ASG History

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History of the American Society of Geolinguistics

Prof. Wayne Finke, PhD

11 April 2015, Tokyo

The story of the American Society of Geolinguistics begins in the early 1960’s at Columbia University under the guidance of Professor Mario Pei. Originally from Rome, Italy, his family emigrated to the United States in the first decade of the 1900’s as did thousands of Italians, and from an early age he demonstrated a keen interest in foreign languages and quickly added English, French and Latin, among others. His initial tertiary level education took place in New York, and by the age of 22 he was already teaching languages at Townsend Harris High School, the distinguished preparatory school for City College near Harlem. City College is the academic parent so to speak of my own Bernard Baruch College, which separated and became an independent unit of The City University of New York in 1968. While on the faculty there, he did work in translation but continued to study languages. In 1937 Pei completed his doctorate at Columbia University with a thesis that centered on Sanskrit, Church Slavonic and Medieval French, and as a result was immediately appointed to the faculty as an Assistant Professor of Romance Philology, a nineteenth-century term that later morphed into what we call linguistics nowadays. As can be expected from his background, one of his first scholarly books was the volume The Italian Language published in 1941. And over the course of the subsequent decades Pei added other titles focusing on the study of languages: The Story of Language (1949), The Story of English (1952), All about Languages and A Dictionary of Linguistics both of 1954.

While his publications certainly reflected a serious, scholarly character, many of them could be enjoyed by the interested general reader who sought basic but reliable information on the languages about which Pei wrote prolifically. As Jesse Levitt, Pei’s student both in high school and at Columbia, noted: “He made the dry bones of philology come alive for college students. He always taught philology in terms of the culture of the times; sound changes and syntactical transformations were seen as the result of a certain social evolution. The ponderous and sometimes pedantic volumes of the historical linguists came alive and assumed new meaning in Pei’s classes.”

As his career advanced and he taught at the graduate level, Pei succeeded in attracting a select group of students who related intellectually to his scholarly endeavors, with the consequence that they decided to organize and establish a scholarly group that would hold monthly meetings to discuss different world languages and their relationship to the lands where they were spoken and to neighboring countries. The key word in this activity was GEOLINGUISTICS. Now Mario Pei did not invent this term, and as he readily acknowledged in his article Geolinguistics: Its Genesis, Aims and Functions, published in the first volume of the journal Geolinguistics (1974, though dating from 1965), one of his graduate students, Joseph V. Costanzo, had suggested that “The world in general and the United States in particular….desperately need an approach to a new science, which I might label ‘geolinguistics,’ on the analogy of ‘geopolitics.’”

From the first year of its creation in January 1965 the Society initiated a very active calendar of monthly meetings held on the campus of Columbia University to which Pei invited any and all interested students of languages and linguistics. A number of these direct graduate students of Dr. Pei as well as colleagues in the field have remained active until recently, but many of them have begun to suffer infirmity, and age. Just last week I learned of the death of our eldest member Max Oppenheimer, Jr. who had studied at the University of Paris and New York University and taught at five universities in the US. He just passed at the ripe old age of 96 and had been writing monthly newspaper articles in the Arizona press on words, word origins and their geolinguistic significance. Some of the names of early members whom we could mention are Margaret Bryant, Mario Cabrera, Barbara Richardson, Kenneth Rogers, L. R. N. Ashley, and of course Jesse Levitt, our previous editor of the journal. Although I did not know Mario Pei personally, nor, for that matter many of the original members, for I arrived on the scene 30 years ago, I recognize that the group was an extremely congenial body that enjoyed monthly meetings and shared similar interests, though with different language interests. An examination of the title of these early presentations manifests a great variety of language interests. Besides Mario Pei’s just mentioned title, the initial year 1965 saw diverse presentations on Language and Business, Problems and Perspective in Geolinguistics, Geolinguistics in Industry and Government, Problems of Biblical Translation and The World’s Living Languages. While it is true that many of these graduates went into the field of education, especially on the college level, others chose different professions.. For example, the Dutch expatriot Johanna Woltjer went into the field of business and worked at the headquarters of the A & P Supermarket chain and later entered the computer field. Barbara Richardson, our recently-deceased treasurer, dedicated her efforts to secondary language teaching, and even taught English in Venezuela for several years. Another interested member was Arnold Messner, of Long Island, who spent a long career as an editor of magazine and journal texts. Yet another, Cecile Low, spent many years dedicated to the Esperanto Society, and offered several presentations on created languages. One of the reasons for the success of these monthly meetings and lectures was mainly that most of the ex-students and students of language study lived in the New York metropolitan area, so despite their varied careers there was little difficulty in meeting on Saturday mornings up at Columbia's Morningside Heights campus. Then in late spring of each year (May or June) an annual luncheon was held on a Saturday at a local restaurant in the midtown area, which could accommodate 25-30 attendees with a private dining room in most cases. This was a way of concluding off the academic year with a strong presentation and a festive, congenial atmosphere among friends and colleagues.

A perusal of the next years of 1966 through 1974 likewise reveals the extent and breadth of the unabated lecture series, where so many different facets of language, dialect and oral language were examined. The second year of the association, topics included The Place of Portuguese, The Outlook for Esperanto, The Geolinguistics of Central Africa, Aesthetic Reform of the Alphabet and Linguistic Rivalry in Former Colonial Areas. Subsequent years offered additional interesting topics like Linguistic Rivalry in Israel, Swahili, A Language in Africa, and The Welsh Language and Nationalism.

However, from my perspective one thing was missing: that of a publication of this long series of informal presentations to be preserved formally in writing for posterity. Hence the Society determined to undertake the preparation of a journal of the Society beginning in 1974. But this proved to be a somewhat difficult task as Mario Pei was already retired, in his mid-seventies and in frail health until his death in March 1978. There was also the problem of financing such an enterprise because the Society was essentially small, confined to the New York area, with some more distant members. Given the dearth of funds and secretarial assistance, Jesse Levitt, then at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut stepped up to the task and undertook the process of editing the journal, named, simply, Geolinguistics. Its first volume of 1974 was based primarily on the papers delivered by members and guest speakers between 1965 and 1974.

However, we are speaking about the mid-nineteen seventies so there were no computers or advanced anything. All manuscript material was simply a typed text, submitted by different authors, hence there was no uniformity of style and format of the articles of each annual volume. Additionally, Jesse Levitt, whose field was French and Spanish, had a penchant for including extraneous materials that were a bit far off field, like poems submitted by members. The basic format which rarely exceeded 100 pages constituted a number of articles, which invariably emanated from the monthly lectures, a few book reviews on the latest publications in the field, and a final short section of notes. The latter were taken from articles found in newspapers and magazines that in some fashion referred to and addressed different languages around the world, and certainly proved of interest to the readers who might not have read those specific publications. However, this last section was basically limited to a few published materials: The New York Times, Time magazine, and a few local newspapers that Jesse customarily read in his home state of Connecticut. It is true, nonetheless, that other colleagues and ASG members would send him clippings from their own local sources, so that, while much restricted to mass-print materials in the region, subscribers would be current on recent trends and linguistic happenings. And in reproducing these materials in the journal Jesse would judiciously edit and trim the materials so as not to infringe on any existing copyright laws.

To examine these early volumes is an exercise in reviewing the “quaint” feel and format of the publication. Surely, it would not compete with the journal PMLA of the Modern Language Association or that of The Linguistic Society of America. Nor with the distinguished Romance Philology of the University of California. Its editor Yakov Malkiel dismissed Mario Pei as interesting, but not a serious scholar, and viewed geolinguistics as a type of entertainment for “aficionados” (amateurs) of language. With the death of Mario Pei, the Society foundered for a while without its champion, but a new generation of interested scholars and generalists joined the organization, and with this fresh blood these individuals sought a greater expansion and recognition of the association. Thus, they conceived of more ambitious idea: holding a formal conference every few years to attract a wider, more extended body of participants, beginning in 1985, the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Society’s creation. With the loss of Mario Pei several years earlier, there was no one at Columbia University with connections to host the inaugural conference, so a venue was found at New York University’s Meyer Hall of Physics for a two-day event on April 20 and 21, 1985. A remarkable number of 30 papers were presented to a sizable audience, in which I found myself for the first time. Following the conference, Leonard Ashley, then president, Jesse Levitt and Kenneth Rogers edited the volume of the first conference papers, titled Geolinguistic Perspectives. The officers of ASG envisioned of a conference approximately every three years, given this initial success. However, for a time the conference dates were sporadic, the next being Language in Contemporary Society in 1992, Constructed Languages and Language Construction in 1995, and Language and Communication in the New Century in 1997. These events were all well attended, but in my perspective still reflected a local, or regional perspective on the whole.

In 1999 Professor Jesse Levitt, long retired from the University of Bridgeport, decided to step down as editor because of his deteriorating eye condition, and the Nominating Board selected me as editor for the new decade. The first task I faced was improving the physical appearance of the journal, and standardizing its format. No more type in different faces and fonts. The different languages and their accent marks were readily accessible on the new computers that Baruch College provided us. The entire section 1 of articles, whether previously given as monthly presentations or individually commissioned articles, was now wholly uniform in format and more substantial. Since we had a pile up of previous papers, the College provided us extra funding, as well as released time for the editor and as a result the journal was not under a hundred pages, but easily surpassed 200 pages. Section II, comprising the book reviews, has been somewhat of a problem for me in that our President, Leonard Ashley, now retired, has all the time in the world to review these many new publications and does an amazing job of reading more than 40 books a year and preparing judicious, concise reviews of them. Promptitude is his middle name. However, it has been harder to gain the services of other individuals to prepare reviews. For the Romance languages we have a number of reviewers, but they are sometimes slow in writing and remitting the review. I have been extremely lucky with Japanese, for our former colleague Noriko Watanabe, and currently Shigeru Suzuki have expeditiously prepared English-language reviews of new publications in their language area. Of late we are fortunate to have the services of Grigory Kazakov, formerly of Moscow State University who can evaluate new books in the Russian language or those about Old Church Slavonic. This section has been able to expand beyond the Romance/English language spectrum to other lesser known African, Asian and Middle-eastern tongues. When I have encountered new books on Amerindian languages, I have been able to obtain on occasion the services of scholars of these languages in the United States. Yet my efforts to engage scholars of Alaskan tongues has had one single result: absolute silence, not even an acknowledgment of my initial request offering the book as a reward.

I believe that one of the most important improvements for the journal has been the third section constituting the geolinguistics notes. Here, because of the computer’s possibilities and the Internet’s wide net of materials, I am quite able to access newspapers far and wide throughout the world and search for articles that would be of interest for our readers. And usually the major languages pose no problem, for they are translated by me from the major tongues like Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. Other, lesser languages are more of a problem, though given the large student population of Baruch with 180 ethnicities and languages spoken a article in one of these languages becomes a homework exercise for one of my students. A new section that I added was a Geolinguistic Calendar of upcoming conferences around the world devoted to language study and linguistics with a two to three year lead time, so that any reader interested in a given conference could communicate with the organizers should he or she wish to participate. Unfortunately, I have been unable to continue this section because the Website—which provided much of the information regarding these conferences—has ceased to exist and the site is up for sale.

A most important part of the ASG operations is the continuance of the conference, which we have now turned into a yearly—not tri-yearly—event on a more international scale. While two decades ago it was a rather local assemblage, since around 2000 I have specifically attempted to diversify the nationalities of the participants to include many more European, Asian, South American and African scholars in the field of geolinguistics. And as I speak to you here assembled, I must confess that Daito Bunka University has become one of the pillars of our geolinguistic community, each year sending over a good number of graduate students, and offering them the important possibility of presenting their research findings at an international conference and then seeing the fruits of their intellectual labors published in the proceedings carefully edited by the President and myself. We have been particularly successful at inviting and getting most distinguished scholars from around the world, in the beginning many from Europe (England, Wales, Germany, Denmark) and now more adventurously from countries like Qatar, Japan, Dubai, and this past year even far-off, for us, Australia. Baruch administration has till now been quite generous in is support These comings-together of eminent investigators is normally spread over two days, with ample time for lunches and the required wine and cheese party so that people can relax after a long day of presentations, and yet still having time for cultural events like the Broadway theater scene. The focus of attention is, of course, primarily on language and languages in contact, and over the years we have had many interesting presentations, from the Burmese language, the languages of Tibet, Arabic, polyglottery and polyglottism, in a word, a wide swath of themes and subjects that are interesting for all students of geolinguistics.

In conclusion I would like to highlight the growth and development of the three areas of activities of the ASG: meetings, the journal and now a truly international annual conference. From humble beginnings in 1965 the Society has witnessed an ever significant evolution beyond the local and regional to the global, the international. May our endeavors continue in the future in the hope that new generations of scholars will want to share the fruits of their linguistic labors.

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