Joshua Whatmough and the donkey

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At Steve Cotler's Irrepressibly True Tales, an irrepressible (and no doubt true) tale of Prof. Whatmough's Linguistics 120 at Harvard in 1962. If you read to the end, you'll find out about the donkey.


  1. acilius said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    Well, Professor Whatmough had more choice in the matter than the donkey did, so I'd have to hope that he was mistaken about the outcome.

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    Prof. Harris's remarks, linked from there, are a glimpse as through the keyhole of a lost world. Such scholarship is applied only to basketball scores and bacterial genomes today.

  3. Rubrick said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

    A very entertaining essay, but I was brought up short by this description near the end: "He was a terrific teacher, a unique store of intellectual anecdote and opinion, and a charming homunculus."

    A charming homunculus? A tiny human? Clearly it's true of someone that "this word does not mean what you think it means," but whether that someone is me or the author I can't say. I couldn't find a context-appropriate interpretation with a bit of web searching.

  4. mollymooly said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

    Perhaps "homunculus" is a Cupertino for "Homulchesan".

    The Crimson tells me "Whatmough" is pronounced "What-moe", though in Lancashire also "What-muff".

  5. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    Incidentally, when a pronunciation guide tells me to pronounce something as "what", I'm sometimes not 100 percent sure which pronunciation to use. I personally say that word with the "strut" vowel, but I tend to think of the "prestige" pronunciation as using the "lot" vowel and so suspect that might have been what was actually intended.

    I pronounce the name of Whatcom County in Washington State, which is near where I grew up, with the "lot" vowel in the first syllable.

  6. Dan S said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

    Thanks for that link. And, yes, Prof Harris' essay was quite a trip to the past. I remembered the light and scent of the linguistics library (read: locked room) atop Harvard's Widener library. And my asking, as a freshman there, why all the library cards for that collection were annotated "Co Phil".

    So, here's to Phil!

  7. Theophylact said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 9:12 am

    I took that course in 1960, and Whatmough was exactly as described. His hobbyhorses were many and he rode them hard.

  8. Theophylact said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 9:18 am

    I should add that Whatmough spoke a perfect RP and was scornful of those academics who had failed to shed their original regional accents. (My friend Ian, who hails from Bolton in Lancastershire, points out that the name is pronounced "WhatMUFF" thereabouts.)

  9. Plegmund said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 9:27 am

    Lancashire, I would think?

    Is there a connection between Illyrian and Albanian?

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    SQB: I can't recall ever personally noticing "what" with the "lot" vowel in the U.S., and the inference I have drawn (perhaps incorrectly) from the BrE contexts in which I have noticed the spelling-pronunciation "wot" is that in the U.K. it's a low-prestige variant (e.g. "It's The Sun Wot Won It").

  11. language hat said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    I can't recall ever personally noticing "what" with the "lot" vowel in the U.S.

    Huh? I, like every American I know, rhyme "what" with "lot"; are you talking about the vowel sound in the U.K. pronunciation of "lot"?

    Also, thanks for the great link, Mark!

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    Whutchu talkin bout, LH? Now it's entirely possible the "lot" vowel means something specific to phonologists that doesn't reflect my pronunciation of "lot," especially since phonology was a Ling. subfield I scanted in my student days. But I rhyme what with strut, not with lot (from which it should be obvious that strut and lot have different vowels for me). I am aware of various odd/dialectical/idiolectical features of my pronunciation, but that has not hitherto been one of them. Now, a word I rhyme with lot is watt. Do watt and what have the same vowel for you? They don't for me.

    But concur on the greatness of the link. None of my undergraduate teachers were quite that memorable in at least that way. Maybe some of the ones in law school . . .

  13. Spectre-7 said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    Huh? I, like every American I know, rhyme "what" with "lot"; are you talking about the vowel sound in the U.K. pronunciation of "lot"?

    That's peculiar. I have never heard an American pronounce what to rhyme with lot. In my experience, what is usually wʌt (to rhyme with strut, gut, or butt), or sometimes hwʌt, while lot seems unfailingly to be lɑt (to rhyme with hot, got or snot).

    And now, for reference, I present Samwell with his ever infectious What What (In the Butt).

  14. Steve Cotler said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    To Rubrick:

    Prof. Whatmough was small of stature. I used the term "homunculus" affectionately…nothing more was intended.

  15. Steve Cotler said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    And to remove the pronunciation ambiguity, I have re-described the professor's name as "WUTT-moe."

    And I agree with Spectre-7. In my America, "what" almost never rhymes with "lot."

  16. Faldone said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    And saying it rhymes with lot isn't that much help in an absolute sense. Lot can be pronounced anywhere from /lɑ:t/ to /lɔ:t/ or even past /lɑ:t/ to something approaching /læt/.

  17. Nathan Myers said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    But what about the donkey? In particular, did anyone ever hear from the professor again after his retirement?

  18. Olga said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    Aleut in the Yukon? This strikes me as unlikely.

  19. Steve Cotler said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    I just learned that Prof. Harris passed away in February 2009. His website is still online at:

    To Olga: There are several possible explanations for Whatmough's seeking to study Aleut in the Yukon:
    1) He was joking and never intended to go further into Aleutian than the Widener Library stacks.

    2) He knew more about linguistics than he did about ethno-geography.
    3) My memory is faulty.

    There is no way to test the validity of 1) and 2). The third choice is demonstrably validated to me every day.

  20. language hat said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    I appear to be wrong about the general US pronunciation of "what." Mea culpa.

  21. Mark F. said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

    I have the sense that, in some contexts, the one-word sentence "What?" can be pronounced in AmE with the "lot" vowel. The context I have in mind is "what?" is being asked as a rhetorical question by someone being intentionally hammy. E.g., "What? How dare you accuse me of commenting too frequently!"

  22. Eu-philo-logy « Glossographia said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:43 am

    […] it through this interesting reminiscence from Steve Cotler, linked yesterday by Mark Liberman on Language Log, and then all those articles were mentioned today on Language Hat. Thus ends my internetymology.) […]

  23. dr pepper said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 1:46 am

    wothell wothell do i care?

  24. dw said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 6:56 am

    As a native Brit living in the US for the past 12 years, I have great difficulty distinguishing American "lot" from "strut". (In my native dialect, a kind of near-RP, they are distinguishable by the presence/absence of lip rounding). Since the topic has come up here, I would greatly appreciate any hints on how to distinguish them: is it just a question of tongue position?

  25. dw said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 7:07 am

    @JWBrewer: In the UK, "what" rhymes with "lot" for me and pretty much everyone else, whether of high- or low-prestige. The spelling pronunciation "wot" is just a newspaper being silly.

  26. dr pepper said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    Actually, my experience is that americans usually say "what" to rhyme with "strut", but sometimes for emphasis, or to be mock snooty, they rhyme it with "caught".

  27. Martin Ellison said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    @Plegmund: 'it has been conjectured… not unreasonable… little more than conjecture.' {12] Woodward, "Introduction", sub Illyrian, in Woodward, Roger, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages. (No, I'm not a linguist, I just have the copy out from the Shenzhen library). Just don't say that to an Albanian. And Alexander was Albanian, of course.

  28. mollymooly said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    "wot" is a pronunciation_spelling, not a spelling_pronunciation. More specifically, it's eye-dialect, where the represented pronunciation is the same as the standard pronunciation, and the nonstandard spelling serves merely to indicate that the speaker is rustic, ignorant, or otherwise not_one_of_us.

    So J. W. Brewer and dw both get partial credit.

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