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Professor Huffman Co-Edits Book of Essays by Linguist William Diver

A collection of essays by William Diver (1921-1995) – professor of linguistics at Columbia from 1955 until his retirement in 1989 and the intellectual founder of the Columbia School of Linguistics – has been co-edited, annotated and presented by City Tech’s Alan Huffman and City College’s Joseph Davis.

In Language: Communication and Human Behavior. The Linguistic Essays of William Diver (Brill, 2012), Huffman, professor of English at City Tech and of linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Davis, associate professor of linguistics in the School of Education at City College, have collected Diver’s work from 1969 to 1995, most of which had not been previously published.

The editors reviewed, updated and edited all 18 papers in the volume and prepared an introduction to each paper that summarizes its main ideas and describes the paper’s history.  Huffman wrote the general introduction to the volume, explaining the nature and significance of Diver’s work and situating it in the context of modern linguistics.

Diver “reject[ed] the sentence and its categories, embracing instead meaningful form, its distribution in authentic discourse, and the orienting principles of general human behavior,” Huffman states in his introduction. In doing so, Diver distanced himself from the model of language proposed by contemporary linguist Noam Chomsky.

Rather than simply applying familiar categories like sentence, subject, object, noun, verb and adjective to all languages in a universal, one-size-fits-all fashion, Columbia School grammar has identified unique systems of signals and meanings in each language. Columbia School linguists check their hypotheses about the unique structure of each language by means of detailed analysis of continuous texts written and spoken in these languages and with counts and statistical tests.

Diver contended that a relatively small portion of what people communicate using language is actually encoded in language itself.  In his view, words and grammatical forms have meanings that act like hints, with people relying heavily on their ability to fill in the gaps and jump to conclusions in order to infer what message is intended. 

Co-editors Huffman (left) and Davis. Photo credit: Michael Kaplan.

Likewise in phonology, the study of sound patterns in words and forms, Diver offered explanations based on typically human characteristics and abilities.  These explanations take into account the different abilities of the organs of speech to produce various sounds and the tendency to favor movements of the speech organs that are the easier ones, especially in situations where a hearer can more easily figure out with little help what word a speaker intends to utter.

Diver, a specialist in Latin, Homeric Greek, and Indo-European linguistics, had agreed to update his papers and publish them in a collected volume with the help of Huffman and Davis, both of whom received their doctorates in linguistics at Columbia under Diver and continued to work closely with him after graduation. Unfortunately, Diver died before the project progressed past drawing up a preliminary table of contents.

Huffman, who lives in Washington Heights and Davis, who lives in Bayside, were left with the difficult task of updating the papers by themselves, often having to combine smaller papers on a single topic into one paper, and sometimes having to actually write papers from scratch when all they had to work with was notes they took at seminar presentations or lectures given by Diver.

“We respected Diver’s wishes to scrutinize all of the essays and bring them up to date,” Huffman says. “We did so as a labor of love and because of our conviction of the importance of Diver’s ideas and the potential usefulness of the collection to scholars.”

After Diver’s death, Huffman and Davis, together with other professional linguists, founded the Columbia School Linguistic Society as a scholarly organization whose purpose is to disseminate Diver’s ideas and perpetuate the line of research that he initiated. They remain active in the Society to this day.

The Society organizes and sponsors conferences, seminars, institutes and special offers on books by Columbia School authors for its members. It maintains a resource center and an informative website at www.csling.org. The weekly seminar sponsored by the Society, the Seminar on Columbia School Linguistics, is an official University Seminar at Columbia University, which no longer has a linguistics department.

The book’s publication was celebrated recently in an all-day event at Columbia University.  At the gathering, several prominent scholars, including Huffman and Davis, delivered talks appraising the significance of Diver’s work and the new volume.

The project to publish Diver’s works was supported in its early stages by a CUNY Collaborative Grant awarded to Huffman and Davis. For more information on Language: Communication and Human Behavior, go to http://www.brill.nl/language-communication-and-human-behavior.

9.17.12


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