I didn’t post about the passing of Studs Terkel, one of my few remaining heroes, because it didn’t seem to have any relation to the ambit of LH, but I am pleased to find, via Arnold Zwicky at the Log, that I am wrong: his writings were a great resource for linguists.

Studs Terkel, who died recently, at the age of 96, had a special place in the hearts of some linguists — those who were studying the syntax (and accompanying pragmatics) of colloquial Englsh, back in the old days, before very large corpora and automated search techniques were easily available.
There were essentially two says to investigate colloquial language non-anecdotally: collect your own corpora… or use other people’s corpora, collected for other purposes… Collecting your own corpora is hard work… Piggy-backing on other people’s corpora hugely simplifies the task.
That’s where Studs Terkel comes in. He spent decades interviewing (mostly) ordinary people and publishing the conversations, and he was fantastic at establishing a rapport with the folks he interviewed. The result was a body of corpora that’s a goldmine of data for (some) linguists, from Division Street (1966) on….
In the old days, you still had to search through the texts by hand, mark all the relevant examples, code them, put them on index cards (so that they could later be sorted and counted on your living-room floor, or its equivalent); it helps a lot if the stuff you’re reading actually has some interest for you. … Studs’s books were a big help.

So thanks, Studs, not only for being a mensch and giving public voice to the hitherto voiceless, but for helping linguists do their work. You’ll be missed by even more people than I realized.


  1. Doug Sundseth says

    Being sensitized (perhaps) by yesterday’s discussion of Latin phrases in English, I noticed a curious bit in Zwicky’s article:
    “The result was a body of corpora….”
    Shouldn’t that have been “… a corpus of bodies …”?

  2. A.J.P. Crown says

    I noticed that too. I think he must have thought it was amusing. I thought it was a bit tasteless.

  3. I believe “corpora” has a specialized meaning in the liguistics world:

  4. Actually, what do you mean that Studs was ‘one of my few remaining heroes’, Language? Do you mean your heroes are all dying off, or are you just bummed out by the whole human race these days? Either way, I’m sure we could come with a few suggestions for new heroes.

  5. Zwicky complained about the problem with Terkel’s books being that you didn’t know what had already been edited out. I wonder if his original tapes still exist?

  6. Do you mean your heroes are all dying off
    Basically, and I’m too crabbed and cynical now to acquire new ones.

  7. “Do you mean your heroes are all dying off
    Basically, and I’m too crabbed and cynical now to acquire new ones.”
    What’s your position on being on someone else’s list of heroes? I suspect some of us commenters would rank you there. 🙂 🙂

  8. marie-lucie says

    “A body of corpora” sounds all right to me (but I am a linguist). It means that Terkel’s work did not result in a single giant corpus (putting everything he had collected together as one text) but a number of text collections (“texts” here referring to oral narratives). In this respect, each of his books could constitute a corpus: nobody is going to add extra sentences to the texts.
    As another example, the complete works of a literary author (or a set of works in a particular genre) can be taken as a corpus. A corpus is useful not only as a source of individual examples but as the object of statistical analyses which show the uses and meanings of particular words, or other features characteristic of a particular author. For instance, if someone wants to argue about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and to attribute them to another author, it is useful to compare features of the entire corpus of his plays to other works by Shakepeare, to works by the alternate author, and to a larger corpus of plays of the same period: here there would be “a body of corpora” from which to carry on the analyses.
    In the case of Terkel, the fact that his works are based on recordings of what people actually said to him makes his “corpora” of interest to sociolinguists as records of the speech of particular groups of people at a given time. Those recordes can be studied in themselves and also for comparison with similar recordings which could be done at the present time or again at a future time.

  9. marie-lucie says

    I support Gary’s nomination of LH as “hero”.

  10. Perhaps being larger than life is not so important as the capacity to make life larger.

  11. A.J.P. Crown says

    It’s true, Language. You’re on all of our lists. Hero of the Blogosphere.

  12. A.J.P. Crown says

    I wonder who your other heros were? Perhaps we can make it into a new game. Probably some jazz musicians. Maybe I.F.Stone, who started learning Greek when he was eighty, or whatever it was. Who else… Any suggestions?

  13. Yeah, I.F. Stone is on there.

  14. I.F. Stone…ah thank you for yet another interesting digression. In trying to find something written by Stone, I found a free download of “The best of I.F. Stone”
    His musings on the Middle East are still interesting–he was writing before and during the formation of the state of Israel–and of course the problems he points out have yet to be solved. I was even more interested to see Stone describe Maxime Rodinson as “a Jew”. Rodinson’s Muhammad, written around 1960, is a very useful biography of the Prophet, and there Rodinson describes himself as an “atheist” and also in a 2001 interview mentions he was a communist for 20 years.
    Mostly I was impressed with how clear and unaffected Stone’s writing is, and how he records impressions, not just facts. Every year about this time I think of NaNoWriMo, but have never gotten more than a few pages into the thing. It’s always interesting to see someone who not just enjoyed writing but was successful too, and try to figure out how they did it.

  15. A.J.P. Crown says

    Thelonious Monk? He liked hats.

  16. Yup, he’s another one.

  17. A.J.P. Crown says

    I’m not going to jeopardize my 100% record by suggesting any more. Expectations are high, it’s too scary.

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