the laces dangling, she inquired if, seeing how he was such a big boy, he knew how to tie them. He responded that he did not.
This will always be my father to me. So cerebral and accomplished and impressive, and yet so incompetent in a myriad of ways. Now, in an equally characteristic fashion, my father has a very practiced, somewhat unusual way of knotting his laces. He’ll talk in surprisingly great detail, if permitted, about why this method is optimal, the best combination of fast, tight, and easy to unlace. He is so obsessive, so focused on the steady acquisition of measured attainable perfection. He is so very studied and meticulous in the things in which he is studied and meticulous.
I see this practiced precision in his interpersonal interactions as well. He has a friendly face and tone of voice and way of introducing himself that is always the same. It’s not bad and it isn’t even disingenuous. He means it when he’s warm and welcoming, but he has clearly had to learn how to make his external behavior match the warmth he feels and very sincerely wants to convey.
I get the sense that I benefit from my father’s experience, from his age, and learned sociability. I have this strong impression that the version of my dad I know is the best version of my dad there’s ever been.
When he was in the first grade in an elementary school in an affluent suburb of Detroit, Michigan, my father was pulled out of class in the middle of the day and immediately moved into a third grade classroom. In addition to being at a social disadvantage naturally, my father now had to contend with being an intruder, a teacher’s pet, and with the fact that he was leagues out of his depth when he tried to match the emotional maturity of his peers in social interaction.
The event left him scarred and mostly friendless. A loner and a weirdo from then on, my father also had to suffer through three years of high school wearing a back brace to correct his severe scoliosis. Although the treatment was fairly effective, my father is still hunchbacked and his torso is short and twisted compared to the long arms and legs that suggest he would have been several inches taller were his spine not so crooked. Things eventually looked up for my father, though. In the late 1970s he arrived at MIT, where he flourished interpersonally, becoming happier and more fulfilled than he’d ever been before.
There are still moments, however, when all his practice and cultivation leave him a little short of socially fluent. Times of grief and loss, especially because of death, are more prominent in my memory than others. Recently, when an old college friend of my mom and his died an untimely and jarring death from an aggressive, quickly spreading cancer, we all attended a wake at the man’s brother’s house, where people were invited to share fond memories of the deceased. My father described in great detail the way the man used to keep notebooks and how he would write ever-so-neatly in tiny all-capital print. My father is in many ways not a big-picture kind of guy. Nonetheless, his attention to detail was evocative and the room was nodding in appreciation of his intimate familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of his lost friend. When the man’s wife, however, commented on having many of these same notebooks still at home, my father corrected her, saying that her husband’s note-taking was not an archival project, that he would frequently tear out pages or throw out whole volumes when they ceased to be relevant, useful, or contemporary.
He cares so, so much about being right. The pronunciation dictionary is all about reveling in accuracy, about embracing how wonderful it is to have the answers, to know whether or not your pronunciation of a word is documented in other speakers’ dialects.
There is one more major memory I have of my father coping with loss. At my grandmother’s funeral, the morning before the wake where I met his nanny, my father and his two sisters spoke about their mother during the service. My father’s prepared speech was about linguistics. My grandmother’s parents emigrated from Poland in the 1920s to Palestine. With thousands of other Jews who felt the winds of the Shoah stirring, they fled with all of their possessions to live on a kibbutz where they would participate in the language revival project of Hebrew, speaking only their ancestor’s tongue, as recorded in the Torah, to their children, though they themselves were not fluent. My father explained during my grandmother’s service that when a language is revived like that, a unique accent and an idiosyncratic phonological system are born.
Probably because of its peculiar emergence, modern Hebrew experienced rapid language change over the course of my grandmother’s lifetime. My father said sadly and nostalgically that his mother sounded like almost no one else left on earth. Her accent was a consequence of her brief historical moment, her voice a carrier of a profoundly beautiful historical artifact, a physical manifestation of a period of transition, a way of speaking so brief and so soon disappeared.
My father connects his emotions inextricably with his intellectual passions and pursuits. He loves the memory of my brother as a little boy most in his recollection of something linguistically fascinating. He misses my grandmother and feels that pain most sharply in conjunction with her connection to the history of modern Hebrew. He took death and related it instantly to language
Language extinction, sometimes called language death, is currently one of the foremost concerns in linguistics as an academic and scientific discipline. As I mentioned earlier, one of the coolest things about linguistics is that there are seven thousand languages. There is simply so much to study, the rabbit hole of information to discover never ends. The problem is that this number is dropping fast. There are about seven billion people on the planet right now. If an equal number of people spoke every language, that would mean there were a million speakers of each. But there are 360 million native English speakers, 250 million native French speakers, 290 million native Arabic speakers, and 1 billion native Mandarin speakers. We are at a time of unprecedented rates of language extinction. Linguists expect that of the seven thousand languages currently spoken on earth, nearly one half of them will disappear in the next century.
Important Linguistics Postulate #2: Linguistics aims to describe all languages. All languages are treasures. Native speakers of a language have priceless knowledge that is essential to the project of linguistics.
My father raised me to believe that all languages are precious, as natural phenomena containing information and data that are unique and utterly invaluable to the modern endeavor of linguistics, but also as living, vibrant, cultural infrastructures that are invaluable to the people who speak them. When languages die, linguists lose the opportunity to fully describe them, to make generalizations about all languages that actually include all languages in their account.
As an undergraduate studying linguistics at MIT, my dad worked on an endangered language indigenous to Australia called Warlpiri. Like most things he cares about, he lights up all over when he talks about it. The energy of his enthusiasm infects his whole body; his voice, his face, his gesticulation, and his posture all brighten. He loves every little bit of Warlpiri, the way its verbs are formed, the way the syntax reflects the kinship structures of the tribe, all of it. He adores every last syllable.
When my father spoke about my grandmother’s accent at her funeral, he knew Hebrew wasn’t dying, not like Warlpiri’s dying (three thousand speakers and not going strong). Languages are always changing; they lose some facet, they acquire another. But I could tell that he still felt the loss of any linguistic material keenly, especially one so close to home. I, too, miss the way my grandmother would pronounce my name, saying Martha drawn out and with a trill at the back of her throat. My father hates for information of any kind to disappear, hates for a way of knowing to leave the world.
Relatedly, I think, he is deeply afraid to die. Sometimes I think he’s scared of losing the ability to be right. He’s scared he might not be there to correct a widow about minutia, or that he might miss the chance to open up his pronunciation dictionary at a relevant moment and settle any quarrel whose central question is an empirical one. He loves when there just are right and wrong answers. He loves to have the right answer. I see his obsession with being right as one in the same with his obsession with knowledge, which is one in the same again with his obsession with truth. I believe that one of the reasons he loves linguistics so much is because descriptive grammar represents truth for him in a way that prescriptive grammar cannot. Growing up, he never corrected me if I said “me and my friend” instead of “my friend and I,” because he admires language for what it is, for its truth.
(3) *Me went to the park
(4) Me and my friend went to the park.
Although (4) might irritate a prescriptive grammarian, (3) shows what a truly ungrammatical use of me would look like. The sentence in (4) is clearly grammatical by descriptive standards, and that excites my father. He wants to see what happens to English, how it changes. He never wanted to censor my speech, to stifle a developing phenomenon, to arbitrate which way of knowing and speaking is better than another.
My father’s worship of truth also manifests itself in a hatred of deception. He can’t stand being lied to. It hurts him like almost nothing else. When I came out as a lesbian, he was deeply upset at the idea that I might have kept this fact of my identity secret from him for any lengthy period of time. He felt betrayed and excluded and deceived.
He eventually recovered from this pain and became the perfect picture of a supportive parent, but even in his love and acceptance I found traces of his quirky strategy of emotional connection. He hit the books, learned the lingo so we would always be able to talk in the same language. To this day, he’s an expert of queer terminology. He uses the words “pansexual” and “cisgender” with easy fluency in discourse, and when we discuss radical politics he gives me his undivided attention and respect. As an avid learner, his way of forging sustained emotional relationships has always been by sharing knowledge of a subject, by connecting his feelings to facts and information and modes of knowing. It was the same thing when I left for college. My father studied the campus map and listened attentively to the slang I used. He knows every dorm at Bryn Mawr College, and he’s fluent in which ones have nicknames or accepted abbreviations.
As good as things are now, though, we were not always so connected. Although in his element with small children, my father struggles with kids over 5 and under 12 years old. I’m dyslexic and I couldn’t read until I was 10. I also demonstrated an adamant disdain for math and science, as well as horrendous tone deafness when it came to my fourth grade aspiration of playing the trumpet. This left little common ground between my father and me. He did what he usually does when at a loss for connection. He talked to me about things that interested him, but I was often bored and frustrated by the duration of these lectures, whether he was explaining how a car engine works or describing the orbits of Venus and Mars (my father is an avid stargazer). He was always a proficient caretaker. He was always loving, if not unreserved with his love. He read to me every night and sang me the same Spanish lullaby to help me get to sleep. But still, my father is a man with many regrets and disappointments, and when I was younger I feared that I was one of them.
At MIT, my father was happy, but he was not particularly successful. He was put on academic probation several times by his Dean, and it took him seven years in total to earn his Bachelor’s. And even though my father wanted his degree to be in linguistics, he ended up having to major in math because of a credit shortage. He hoped to go to graduate school in linguistics, but he didn’t get in. A talented writer, he has two hundred pages of an unfinished novel. He wanted to do more than he’s done, know more than he knows. He wanted to be something more than a software developer with two kids who don’t like math.
He wanted to learn languages. His mother, probably because of the xenophobic landscape of 1950s American suburbia, did not speak Hebrew to her children. He mourns the retrospective loss of that language, and I am like him in this respect because I mourn that same loss from what is for me two generations back. For I am certain if he had learned it he would have spoken it to my brother and me.
Important Linguistics Postulate #3: Scientific studies have proven that bilingualism is only a gift. It can never negatively affect a child’s ability to learn language. Speaking more than one language fluently is an amazing opportunity, and perhaps the only viable long-term solution to language death in our increasingly global community.
My father regrets not having the gift of a second language, and he regrets not being able to give this gift to his children.
In many ways I was groomed to be a linguist, brought up to embrace descriptive grammar and eschew what my teachers taught me about commas and split infinitives. I avoided linguistics’ call at first, though, scared of what it might mean for my relationship with my father. When I got to college I diligently pursed a major in American Studies. I felt enriched and intellectually nourished by my classes. I was happy. But, I could still feel the pull of linguistics. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to study it in a classroom and not under paternal tutelage. One class, and I was hooked. First a minor, then a double major, then a crisis about which of my majors I wanted to pursue in graduate school.
At first I was frightened, not that my father would feel jealous or hurt that I was living his dream, but that the opposite would be true, that he would be too happy, too proud, too thrilled. I worried that if I let myself love it, it would be like signing a contract. I was afraid that if I ever abandoned linguistics for something else that excited me, the loss would devastate my father in a way that simply never having a linguist for a daughter couldn’t. It was safer not to lean in, not to pour my energy into it the way I had for other passions. But, as it turned out, I just couldn’t help myself. I was born for it. I’m good at it. And it’s become harder and harder to imagine my life without it.
Linguistics brought my father and me together in a way I never anticipated. He is proud of me and he is beyond delighted to share such a big plot of common ground with his daughter. It means the world to him that we both know that my older brother’s childhood utterance in (2) is ungrammatical because it’s what linguists call a Wh-island, a construction where embedded question clauses result in one of the question words being stranded. Now he knows that I can feel the emotional, familial heft of that memory in the same way he does, that I can love people through linguistics and linguistics through people. He can experience delight in knowledge simultaneously with someone he cares for. We can be together, talk together, in a way that makes him feel close, and joyful, and fulfilled.
Once, my mother, my father, and I were all out to brunch with another family. It happened to be Father’s Day, but the occasion was more to celebrate that the other family was visiting and we hadn’t seen them in a long time. At some point during the meal, the mother of the other family turned to her two daughters and admonished them for not having wished their beloved patriarch a happy Father’s Day. They hurriedly and enthusiastically did so, and the table’s attention suddenly turned to me expectantly. I looked at my father, lifted my hand to rest on his shoulder, and said “You’re alright.” The table burst out laughing and the referent quickly became a joke between my father and me.
After a while though, it became more meaningful than humorous. In casual moments where it doesn’t matter, where emotions are not heavy and there is no reason for them to be, I say “I love you,” and he says it back. When called upon to be serious, however, when we want to express genuine appreciation and gratefulness for the other’s existence, we tell each other “You’re alright” and what we mean is, “You are more to me than a greeting card holiday. You are more to me than brunch. You are more to me than linguistics, and math, and music, and history, and radical politics. You are more to me than language. You are more to me than language could ever express. My dialect only meets 99.99 percent of my communication needs because for you I have no words. You are everything to me, and I hope I am everything to you.”