Linguistics, math, and second chances

What a terrific speech! It was delivered in 2008 by the distinguished Stanford linguist Ivan Sag, who died too young just five days ago. It manages to take the reader all the way from youthful indiscretions to problems with college admissions to rock music to computers to the connections between math and linguistics. It’s a tad long, but what else do you expect with so many topics? What’s more important is that this entire wide range of topics is tied together in a narrative arc that sweeps the listener (or reader) along in a coherent way. Read it!

Just to whet your appetite, here are a couple of very distinct excerpts. First, a paragraph describing an experience in 12th grade at a prep school:

2 days later, I was summoned to the headmaster’s office where I received a personal, sanctimonious sermon, delivered literally and figuratively ex cathedra by William Fowle (we called him ‘Bible Bill’, among other things). The good headmaster (may he rest in peace) explained with all his heart and all his soul that he had ‘no choice’ — it was his moral obligation to expel people like me from Mercersburg. I drank beer; I denied it; I was in a position of responsibility; I was irredeemable. QED. Apparently, the other 22 guys who confessed the dastardly drinking deed had souls that could be saved. Maybe it was their confessions; maybe it was something else. We’ll never know.

Second, some comments as a linguistics professor looking back at prep school and grad school:

Mercersburg taught me math; Mercersburg taught me languages. But Mercersburg never taught me that the two had anything to do with each other. Well it turns out they do, but I didn’t learn that until graduate school. This was at Penn — yes the same place that wouldn’t accept me as an undergrad now gave me a fellowship to go to grad school. Sweet!

At Penn I discovered that I was theoretical by nature and that linguistics could be, too. The grammatical models that had been pioneered for the study of language were all based on algebra and logic, things I had really liked here at Mercersburg.

As you’ve figured out by now, Sag was delivering this speech at Mercersburg Academy, the very school that had expelled him for drinking. As a result, his early decision acceptance at Penn was withdrawn. But he ended up there anyway for grad school…and became a tenured professor at Stanford. Second chances indeed.

Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning