More from the geriatrics desk at Language Log

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I’ve been attending annual meetings of the Linguistic Society of America for over 50 years now, and this now stands out for me: either linguists are getting younger or most of the linguists I know are no longer around. One of my major reasons for attending these meetings is to visit and hang around with old friends, which is becoming less and less possible. Last year, at the Chicago meeting, I ran into one of the icons of our field, Eric Hamp, and had a great conversation with him. But there weren’t many old-timers at this year’s meeting. Yes, I meet a lot of younger linguists but that’s not quite the same thing for the elderly, like me. Of the 1,500 registered participants there, I knew only a handful, and most of them were a generation younger than me but still near or over the usual retirement age. LSA meetings are geared to young people trying to make their mark in the field, so that should be expected, I suppose.

Take my good friend and former student, Walt Wolfram, for example. He’s old enough to retire but he can’t even imagine doing so. He introduced me to some of his students, one now a faculty member with students of his own at the meeting. Walt called me the grandfather/linguist of his former student and the great-grandfather/linguist of that student’s student. If Walt wanted to make me feel o-l-d, that’s a good way to do it. But that’s not what he intended, of course. He meant it as praise, tempered with a friendly dig that only good friends (near age-mates?) can fully appreciate.

Today I read a review in the NYTimes column called “Cataloging the Insults (and Joys) of Old Age”, by Diana Athill. She summarizes her stage of life as “somewhere towards the end.” She’s 91, so “somewhere” might be a bit more definable. She says that there are many books about being young, but precious few about “falling away,” and that she still wants “to be given material which extends the region in which my mind can wander.” I suppose that’s good advice for us old guys who still attend the LSA meetings.

Most interesting to me was that although Athill finds enjoyment in the company of young people, she adds:

"One should never, never expect them to want one’s company, or make the kind of claims on them that one makes to a friend of one’s own age. Enjoy whatever they are generous enough to offer, and leave it at that."

That’s what I try to do at the LSA meetings. And it’s quite fulfilling, even when the ideas are so new to me that I can’t quite follow them. But I long for a special symposium where older linguists might be persuaded to meet together (a real benefit for them) and reflect their wisdom about how the field got where it is today (a benefit for younger scholars who sometimes forget whose shoulders they stand upon). Or maybe even to help the younger ones get ready for their eventual status as senior citizens.

Maybe there should be a geriatrics session or two at our next meeting in Baltimore.

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