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Joshua Whatmough

Faculty Profile

By Andrew T. Weil

In 1926, when President Lowell was looking for someone to teach Comparative Philology at Harvard, Joshua Whatmough, on leave from a lectureship at University College, North Wales, was teaching Latin to Egyptian students at Cairo University. Most of these students spoke English as a second language to Arabic, but by governmental decree, instruction at the University was conducted in French. "It was a Gilbert and Sullivan situation," Whatmough recalls, "--teaching Latin in French to Egyptians who knew Arabic and English." When Lowell selected him to fill the vacancy at Harvard, Whatmough did not delay his acceptance for a moment.

"It wasn't al smooth sailing," he says of his Harvard career. "For one thing, several persons in America thought they were in the running for the Comparative Philology chair, so that Lowell's choice gave great offense. Then, too, I have a reputation for being outspoken." No one would dispute this last admission; in his thirty-seven years at the University, Whatmough has done more speaking out than the rest of the Faculty combined. He loves to give opinions, delights in praising or damning with vehemence, and brooks no contradictions from his audience. "As a result I often find myself in hot water," he says with obvious pleasure, "but I don't mind hot water--it never scalds me."

Many of his "outrageous opinions" have eventually changed Harvard for the better, and it is therefore fortunate that Cambridge life has never mellowed Joshua Whatmough. Shortly after he arrived, he stirred up protests against the management of the University Library that culminated in a reorganization of Widener's system. At his irrepressible insistence, Harvard's diffuse studies of language were forged into a vigorous Department of Comparative Philology (the name became "Department of Linguistics" in 1951 to conform to current usage). His relentless emphasis on statistical method in the analysis of language has enabled this department to pioneer the new mathematical approach to language that now promises to bring order into the thoroughly confirmed field of linguistics. In addition, Whatmough's outspokenness, and his unimpeachable sense of style make him a consistently fascinating person.

He is unmistakable on the street--a short, frosty-faired, ruddy-faced man, impeccably dressed and sporting a fresh cornflower in his buttonhole, swinging a walking stick, and traveling with a jaunty briskness. "I am not mad," he states categorically, "only eccentric."

To observe the forms of his eccentricity one might listen to him lecture in Linguistics 100 ("Language"), impressively described in the catalogue of courses as dealing with such topics as the "Theory of Communication," "Language and the Nature of Man," "Language and Literature," and so forth. Actually, when Professor Whatmough lectures in Linguistics 100, he dispenses with these problems in thirty minutes. The rest of the hour gives him a chance to hold forth on everything that he feels needs speaking out against. He does this in the most elegantly precise English to be heard in Cambridge and often illustrates his points with Latin or Greek quotations which he clearly expects his listeners to understand. His manner of delivery varies with his subject. He can be quietly incisive ("A professor should be a person, not a clod. The whole system of Ph.D.'s in certain fields tends to turn professors into clods. I do not have a Ph.D.") or, if the situation demands, violently destructive ("Linguistics has much to offer psychology; psychology has nothing to offer linguistics. And that nothing is wrong." Certain issues (Whether anyone has the right to control what professors say in classes, for one) turn him purple with rage--invariably an awesome transformation. And when it is all over, Whatmough smiles, adjusts his cornflower, takes up his walking stick and leaves the lecture room contented.

Perhaps Whatmough is able to carry off the performance so beautifully because he is English; the English, after all, are a nation of eccentrics. Whatmough, himself is a Lancashire man, from the north country where his own name is sometimes pronounced "Whatmuff." (Whatmough can be most engaging on the subject of his unusual name. It comes from two old words meaning "brother-in-law of Walter" and a few years back was used as an example of silly British names by a writer in the New Yorker who made a sentence out of it: "What mo' could you ask?") He studied classics and comparative philology at Manchester and Cambridge Universities and started his academic career as a classicist. (He still maintains that classics and mathematics provide the best education one can get.) In fact, what is most irresistible about his brand of linguistics is that it depends on a broad knowledge of individual languages, history, and literature despite its rigorous use of a statistics and mathematics. "The linguist must begin by knowing languages as well as knowing about languages," Whatmough says. "When he can handle at least some with confidence, he may proceed."

It is pointless to discuss the Department of Linguistics separate from Joshua Whatmough--the two have been together so long that one cannot imagine them apart. By 1941, Whatmough had coordinated linguistic studies so well that the creation of the department was feasible. At that time he, himself, did all the necessary typing and paperwork; his total subsidy was fifteen dollars for postage. Today the Department of Linguistics has its own offices and secretaries and a small but growing number of undergraduate concentrators.

This June, Whatmough will retire as chairman of the department. "I have no feelings of resistance about giving up the chairmanship," he muses. "The chances are I've held the reins long enough--perhaps to long." He admits that the job has been a great burden, if only because of the paperwork involved. "You know, all this paperwork nowadays is a result of the war. Some of our deans got to know the ways the army and navy did things, and they've introduced them here."

At the moment, Whatmough is working on several projects. He is preparing a grammar of the dialects of ancient Gaul to accompany his monumental work, Dialects of Ancient Gaul(1949), and he is also working on his autobiography (which, he insists, will not be published during his lifetime). In addition he is trying to "train" himself for retirement to a quiet routine at home with his wife. All his life, Whatmough has gotten up no later than four in the morning; he claims he does his best work at that time of day. "Now, I try never to get up before four." he says. "I just tell myself to go back to sleep instead of trying to write down my thoughts."

When Whatmough speaks of his career he immediately communicates his passion for the University. He has found Harvard "a glorious old place." "It has allowed me to do what I wanted in the way in which I wanted--not without kicking up dust, mind you, but that, too, is one of its glories." More than this, Whatmough respects the idea of a university as a place where minds can come together in free inquiry and free expression. He calls the Church and the university "the only two institutions that have any chance of immortality." Thus one sees in his outspokenness and outrageous opinions something more than eccentricity: one sees a man in love with his profession making sure that his freedom to say whatever he wants to say in his pursuit of knowledge will never be abridged.

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