Last year I posted about Allan Metcalf’s Lingua Franca piece on the journal Comments on Etymology; now Metcalf has a Tablet story about the guy who writes it, “Gerald Leonard Cohen, professor in the department of arts, languages, and philosophy at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and grand impresario of American etymologists.” Cohen’s lived in Missouri for years, but he grew up in New York and “got a good start by majoring in Russian civilization as an undergraduate at Dartmouth”:

With a Reynolds Fellowship for foreign study from Dartmouth, after finishing his bachelor’s he spent a year at Oxford, earning a diploma in Slavonic studies.
He then embarked on a doctorate in Slavic linguistics at Columbia University, for which degree he had to demonstrate proficiency in French, German, Russian, and two other Slavic languages. His dissertation, finished in 1971, was The Stress of the Russian Short Adjective: A Diachronic Study. He modestly admits that for a while he was the world’s foremost expert on the stress of the Russian short adjective—modestly, because that’s not a topic crowded with experts.
Meanwhile, with his graduate coursework finished, in 1968 he went to what might be considered the antipodes of Manhattan: Rolla. “I was looking for a suburban-type lifestyle—trees, grass, no crime,” he explained. “And the move to Rolla also offered me the chance to teach several languages.”
At the university there ever since, he has taught general linguistics and Russian, French, German, and occasionally Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. And he began his apprenticeship in etymology. “Starting in the 1970s and continuing for eight years or so,” he has written, “I made a concerted effort to study as many languages as possible each day. The key to this effort was consistency.” Each day he would sit down with a pile of books about different languages—dictionaries and grammars, for the most part. And “each day I would try to learn something about a variety of languages, even if it was just one or two words per language, and hope that various insights would emerge from the effort.” At the peak of his endeavors, he relates, he was looking at 20 to 30 different languages per day.

I admire that man! And there’s lots of interesting etymological tidbits in the article; read the whole thing. (Thanks for the link, Paul and Kobi!)


  1. Bill Walderman says

    If he managed to make some sense out of the stress of Russian short adjectives he must be a genius, as far as I’m concerned. I wonder if that includes passive participles and past tense verbs, too.

  2. “The Stress of the Russian Short Adjective: A Diachronic Study.” So Cohen studied not just the stress but its change over time? I must admit I get those stresses wrong myself at times, if not so much in short adjectives, surely in short passive participles – all those налито, пропито, отдана are a source of never-ending pain and embarrassment.

  3. Sir JCass says

    Russian stress makes me tear my homoeopathic hair out.

  4. As an early commenter points out, Rolla isn’t in western Missouri, wild or not. And it isn’t particularly close to Joplin, except in that they’re both on Route 66 (okay, I-44) in Missouri. Rolla’s in the middle of the state and Joplin’s toward the Kansas border. Nor was it very suburban in 1968 (when my great uncle was Prosecuting Attorney there); the nearest urban is St. Louis, more than 100 miles away. Did the New York editors do this or is Metcalf (in central Illinois) having a laugh?

  5. And, of course, the antipodes of Manhattan are in the Indian Ocean south of Australia.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    JC: it’s a *metaphor.* Manhattanites are stereotypically perhaps more invested in their self-image as NOT being the sort of people who would voluntarily hang around Nowheresville, Mo. (147 miles driving distance from Rolla to Branson, says google maps), then they are in their self-image as not being fish native to the more southerly latitudes of the Indian Ocean.

  7. Trond Engen says

    The final word on the origin of Russian accent rules is found here (bottom of the page).

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, except for a tiny loss in alliteration, the “antipodal” point would have worked just as well if Metcalf had said “wilds of south-central Missouri.” But the little downstate Illinois town where the college Metcalf teaches is located is unlikely to strike the median New Yorker subscriber as even an iota closer to cosmopolitanism than Rolla, so who is having a joke at whose expense remains obscure.

  9. The final word on the origin of Russian accent rules
    Good one! Reminds me of the copyeditors’ hall of fame.

  10. CuConnacht says

    Does anyone happen to know what this is about: “Possible lexical borrowing from Semitic (ancestor of Hebrew and Arabic) into Proto-Germanic (ancestor of English and German)”?

  11. David Marjanović says

    Trond wins the thread.

    Does anyone happen to know what this is about:

    Sounds like Theo Vennemann to me.

  12. marie-lucie says

    I second David’s guess.

  13. J.W.B.: I know, I’m one of them (though not native born). I was engaging in pedantry-as-joke, a species of humor not unknown either to this island or to this blog.

  14. Cohen’s 1975 paper with that title was shown to Vennemann after his 2001 paper has been accepted and noted at the end.

  15. It looks to me like Metcalf simply thought Rolla was farther down I-44 than it is and didn’t bother to look at a map. Relative distances are hard to judge when you’re driving through the Midwest – everything’s really far away and everywhere looks the same. I can totally imagine him driving down the highway passing hours of corn, soybean, and wheat fields broken up by narrow stands of trees every few miles, with only the occasional silo and farmhouse as a sign of life, and feeling like he must be near Oklahoma already even though he’s not half-way through the state. Since there’s nothing else out there, the road signs will say so many miles to Rolla, Springfield, and Joplin, even though they’re not close at all… Not fact-checking your opening sentence is pretty inexcusable, though.

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