Sally Thomason Remembers.

Y wrote to me “I think you’ll enjoy this mini-memoir by Sally Thomason” from the Annual Review of Linguistics, and I very much did, so I’m sharing it with you; it’s full of good things about studying and teaching linguistics, with much description of working in the field. Here’s the Abstract:

My career falls into two distinct periods. The first two decades featured insecurity combined with the luck of wandering into situations that ultimately helped me become a better linguist and a better teacher. I had the insecurity mostly under control by the watershed year of 1988, when I published a favorably reviewed coauthored book on language contact and also became editor of Language. Language contact has occupied most of my research time since then, but my first encounter with Séliš-Ql’ispé (a.k.a. Montana Salish), in 1981, led to a 40-year dedication to finding out more about the language and its history.

Some excerpts:

I was born in late 1939 in Evanston, Illinois, on the northern outskirts of Chicago, and I grew up 20 miles farther north, in Highland Park. English was the only language taught at my elementary school, but in high school I discovered the joy of learning languages, taking three years each of Latin and French. In college (Stanford University, class of 1961) I took German, Russian, and Ancient Greek. But the animal kingdom was my enduring passion, so my first choice of a college major was biology. I had to give up on that plan: A toxic high-school chemistry teacher had left me with a powerful aversion to chemistry, which was required for biology majors. And fear of math (justified in my case) ruled out a geology major, my second choice. I settled for German, an undemanding major that left me plenty of time for elective courses in exciting topics like evolution, invertebrate paleontology, comparative vertebrate anatomy, and plant ecology. […]

I enjoyed studying languages, so I eventually found my way to three (the only three) linguistics courses offered at Stanford at the time. One was history of English, taught by Herbert Dean Meritt; I no longer remember any details about the course, but I do remember that one spectacular lecture earned Mr. Meritt a standing ovation—a demonstration that was as unheard-of then as it is now. The second linguistics course, taught by a Mr. Meadows, consisted mainly of the professor’s tales of his brilliant dog and rants about the university’s offensive parking policies, punctuated occasionally by denunciations of his colleagues in Romance languages. We learned almost nothing about linguistics that term, and much too much about Mr. Meadows. The third linguistics course was taught by a prominent Slavic linguist, Cornelis Hendrik van Schooneveld, who had been a student of Roman Jakobson’s and was developing some of Jakobson’s ideas further in his own semantic framework. I remember two things about that course: First, it made linguistics exciting; and second, I failed to understand most of what Professor van Schooneveld told us, including Jakobson’s famous “case cube” depiction of the Russian case system. (All these years later, I still don’t understand Jakobson’s case cube. My fault, not Professor van Schooneveld’s.) […]

Meanwhile, my Woodrow Wilson Fellowship had been reawarded. Being ignorant and with no one to advise me, and wishing to be within easy traveling distance of my sister and her family, I wrote to several East Coast universities more or less at random: “Do you have a linguistics department? If so, do you admit women?” (This was in 1962, so although both questions were dumb, the second one wasn’t necessarily irrelevant.) I ended up at Yale. This was a good thing, because I realized early on that my main interest was historical linguistics, which at that time mostly meant Indo-European linguistics—it was essential training for any budding historical linguist, although by then first-rate historical work had been done on other language families too. Yale was an excellent place to study Indo-European linguistics in the early 1960s. Bernard Bloch taught the introductory historical linguistics course, and then there were comparative grammar of Latin and Greek (actually an introduction to Indo-European linguistics, taught by Warren Cowgill), two yearlong Sanskrit courses taught by Paul Tedesco and Stanley Insler, Old Irish (Cowgill), Lithuanian (Cowgill), and Old Church Slavic (Michael Samilov). […]

Then came the years at Yale as a Slavic linguist. By 1971 Rich had been promoted to Associate Professor with tenure. When my tenuous position at Yale vanished that year, we started job-hunting. Or rather, he put out the word that he wanted to move, and when philosophy departments showed an interest in hiring him, he’d mention that his wife also needed a job. Since said wife was several years beyond the PhD and still with no publications, our potential employers were understandably unenthusiastic. Possibly some of their lack of enthusiasm stemmed from the fact that the chair of Yale’s Slavic department, who had also been my dissertation advisor and was therefore the most obvious person to ask for recommendation letters, was outraged that Rich was planning to leave his tenured position at Yale just because I had no job; he assured me that I could stay at Yale and use the library and maybe in five or ten years they’d find another course for me to teach. He was so outraged that—as his secretary, shuddering at her breach of confidentiality, eventually warned me—he was writing negative letters about me.

Pitt was the exception to our asymmetrical job search. Its philosophy department was eager to hire Rich, and its linguistics department was happy to welcome me back. We moved to Pittsburgh in 1972, and that’s where my research career finally began. I had a few original ideas, and in the 1970s I published several papers on analogic changes in systems of noun declension in Serbo-Croatian and other Slavic languages (e.g., Thomason 1976a,b, 1977). But that was the end of the Slavic phase of my career, and of my exclusive focus on Indo-European languages.

Several things conspired to make me look elsewhere. One motivator was my impression that the long-term research prospects for Indo-European linguistics might be somewhat limited: So much of what was being written around 1970 seemed to me to involve very small insights into very small changes. I didn’t find it exciting. This impression was profoundly mistaken, and I can’t justify it; but it’s true that most of the exciting developments in Indo-European linguistics since that period have been in syntax, and I was never going to be a syntactician. Other major advances in Indo-European have come from intensive studies of ancient languages that were still somewhat mysterious when I was a graduate student, among them Tocharian, Hittite and other Anatolian languages, and Continental Celtic. But in 1970 I didn’t foresee those developments either, so I stopped being a specialist in Slavic linguistics. My slightly jaundiced view of the field no doubt owed something to my less than delightful experiences as a marginal member of Yale’s Slavic department. […]

Approaching the subject 20 years after the original publication of Weinreich’s book, Terry [Kaufman] and I had the benefit of a large body of newly available research on contact-induced language change, and we also took a deeper dive into pidgins and creoles than Weinreich had done. Using our 41-page Hawaii conference paper as an extended outline, we expanded it over the next decade into a 400-page book, Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics (Thomason & Kaufman 1988; the book was “in press” for three years because the original copyeditor first wrought havoc with our prose and then quit her job without correcting any of the astonishingly large number of mistakes she’d made). […]

One similarity between fieldwork in Yugoslavia and in St. Ignatius is that it would not have been appropriate in either situation for me to try to speak the language I was investigating. In Yugoslavia, Standard Serbo-Croatian was the only dialect I knew, and it was the only dialect that a foreigner like me was expected to speak. If I had tried to imitate villagers’ nonstandard dialect speech, it would probably have struck them as mockery, not solidarity. In St. Ignatius, because the elders had spoken their language [Séliš-Ql’ispé] only to each other for decades, it was in effect an in-group language, and an outsider’s effort to speak it would have seemed presumptuous. When I had learned enough of the language to understand some of the jokes they made around the table, and laughed out loud at one joke, it made them uncomfortable. We’d better be careful what we say, they said. So I stopped doing that. […]

Administrative and other professional service activities have taken up an immense amount of my time over the years, but they needn’t take up more than a few sentences of this retrospective. No one asked me to do any service activities at Yale. I was never even allowed, much less required, to attend a Slavic department faculty meeting, because the faculty meetings were held in Mory’s, a private club that did not permit women on its premises. At Pitt I served on the usual sorts of committees until 1987, when I was nominated for the editorship of Language, the flagship (and until recently the only) journal of the LSA. The search committee selected me, and in 1988 I became the journal’s fourth editor. One of my three predecessors in that position was Bernard Bloch, my revered graduate-school teacher, who edited the journal from 1940 until his death in 1965. With the transition from his successor to me, the LSA decided to change the editor’s term of office from an indefinite duration to a seven-year appointment, and I decided I could handle the workload for that length of time.

That’s just a sample; if you enjoyed it, I recommend you read the whole thing. As you can see, she pulls no punches, and I wish I’d been able to read something like that when I was trying to figure out what a career in linguistics might be like. (Sadly, she underplays the sexism that was rampant in the ’70s when I was at Yale and taking some of the same classes with some of the same scholars; I could tell you stories that would curl your hair.) Thanks, Y!


  1. “the faculty meetings were held in Mory’s, a private club that did not permit women on its premises.”

    Wow. The 70s really was a different world, huh?

  2. It really was. The history of Mory’s and women:

    In response to coeducation, the Board of Governors added the word “male” to the membership requirements. Women were allowed in only as guests, only at dinnertime, and only via the back stairs to private rooms. Finally realizing the impact of Mory’s on the Yale community (the restaurant played host to men-only faculty meetings, dinners with visiting speakers, and even law firm recruitment parties), President Brewster declared that official university business no longer be held at Mory’s. Departments took sides, some championing the motto: “Keep Mory’s Mory’s.”

    Finally, in April of 1974, after three years of a stripped liquor license and ruinous legal fees, Mory’s accepted all 160 membership applications, 80 of them female.

  3. Mory’s is mentioned in “The Whiffenpoof Song”, a very odd song which apparently once was famous,. and in F Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise”. It represents a very bygone era, approximately the time of my grandparents, and I’m 75.

    CORRECTION: Not in Fitzgerald. But I remember it from some novel of the era, probably “Stover at Yale” or “Frank Merriwell at Yale. ”

    “To the tables down at Mory’s
    To the place where Louie dwells
    To the dear old Temple bar we love so well
    Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled with their glasses raised on high
    And the magic of their singing casts it’s spell
    Yes, the magic of their singing of the songs we love so well
    “Shall I Wasting” and “Mavourneen” and the rest
    We will serenade our Louie while life and voice shall last
    Then we’ll pass and be forgotten with the rest
    We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way
    Baa, baa, baa
    We’re little black sheep who have gone astray
    Baa, baa, baa
    Gentleman songsters off on a spree
    Doomed from here to eternity
    Lord have mercy on such as we
    Baa, baa, baa”

  4. John Emerson says

    A 113 year tradition. ” As recently as November 20, 2016 the group voted against admitting women”

  5. It represents a very bygone era

    What does? Mory’s is still there and still famous, as is the song (at least to anyone with any connection to Yale).

  6. @John Emerson: I don’t know anything about the Whiffenpoofs, but when I was a student, I encountered some all-male choral groups that were single sex mostly because of sexism, and others where it seemed to be a genuine artistic decision. Moreover, it generally didn’t seem that hard to tell which was which. Groups of the latter type were much more inclined to feature female guest soloists when that made sense, and some of them were partnered with all-female choruses they performed alongside regularly.

  7. John Emerson says

    I’ve read many times that it’s a famous song, but I don’t remember ever hearing it or even hearing it mentioned as a song they’d heard, but only on historical contexts. I think it’s a purely Yale thing.

    Almost in the “famous for being famous” class.

    Google informed me that Bing Crosbyand Fred Waring did the song, but they’re pretty bygone too.

  8. I knew the song only through Tom Lehrer’s parody:

  9. When I was a postdoc in the mid-1980s, the name of Hanna Gray, president of the University of Chicago, came up somehow in conversation. One of my fellow postdocs, who like me was 30ish, goggled and said incredulously, ‘the president of the University of Chicago is a woman?’

    At that time I also heard the opinion, more than once, that if you were a woman with a PhD in physics it was easy to get a tenure-track position because departments were all eager to show that they were keeping up with the times. The male PhDs were thus being discriminated against, poor souls.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    To the tables down at Mory’s (wherever that may be) …

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    July, 1969. Man walks on the Moon.
    September 1969: Yale opens its doors to the first female undergraduates.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    Yale is now in the final weeks of the 53rd academic year with female undergraduates yet Woman has still not walked on the Moon. Before going to U of C, FWIW, Hanna Holborn Gray was “Acting President” of Yale during an interregnum in 1977-78. Yale has yet to have a non-“acting” female president. Mory’s has gone through various changes and transformations in recent decades, which have helped the institution survive but along the way they gratuitiously IMHO changed the Baker Soup recipe and the new version is not as tasty as the old was. Plus they no longer have Bass Ale on tap.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Private universities were a mistake to begin with.

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    It is hard to imagine jwb in a world without private universities…although such a world might not necessarily provide him with his cherished hope of seeing Woman on the Moon😊

  15. A toxic high-school chemistry teacher had left me with a powerful aversion to chemistry,

    Ditto. What is it with Chemistry teachers?

    Combined with an ineffectual Physics teacher, and a Maths teacher eager only for his impending retirement, I naturally gravitated away from Science — to Economics. The Economics teacher knew nothing about the subject, but strewth he could challenge you with hard questions — I was at second-year Undergraduate level by the time I left school.

    (Thanks @Lameen for the Lehrer: hilarious! Ouch! with the razor blade.)

  16. The opposite here. The chem teacher in my school was a fun guy who loved chemistry. He had a steel clamp in place of one hand because of an extracurricular HS chemistry experiment involving blowing things up.

    He inspired one guy to go on the be a chemist and he’s in the industrial chemist’s hall of fame or something like that.

    My son’s chem teacher was an asshole, though.

  17. Thanks @Lameen for the Lehrer: hilarious!

    Seconded — I hadn’t been familiar with that one. Six parts gin to one part vermouth!

  18. John Cowan says

    My chemistry teacher was a bit of a bumbler verbally (according to legend, he once began a class with “For those of you who have forgotten — and for those of you who don’t remember”), but there was nothing wrong with his chemistry. He once asked me to spend time (I had lots of that, as he rarely taught anything I didn’t already know) comparing a list of all the things the lab was supposed to have vs. what they actually had, and then looking in a catalog provided by our supplier to find the prices and produce a list. (Of course this would be easier in the Age of Pervasive Computers, but not quite trivial.)

    All was well until I came to the technical-grade benzoyl peroxide, which the supplier had flagged as “May require municipal license to purchase”. I pointed this out to the teacher, and asked whether I should inquire at City Hall. “No, no,” he said. “Leave it out.” (It’s stabilized hydrogen peroxide and an exfoliant: in small doses it is used as an acne remedy.)

  19. Sanskrit courses taught by Paul Tedesco

    What is the difference between Tedesco and Tedeschi as surnames as opposed to common Italian nouns?
    Surnames such as Horvath, Nemeth, Virolainen, etc are pretty common, but they are (usually?) in the singular. So why the plural?
    Speaking of Sanskrit scholars, I’m reminded of Серге́й Серге́евич Тавастше́рна.
    There is no English Wiki for Тавастшерна:

    Тавастше́рна — фамилия (Tawaststjerna).

    Дворянский финско-шведский род, основанный Эриком Тавастом, происходящим из ветви семьи Таваст (Tawast), проживающей в области города Турку (Åbo). 10 февраля 1687 Эрик Таваст в Стокгольмском замке получил фамилию Тавастшерна от Карла XI. Официальный статус фамилия получила в 1689 году и зарегистрирована в Рыцарском доме Швеции под номером 1107. В Финляндии фамилия зарегистрирована в 1818 году под № 81.

    Фамилия в разных поколениях имеет тесные родственные связи с домами Sursill, Tawast, Ruuth, von Fieandt, Mannerheim, Иконниковы-Галицкие и другими аристократическими семьями Европы.

    Представители фамилии получили известность в живописи, музыке, литературе, архитектуре, инженерном деле. Потомки Якоба Понтуса Тавастшерна (сына Эрика Тавастшерна) оказали влияние на ход мировой истории и культуры. Среди них — Тавастшерна Эрик Вернер (музыкант), Тавастшерна Карл Август (писатель), Карл Густав Маннергейм (политический деятель), Тавастшерна Карл Аларик.

    I knew about Tavastland/Häme and Tavastehus/Hämeenlinna, both in Finland, but have no idea what Tavast means or where it comes from.

  20. My high school chemistry teacher was a formidable woman who switched her career to teaching from being a police leutenant. When angry, she used to call any random girl Matilda and when disapproving of someone’s behavior remarked “You are such a happy boy/girl” (the exact word was жизнерадостный). I have no doubt she would have entered a burning house to save a life (if anyone here remebers Nekrasov) and maybe she did. And yes, she was Jewish. And despite of all that, I didn’t like chemistry. There is no cure for stupid.

  21. Tedeschi: there are plenty of examples of Italian surnames in -i looking like masculine plurals. I have seen the theory that these are actually relics of Latin genitive singulars (acting as patronymics) – does anyone know for sure?

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    This site gives two reasons:
    (1) uso alternante del singolare (Macchiavello, Orsino, Mazzolino) o del plurale per ragioni di varia natura fra le quali l’uso del genitivo patronimico;
    (2)caduta delle particelle prepositive ‘di’, ‘de’, ‘dei’ (degli Uberti, degli Orsini)
    I would say the second reason seems more likely (but maybe some people assigning the cognome were more literate in Latin and followed a “Latin convention”).

  23. I entered college as a chemistry major, in accordance with what everyone expected of me, but graduated as an English major. The chemistry department was much better endowed than others and relentlessly career-oriented, in accordance with a region where Coal was King and Chemical Engineering was Queen Consort, and I felt much better treated as a person in the humanities departments. Besides, I’d been very poorly prepared in high-school chemistry and physics by a green teacher who was very personable but who, I now realize, must have known very little about the subjects she was assigned to teach.

  24. I had a terrific chemistry teacher and a barely competent physics teacher – he was a researcher who’d taken early retirement, so he knew physics but didn’t have a clue how to teach it.

    Nonetheless, I couldn’t get excited about chemistry and found physics far more intriguing, so it became my undergraduate focus. The moral of the story is, um, left to the reader.

  25. My high school chemistry and physics teachers were both very personable, but they taught far less actual science than they were supposed to on their courses. The also seemed to have forgotten an awful lot of the more advanced material. The similarly was not a coincidence. The chemistry teacher was the head of the science department, and he hired some people who were in the same vein as himself. (Most of the science teachers who had been at the school longer, some since it has opened in 1976, were much more on the ball.) That the hiring was mostly handled by the department heads, rather than the principal, and that the physics teacher was clueless, are both illustrated by a single anecdote: After he arrived, it took the new physics teacher more than five months to realize that the principal was not Mr. Pickens, who he had interviewed with a year and a half earlier, but was an entirely different individual named Gil James.

  26. And here are my earlier remarks about how my friend Jeff* and I both started college planning to major in chemistry, but although we earned seven MIT degrees between us, none ended up being in chemistry (not even as a minor).

    * When talking to me, a professor once tried to distinguish between the two Jeff’s in the class by referring to them as “your friend Jeff” and “the other Jeff.” I knew which one he meant by each phrase, but I felt obligated to point out thar they were actually both friends of mine; in fact, the “other Jeff” had been my roommate for a while.

  27. Lars Mathiesen says

    I often find myself unable to remember things that I know that I know, but I will claim that if I have actually forgotten them, I no longer know them (and I typically don’t remember knowing them).

    Also there are lots of women who can sing the tenor parts in barbershop, for instance; for a few years I was part of a quartet with one female and two males and me who all thought barbershop was fun to sing, never mind what actual barbers might think of the idea. But apart from that, I have never encountered choral arrangements that were not explicitly gendered. In cases of tenor Vorfall the director may ask an alto or two to help out the remaining member of the group during practice, but it’s clearly not how it’s supposed to sound. (There is a clear difference in timbre between the second alto range and the tenor range which overlap by almost an octave–if the composer wants a deep alto line they put one in and we do get arrangements like that).

    (I was also for a very short time a probationer in a very hard-core barbershop-style choir, but the culture was pretty toxic even between the male members so I ran away screaming and never got my patch. I assume any sensible female would have done the same, but they probably didn’t want any in the first place).

    I don’t know what theories non-practitioners may have about what gender equality should mean for choirs, though.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    Curious that it’s alto and soprano. Presumably there is some understood masculine noun (obviously not voce, which would have seemed the obvious candidate.) Or is it just default sexism?

  29. Etymology: < Italian alto a high voice in polyphonic music (1580), use as noun of alto (adjective) high (13th cent.; < classical Latin altus high: see altus n.), after post-classical Latin altus alto voice (see altus n.).

    And s.v. altus, n. and adj.:

    Etymology: < post-classical Latin altus high voice (15th cent.), use as noun (short for contratenor altus high counter-tenor (15th cent.); compare contratenor n., counter-tenor n.) of masculine of classical Latin altus high < the same Indo-European base as old adj.

    Music. historical in later use.
    A. n.

    A term for the second highest voice in four-part polyphony, originally occupying a range below the superius (superius n.), and overlapping with the tenor, but later becoming distinct from the latter (see alto n.² 3). Also: a line or part for this voice in polyphonic music (cf. alto n.² 1).
    Up to the 14th cent. polyphonic music was composed for three voices, usually designated superius (cantus), tenor, and contratenor. In the 15th cent. a fourth voice was introduced, with the contratenor being divided into contratenor bassus (hence bass) and contratenor altus (hence altus and counter-tenor).

    1597 T. Morley Plaine & Easie Introd. Musicke 128 Now must your Altus or Tenor (because sometime the Tenor is aboue the Altus) ascend to the sixth or thirteenth.
    1609 J. Dowland tr. A. Ornithoparchus Micrologus 86 The Base requires a third below, and the Altus [L. altus] the same aboue.
    a1658 J. Cleveland Clievelandi Vindiciæ (1677) 163 A Deep Base that must reach as low as Hell to describe the Passion, and thence rebound to a joyful Altus, the high-strain of the Resurrection.
    1929 Jrnl. Folk-song Soc. 8 157 The Carlisle part-books containing the Altus and Bassus of the song have an almost romantic history.
    1991 J. Caldwell Oxf. Hist. Eng. Music I. vii. 429 One would hardly want to sing..the altus, or even the cantus, with the bass viol alone.

  30. Lars Mathiesen says

    Also we had one young transgender person trying out for with the choir for a few weeks, but they didn’t stay and I don’t know exactly why. Their gender expression wasn’t very clear and this was before the lockdown, so by now I don’t remember if they were male or female or what voice group they were assigned to, except that it wasn’t the second basses–possibly that was the problem, their voice wasn’t right (yet) for what they were.

  31. Lars Mathiesen says

    Default sexism in that only men could be professional singers (or in the service of the church) when the names of the parts in four part harmony were fixed. I assume the ranges were redefined when women were allowed to perform, though, because only a few men can sing a modern soprano part and that used to be the name of the descant line in mediaeval sacred music performed by males only. Or maybe it’s just because concert pitch rose.

  32. my highschool chemistry teacher was lovely but very wet behind the ears (couldn’t’ve been more than a year or two out of college), and i think rather intimidated by my pyromaniacal lab group (we were typical undisciplined fast-learners).

    my physics teacher was much more experienced and knowledgeable, but would occasionally lapse into french or german while working things out on the blackboard (english was at best his fourth language – he came to the states from iran in the 70s, when the shah started disappearing his students, but had trained in europe). the french was not a problem – we had a native-speaker student to translate – but the german did pose a problem.

    no moral here either; i haven’t pursued either in any systematic way.

  33. John Emerson says

    The daughter of a good friend has just decided to go to UC Berkeley to major in chemistry. I do not plan to suggest that she read this thread.

  34. @rozele: One thing that I find interesting about the cyclically recurring hubbub over Iran’s nascent nuclear program is that even under the Shah, the Iranian government specifically encouraged young Iranians to study nuclear and particle physics. Of course, there were Iranian biologists, and chemists, oceanographers, and mathematicians, but except possibly for geology (which was obviously very important economically), the other sciences were never emphasized the way experimental physics was. The state of Iran has a long history of supporting physics at its national universities and helping promising students to study physics outside the country.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    In the English sacred-choral-music tradition, when pieces in four-or-five-part harmony are sung by a choir of men and boys rather than a mixed-sex adult choir, the top two parts sung by the boys are often designated as “treble” (= soprano) and “mean” (= alto) probably at least in part because soprano and alto are typically understood in a vocal context as marked-as-female words by Anglophones not overly focused on what the final vowel might connote genderwise in Italian. Boys’ voices have a somewhat different quality (timbre?) than adult women’s voices even in the same pitch range, although I understand there have been efforts in some places in recent decades to integrate such choirs by mixing girls in with boys on the treble and mean parts.

  36. English cathedrals definitely have boy trebles (nowadays often alternating with a separate group of girl sopranos – often slightly older – who take turns in performing with the adult male singers, but that is an innovation). But in my experience the alto part is usually done by adult men, traditionally just ‘male alto’ but ‘countertenor’ is possible these days (and is preferred by soloists). Alto is the default name for the voice part but you can say ‘contralto’ to emphasize a female alto voice. And in my experience of singing all the voice parts in sequence I have been treble, alto, tenor and bass but never ‘mean’ (at least not a singer – my moral qualities are a different issue). I am vaguely aware of ‘mean’ as a voice but it reminds me mostly of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale (Act 4, Scene 3): “She hath made me four-and-twenty nosegays for the shearers, three-man song-men all, and very good ones; but they are most of them _means_ and _basses_, but one puritan amongst them, and he sings psalms to hornpipes” Here one is supposed to read both something like ‘altos and basses’ (don’t ask what happened to the tenors) and ‘mean and base people’

  37. Surely “treble” as a term descends from medieval “triplum” for the third, higher descant voice in a motet or other three-part polyphony? Um, yeah, confirmed.

    I happen to sing in a tradition that retains this term for its top line, the others being alto, tenor, and bass; the tenor line (like its medieval ancestor) is the tune and is sometimes called “lead.” Both the tenor and treble lines are customarily doubled in high and low octaves, men and women singing both.

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