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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
"America's greatest etymologist has passed away, and Harvard has lost one of her most gifted and faithful sons." This tribute, paid to Professor Edward Stevens Sheldon '72, is one of many included in the minute on his life and services, which was placed upon the records of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the December meeting held recently in University Hall.
The article, written and signed by a committee consisting of Professors George F. Moore, George L. Kittredge '82, an Charles H. Grandgent '83, continues:
"Edward Stevens Sheldon, who died on October 16 of this year, devoted the greater part of his mature life to investigation of the sources of our English vocabulary, having change of that department in successive revision of Webster's Dictionary, now called the International. Into such study he carried that unusual blend of divination, balance, and minute discrimination which characterized both his linguistic research and his literary judgments. None was more original than he, none more rigidly selfenitical. Hence the enduring character of his achievement.
Spoke Five Languages
"An absolute necessity in his work is a comprehensive and accurate acquaintance with language. This he possessed to a high degree, having in his youth been trained in Romance, Germanic, and Ido-European Philology, and having been ever on the alert to increase his store. As far as modern tongues are concerned, his knowledge was not confined to books: he spoke German and French with admirable mastery, and was easily at home in Italian and Spanish. His English diction was a delight to his friends, who were always fond of hearing him read aloud.
"Love of human speech and expertness in it were both a cause and a result of his devotion to phonetics. Promptly he came under the influence of that brilliant English pioneer in linguistics, Henry Sweet, whose writings contributed much to the shaping of Sheldon's natural tendencies. In this fundamental silence America lagged far behind the countries of Europe. Sheldon, in his introduction of it at home, was an innovator and a leader in the renovation of philological thinking. He it was who first established a course in phonetics at Harvard; it was he who assembled the nucleons of a little phonetic laboratory.
Gave Valuable Instruction
"He it was also, who put on a stable and consistent basis the teaching of mediaeval things, linguistic and literary, that belong to Neo-Latin territory. He founded here the Department of Romance Philology, later absorbed in the new Department of Romance Languages.
"For decade after decade, he cheerfully offered priceless instruction which only a yearly handful of students could appreciate, until not so long before the end, the value of his subject came to be generally recognized. While his competence really covered the whole field, his more special interest lay in Old French, Anglo-Norman, and the French element in English. On the two latter subjects the learned world awaited from him definitive treatises which death forestalled.
"Sheldon's concern with living speech manifested itself in the foundation of the American Dialect Society, of which he was the first Secretary, later the President. As President of the Modern Language Association of America, in 1901, he advocated a broadening of the concept of Philology. His love of letters appears in his long devotion to the great poet of Italy; he was from early times a member, and for a while the President, of the Dante Society of Cambridge. The articles which he published from time to time dealt for the most part with elusive problems of language or literature, and always with the same intrepid precision. These publications won him high renown abroad and, by reflection, at home. A youthful product, 'A Short German Grammar'
"During many years he had to teach elementary German, as did nearly everyone who had recently conbac back from a German university. The elements of Italian he taught, also; in fact, until his last years an unconscionable proportion of his time was spent in imparting the rudiments of languages; and his working hours were longer than most people's. But his sturdy, sunny optimism never repined. More in accordance with his talents was a course in Middle High German which he had an opportunity to give before his complete shift to his favorite Romance field.
Studied in Europe
"To Harvard was given all Sheldon's career. Son of a Maine clergyman, he was born in Waterville on November 21, 1851. It was an bale family: one of his brothers won distinction in law, another in medicine; a sister was one of the most effective teachers in Boston. After graduating from our College in 1872, with Highest Honors in Modern Languages, Sheldon spent years in study abroad, mostly in Berlin and Paris. In 1877 he was made Instructor in Modern Languages. Not until 1884 was he definitely assigned to the Romance side, which he regarded as his own; in that year--the year of his marriage--he became Assistant Professor of Romance Languages, and in 1894 he was promoted to the Professorship which he held until his resignation in 1921.
"Before that date, serious though intermittent illness had cast its shadow; and after his retirement his health never was good enough to permit the literary work which his friends--perhaps he--had eagerly expected. His last sickness dragged its painful length for nine months, borne with characteristic fortitude.
"He is survived by his wife, who nursed him throughout his malady, and by a married daughter. He was a brave man, an honest man, and understanding and sympathetic man, and a man of the highest intellectual endowments. Self forgetful always, often absorbed and silent, a hard, steady thinker, he became, on appropriate occasion, the most vivacious and sparkling of companions. Sternness in him was wedded to geniality. Seldom, perhaps, has so uncompromising a moral and scholarly standard, a veracity so inflexible, been joined to such gentle considerateness for one's fellowmen."
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