This morning, rising with formless, benignant wonderings about my future and vague remembrances of my long-ago youth, I surprised myself with an abrupt focus on Prof. Joshua Whatmough (“WUTT-moe”).
I googled and found a perfect description of his terrifying and exhilarating classroom (in 1947) put up on a webpage by one of Whatmough’s former students, William Harris, Professor Emeritus, Middlebury College. Prof. Harris’ recollections lit up a room I hadn’t been in for many years.
In 1962, I, a Harvard sophomore on the way to a chemistry degree, inexplicably and cavalierly signed up for Linguistics 120 (Comparative and Historical Indo-European Languages). On the first day of class, nervous about prerequisites, I queried Prof. Whatmough about my obvious deficiencies. High school German had enabled me to satisfy Harvard’s foreign language requirement with a barely passing mark, but I had only intellectual passion—no background—in linguistics. Whatmough smiled, assured me that there were no prerequisites to enrolling and that I’d be fine in this introductory course, and directed me to a seat with a tilt of his head. He then described Ling 120 to the class: a broad overview of Indo-European languages, with attention to the philological development of language families, focus on cognates as an analytical tool, no assigned reading, no hour exam, no mid-term, no paper…just a final exam. It was rumored this was to be his last year of teaching, so the class was more than twice as large as in past years. I looked around as Whatmough began chalking the board. About 25 students, all older than I, were leaning into his lecture, taking notes, so I put my head down and did the same.
On the second day of class, Whatmough looked out over the class and asked, “A bronze helmet was found near Negau in Steiermark in 1811. What was its significance to the study of Old Germanic?”
It was, to me, a startling and unanswerable question: This was not a course in archaeology, and with no assigned reading or prerequisites, Prof. W could not expect anyone to know the answer.
Three hands went up.
Whatmough looked at his seating chart. “Herr Bollinger?” (Whatmough would often address students with an honorific or salutation from the language he was then dealing with.)
Herr Bollinger answered crisply, as if he had just dug the helmet up, “An inscription on the artifact, the so-called Helmet B, is thought by some to be the earliest example of Old Germanic.”
“Indeed,” Whatmough agreed. “And what is that inscription? Fräulein Carelli?”
“That depends, sir, upon which source you read.” Seeing Whatmough nod, Fräulein Carelli continued, the several sources obviously within her ken, “Mommsen transliterated it as… but Pauli believed that it was….” Carelli’s Old Germanic sounded convincing to me.
“Very good,” Whatmough acknowledged. “And how was this translated?”
“That again,” continued Carelli, “depends upon whom one reads.” She then offered two or three erudite translations that were so complete that Whatmough pursed his lips in appreciation and moved on to another subject.
It was at this point that I realized that I was in trouble. After class I asked Prof. Whatmough about my lack of preparation for what now seemed to be a very demanding course. I cited Helmet B as an example. He noted that Herr Bollinger and Fräulein Carelli were grad students in linguistics and were expected to know these things, and that these digressions were interesting, but not critical to doing well in Comparative and Historical Indo-European Languages. “You’ll be fine,” he said.
So I persevered.
After a couple of weeks, Whatmough’s pedagogical pattern was evident: he’d wobble into the room with his green book bag over a shoulder, his cheeks reddened and white hair fluffed by Cambridge weather, open his binder, glance at his notes, and ask a question. Often he would select someone at random. The questions were easy to answer because he ended each lecture with an emphatic pronouncement, and these introductory questions always directly referenced that previous conclusion.
Somewhere in early November, slogging through slush to get to Longfellow Hall, I arrived just a bit late and plopped down in my seat just as Prof. Whatmough asked his start-the-class question: “Mr. Cotler, what is the relationship between Illyrian and Albanian?”
I had neglected to look at my notes since the previous class, and in those few moments between the end of his query and my response, my life as a student of linguistics flashed before my eyes. I remembered that Prof. Whatmough had become dramatically agitated while discussing theories about a direct connection between Illyrian and Albanian and had finished up the previous hour with a fierce glaring, “I call them Illyriomaniacs!” His passion was unforgettable, but I had no memory of which side he’d been on. Could I clear my throat while casually opening my notebook and glancing at the last lecture? There was no time. I swallowed, lifted my eyes to meet his, flipped a mental coin, and stated loudly and clearly, “There is a direct linguistic relationship between Illyrian and Albanian.”
I was wrong. Stunningly wrong.
Whatmough’s mouth widened almost imperceptibly. The room was silent. It was as if I had slapped the old man.
The rest of the semester is a shadowy memory. I went to every class, took thorough (and, to my later review, incomprehensible) notes, and prepared for the final exam by reading papers written by Prof. Whatmough on topics that seemed relevant. I shortchanged my other courses.
The three-hour final exam was remarkably similar to the 1947-48 Comparative Philology 140 exam that Prof Harris cites in his “A Requiem for Philology” essay.
I distinctly remember that my exam began identically: “Answer question 1 and not more than three others.”
I could not even read question 1, which included words written in a character set that I had never seen before. I brightened a bit at question 2, which asked for a discussion of “matters of linguistic interest” regarding the comparison of the words for numbers in several different languages. I had memorized the words for one to ten in eight satem (the Sanskrit family) and centum (the Latin family) languages, including Gothic, Old Church Slavonic, and Lithuanian. That question took me 30 minutes to answer (not particularly well). I had two-and-one-half hours left. But the remainder of the test was incomprehensible. In silence, and overseen by vigilant proctors, I gnashed, cursed, and pitied myself for the hubris that drove me to take this course.
Fifteen minutes later, I took the path of pathos. I opened my nearly blank blue book and inscribed a note to Prof. Whatmough on the inside cover. Mercifully, I cannot recall my text, but it was a pitiable cry based upon the unjustifiable contention that Whatmough’s assurance that I’d be able to handle Ling 120 had led me to what was sure to be a failing grade. I begged for leniency.
Several weeks later, I was stunned to receive a C+. Only later did I learn that Whatmough, made soft by his last year of teaching, had given A’s to those who did the work, B’s to those who didn’t, and a C+ to the young lad who flunked.
Had I known this going in, I’d have listened better (and taken fewer incomprehensible notes) and would now remember more of the old man’s stories. He was a terrific teacher, a unique store of intellectual anecdote and opinion, and a charming homunculus.
I remember him saying on the last day that he intended to begin his retirement by going to the Yukon where he would learn Aleut. He was fluent in 8-22 languages depending on how he defined “fluent.”
“I have been told, however, that to travel effectively in those territories I shall be required to ride a donkey, and according to my sources, such transportation will undoubtedly result in my demise. I am convinced, however, that, given my indomitable spirit and fortitude, it will be the donkey that will die, not I.”
And with that, Prof. Joshua Whatmough smiled, walked out of my life, and fixed himself forever in my memory.
Many thanks to Prof. Harris for shining a light on this poignant reminiscence.