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  • Eva Spier

He Cut That Cake With a Knife

What happened to Columbia’s linguistics department?

By Eva Spier

Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner

The Columbia University linguistics major is a transplanted organ of sorts, currently embedded within the Department of Slavic Languages. This detail, its position within another department, is indicative of a period of absence. The last time it stood independently was in 1981, and its lively assembly produced the Columbia School of Linguistics, a renegade linguistic theory founded by the late William Diver. The department was small, as linguistics departments often are, but its students were eager and professors fervent. However, this all changed in 1981 when Columbia’s administration abruptly decided to suspend the department. During my attempt to understand the current iteration of linguistics at Columbia, I discovered that its predecessor was much like a snow globe: internally oriented, enchanting, and—unfortunately—very delicate. 

The former department was organized by three senior faculty members: William Diver, GSAS ’53, Robert Austerlitz, GSAS ’55, and Marvin Herzog, GSAS ’64. Students were divided into separate streams to be advised by one of the three. They all antedated and consequently clashed with Chomsky’s revolution, the swift mainstream trajectory of generative linguistics, but their similarities ended there. Diver was concerned with language as a form of human behavior, Austerlitz dealt with Uralic and Altaic languages, and Herzog with Yiddish language mapping. These diverse interests pushed the scholarly norms of their time. In the late 1950s, Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures was the shiny new toy that every linguist wanted to play with. His school of thought was quickly adopted by universities around the U.S. and soon became the predominant method of studying language. Chomsky proposed that language was the expression of innate grammatical structure in the human mind and that when language expresses irregularity, it is mere deviation from a true framework. For many linguists, the prospect of language exhibiting some kind of universal subconscious was a giddying one. 

“If you were a graduate student, Chomsky’s way of doing linguistics was pretty much the only respectable thing to do,” reflected Joseph Davis, GSAS ’92, a linguistics professor at City College of New York and William Diver’s last student. Davis warmly agreed to detail the department’s waning days. “In 1982, Chomsky’s monopoly on linguistics was so great that I was literally warned against studying with Diver at other places,” Davis remarked in a small office overlooking the campus’s blazing trees and stone towers. He paused, amused: “They said, ‘Oh we’ve heard of him. Watch out!’” 

Diver, a seasoned linguist at that point in his career, was not convinced by Chomsky’s newfound popularity. “In fact,” Davis smiled, “Diver was editor of the journal Word at the time [...] he actually rejected some papers by Chomsky, because he found that they didn’t make any sense.” 

Whereas Chomsky believed that language could be categorized by appealing to syntax, the structure of sentences, Diver was far more interested in semantics, how sentences express meaning. This might seem natural today, but at the time it was considered to be a controversial stance. Take the sentence: “He cut the cake with his wife.” Now, consider: “He cut the cake with a knife.” The meaning of the word “with” has shifted from conveying cooperation to conveying an instrument. Finally, consider: “He cut the cake with a smile.” The word has shifted once more to signify accompaniment. Alan Huffman, GSAS ’85, another one of Diver’s students insisted, “It is the shift from ‘knife’ to ‘bride’, not the putative polysemy of with that effects the change in message.” In other words, communicative intent shapes the speech pattern, not a coexistence of meanings in the word with. Diver found inconsistencies in syntactic categorisations of language like this one, and condemned their dismissal as fluctuations of the language. These aren’t quirks in the language, they are the language.

The department’s intellectual independence drew in students who were disillusioned with their former education in linguistics. Anthropological linguist Ellen Contini-Morava, GSAS ’83, completed her doctorate under Diver’s advisory. She explained to me that Chomsky’s “idea of creativity was ‘I can create an infinitely long sentence by adding more and more parts.’ That didn’t seem like creativity to me.” When she took Columbia’s field methods course, the class learned the structure of Cambodian just by conversing with a native speaker. “That was so exciting to me. It was just so interesting to think about language that way,” she said. Davis echoed a similar excitement. He discovered linguistics in his final year of college, but only began to resonate with the discipline during his search for a graduate program, when he found himself talking to Diver for two hours despite not formally being his student. My conversations with Diver’s students led me to believe that these absorbing moments were the most remarkable part of the department. 

Davis spoke of Diver favorably, telling me that there were often long pauses in his lessons. Diver conducted himself seriously and thoughtfully, letting his students sit quietly for long minutes if his lesson so provoked it. This contemplation proved fruitful as students’ curiosity flourished beyond class time within Diver’s informal evening seminars. Diver worked on his theory privately, so it took one of his students, Flora Klein, GSAS ’72, to propose the idea. According to Davis, she stopped him in the hall in 1968 and asked, “Professor Diver, I hear you’re doing some really interesting stuff. Would you tell us students about it? Can we talk about it?” The meetings originated as a way for Diver to communicate his work to the students, but soon students began presenting their own research to the group. These seminars often ran over three hours long, after which the students would relocate to a pizza place on Broadway and animatedly continue their discussions late into the night. 

Students were invited to these Thursday evening seminars by Argentinian Assistant Professor Erica García, GSAS ’64, the catalyst of the department’s shift. García was fiery, charismatic, and outspoken—a legend. What made the most resounding impression on everyone I spoke with was her sheer intelligence. Davis recalls declarations from his peers: “‘She had a mind like a steel trap!’” In a similarly favorable manner, Contini-Morava remembers being intrigued by García’s teaching, “She went through all of these theories and trashed them all. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what does she believe in?’” Finally, towards the end of the semester, García mentioned, “‘Well, if you want to know what I really think, then come to this seminar!’”

In a series of recorded lectures García gave at the University of San Juan in 1994, her charisma is palpable through the screen. Donning a white button down, grinning slyly at her students, she introduces herself by recalling a Russian myth of a fox and a hedgehog. The fox knows how to do many things, whereas the hedgehog only knows how to do one, but well. “I think, over the years, I am a hedgehog,” she says. “This is a way of, let’s say, glorifying ineptitude. I am a very limited person, I have very limited interests and ideas, and I try to sell them as if I were a hedgehog.”

The next logical step for García was to apply for tenure, and so she did. But, of the three senior faculty, only Diver supported her incorporation. She was not hired for the position, a decision which students protested furiously. Davis remembered hearing that García’s rejection “was damning.” Contini-Morava and other graduate students became angry. “Our feeling was that the reason they didn’t accept her was that she was a woman who spoke her mind.” She continued thoughtfully: “She was abrasive, and they didn’t want to have her as a permanent colleague. And I think her abrasiveness might have been excused if she was a man.”  This marked the first fissure in the blossoming department.

When García was denied tenure, it signaled to the administration that the department wasn’t hiring any new professors. In what followed, this stagnance added onto two other problems. First, the department wasn’t drawing in as many students as they would have liked, and second, the Columbia School of Linguistics sharply conflicted with schools of thought across the rest of the country. For the administration, the department seemed to be at a dead end. In a student interview from 1989, Diver expressed frustration at the idea of the University eliminating a department it didn’t fully understand: “People outside the field are not in a position to judge us.” The Executive Committee admitted two months later that they had “not consulted any outside linguistics experts for an objective evaluation of Columbia’s department.” With the information they had in 1981, the administration decided to suspend the department, leading García, as well as most of the senior faculty, to relocate to other universities. Students remember the department’s closing days as tense, but cordial. The administration continued to meet with the shrinking division, while its professors and students found safe passage to neighboring linguistics programs. 

Professors are denied tenure all the time, and departments remain intact. The fact that García’s rejection had the impact it did reveals that there were already underlying tensions within the department. Gillian Lindt, GSAS ’65, then Dean of GSAS, contended in 1989 that the professors’ specializations fragmented the linguistics department into separate streams, but Diver contested that specialization in small departments appears as fragmentation more than it would in a department with more professors. Departments may be formalized by blackboard-fronted lecture halls and neat curricula, but professors are the heart of every department. And professors cannot be standardized, not their lectures nor their characters. The linguistics department was run by real people, and therefore susceptible to personal disputes and differences in opinion. These aspects are characteristic of any healthy department, yet this one was penalized due to lack of relevant protocol.

The University’s decision exhibits its astounding capacity to function as a business rather than as a place of higher education. Had a disagreement of the same nature occurred in the physics or political science departments, the administration would likely not have disbanded them so hastily. Fiscally, it tracks that when budgets shrink, the departments making the least amount of money should be cut. But is Columbia not first an organization endowed with the responsibility of preserving the liberal arts before it is a fiscal enterprise? The fate of the linguistics department foreshadows the attitude, persistent today, that anything other than a pre-professional subject is a mere embellishment in the world. According to this attitude, theoretical subjects, at their worst, distract from pre-professional ones, and at their best, supplement them. If this sentiment continues to take root, universities risk abandoning academia altogether while manufacturing employability with the efficiency of a fast food restaurant.

But worthwhile causes have a funny way of resurfacing. The Columbia School of Linguistics lives on, as if the department branched off and continued independently, including the seminars where members regularly present their work. Students continue to show interest in the field; today’s “Introduction to Linguistics” taught by John McWhorter exposes nearly 300 students to the subject annually. He confesses his love for the subject in The Language Hoax, where he writes: “If you want to learn about how humans differ, study cultures. However, if you want insight as to what makes all humans worldwide the same, beyond genetics, there are few better places to start than how language works.” 

Diver’s school of linguistics calls out instances where the natural order of language looks disrupted, refusing to simply dismiss it as clutter. It is similarly important that we call attention to and carefully examine the disruptive history of the linguistics department at Columbia lest we dismiss it as clutter. 

García told her students in a University of San Juan lecture, “Don’t ever forget, the text never makes a mistake, the text is always right.” The suspension of the linguistics department in 1981 is not simply a deviation in human behavior we can dismiss, it is an important indicator of how departments live and die. Garcia finished, “and when [the text] gives us bad results, then it is us who didn’t know how to interrogate.” 


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The linguistics department's troubled past must also be highlighted and studied thoroughly.

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