The Very Model for Historical Comparison

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Below is a guest post by Nancy Dray, following up on Brian Joseph's obituary for Eric Hamp (3/4/2019).

Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Professor Eric P. Hamp, I thought I would repost something—my parody lyrics for “The Very Model for Historical Comparison”—that I wrote more than 25 years ago, in large part as a tribute to him (mocking his exact opposite). These lyrics were not just written to celebrate Eric and his work: writing them was a path through which I came to know him, not just as a kind and interesting professor but as the extraordinary observer, thinker, poet, conversationalist, and human being that he was.

At the time I wrote this, in the early 1990s, the news was filled with stories of purported grand discoveries in the history of human languages. In several of these stories, as I recall (without access to the original documents), Eric Hamp was portrayed as a representative of the traditional view of the academy—so, well-credentialed but, by implication, perhaps somewhat stodgy or limited in comparison with those who were claiming vast achievements. Meanwhile, what had originally drawn me to linguistics had been historical-comparative linguistics, and my best friend at the time (now my husband, a.k.a. the “bodhisattva” Victor Mair referred to in his comment on the previously posted EPH obituary) was a student of Professor Hamp’s and was, likewise, deeply engaged in original work founded largely on Neogrammarian principles. So, over pizza, over coffee, over a period of years, I enjoyed many discussions with my friend both about his own work in progress and about the aesthetics and rigors of this fascinating and productive methodology (this aesthetic that I could enjoy only secondhand, due to my own limitations) and how Professor Hamp embodied, developed, and shared its essence. Gradually, I began to tune in more to Professor Hamp’s own exposition, and grasp more. Through this I came to grasp just how groundbreakingly original “traditional” historical linguistic work could be, how critical it was (is) to our linguistic and historical understanding going forward, and what made (makes) it simultaneously so well-grounded and so innovative, in the right hands. So, those magazine articles just seemed wrong. The world was missing an important insight. Something beautiful, true, and vital was being dismissed as past and done.

This was in the time leading up to Professor Hamp’s “retirement” (I cannot imagine that word relating to him in any way without scare quotes), and the thought came to me of writing a Gilbert & Sullivan song parody. I actually didn’t know much G&S at the time, but I’d grown up with this in my environment (my father was born just four days after Eric), and I knew the Hamps enjoyed the annual performances at Mandel Hall. So, I began to experiment, and learn—both about the methodology and about the poetic models. I thought that parodying some of the broader, looser approaches to historical-comparative linguistics then being popularized in the media would give me a way to stand up for what I was seeing as the enormous ongoing value and subtle, elegant beauty of approaches that some seemed to relegate to the past—approaches embodied in the work of Eric Hamp and others.

I did not foresee just how much I would learn. Through the process of working out each line, honing and tweaking, I had so many marvelous conversations for which I will be forever grateful. (Come to think of it, flipped around a bit, that line seems to capture something of the experience of EPH in the world: a series of marvelous conversations involving much honing and tweaking.)

In the Linguistics Department lounge, Professor Hamp would challenge me on some of my rhymes, and suggest others. I got a sense of his aesthetic when we differed on whether the rhyme or meter “worked” or not. He suggested that the “shrink to fit” image was for him Procrustean, and he improved one of my clunkier attempts by offering the felicitous parallelism of “scratchings unidentified on tablets antiquarian.” Twice I shared draft printed versions of the lyrics with Eric, and twice I was rewarded with calligraphed replies in verse. He elucidated the original lyrics, explaining W.S. Gilbert’s outrageous “sat a gee” rhyme, which challenged me to create one parallel. (The best I could come up with was “If I should find an s when Lautgesetze would enta’l a g, I just apply finesse to show it gets there by analogy.” When I could not find a place to fit this in the song, Eric assured me, “Well, you see, Nancy …”—he always started like that, and I smile now to hear in my mind’s ear his way of pronouncing my name—“…. that’s not a bad thing. Every good philology has its fragments.”)

I was honored at his response to my work, and thrilled to be brought into the conversation as more than an observer.

I see throughout this tribute I have shifted from “Professor Hamp” to “Eric,” to “EPH,” and back again. I am leaving that waffling intact, as what it represents is true: It was a long time before I even tried “Eric,” and the different characteristics expressed by the different titles—the respect, awe, warmth, fondness—all are true.

Reminiscing: I recall Professor Hamp’s “Intro to Indo-European” class being referred to, irreverently but appreciatively, as “readings in Professor Hamp’s mail.” On the way to class, he would pick up his mail, so when he arrived, he would be thumbing through it and would begin commenting about something that had come to his attention. He might never overtly get to the supposed lesson of the day, but you would learn far, far more through his remarkable explication of all the connections he traced.

He was quoted by Allan Metcalf, in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s January 16, 2013, “Lingua Franca” column, as describing historical linguistics as “the most advanced and demanding known human science,” and I am pleased to see in Brian Joseph’s contribution a similar Hamp quote. Indeed. Too few seem to remember that this is the methodology that predicted laryngeals (later identified in Hittite) the way physicists predicted black holes (later identified in our universe). There is still more to predict, and to find. If this powerful and precise methodology is rediscovered by a new generation, and brought together with new and existing linguistic sources, scholars will be going back to Eric’s publications, to his teachings, to his manuscripts, and to his notations on the backs of envelopes, hopefully for centuries, exploring not only the paths he paved, but the paths he uncovered, gazed down, or stepped delicately into the brambles of. As a resource, I hope these future scholars will also turn to those living linguists who, as Brian Joseph so clearly described for himself, were forever changed, intellectually, by their direct experience of Eric and his brilliance.

I can tell you that in our house, Eric Hamp is very much a living presence. Our teenage son, the offspring of two Chicago linguists, has grown up hearing stories about Professor Hamp, both about his linguistics and about his various mannerisms, etc.—to the point where I think he now feels he knows him personally. Presently, our boy seems more likely to go into science-fiction writing than historical linguistics (though as I write this he is whistling the Modern Major-General song, for which he is devising his own set of lyrics, about school … ), but he understands the difference one remarkable individual can make—to a field, to the world. So, there is hope, and life goes on.

In that vein, I’ll close with a couplet I started working on for that long-ago retirement party. At the time, I was thinking about Eric perhaps being off campus more, spending more time doing fieldwork. But it always struck me as a potential metaphor for another, inevitable change. Now, I still don’t feel I’ve got it quite right (how to start that second line!), but alas, too soon, the time has come to share it:

Though he may wander far from us, in some exotic city,
He’ll yet remain forever here, in statu emeriti.

Wherever Eric’s spirit may wander, I am sure he will take advantage of any opportunity for fieldwork. And for those of us fortunate to have known him, he will most certainly be with us, in so many ways, forever.

Below pasted, and now officially dedicated to the memory of Eric Pratt Hamp, are my lyrics for “The Very Model for Historical Comparison.” These have also appeared in Linguist List 3.117 (06 Feb 1992, “Disc: Proto-World I”), in California Linguistic Newsletter vol. XXII, no. 2, and in University of Chicago Working Papers in Linguistics vol. 7 (1991).

The Very Model for Historical Comparison (Copyright 1991 Nancy L. Dray)

[to be sung to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Model of a Modern Major-General”]

I have the very model for historical comparison,
For reconstructing languages when data is as rare as in
The case of pre-Nostratic (or perhaps it’s post-Atlantean—
I always have preferred a task whose compass is Gargant’ian);
For I know all the mythologic functions Dumezilian,
And I can trace our species back to ancestors reptilian;
In all, I seek the broadest view, for by my ideology
The details are just residue left over from typology.

Chorus: The details are just residue left over from typology,
The details are just residue left over from typology,
The details are just residue left over from typolo-polo-gy.

Thus for all forms of pedantry I offer up this medicine:
The weighty methodology of old we’ll have to jettison.
To link the tongues of everyone from Hottentot to Saracen,
We’ll need another model for historical comparison.

Chorus: To link the tongues of everyone from Hottentot to Saracen,
We’ll need another model for historical comparison.

The sticklers and the “splitters” sitting in their ivory edifice
Must take the blame for having let the Russians get ahead of us,
For if they are so quick to pale when some small detail menaces,
How do they ever hope to reach linguistic monogenesis?
While they’re immersed in Lycian and Lydian and Luwian,

I’ve reconstructed ‘water’ terms ante- and post-diluvian!
I simply use the handbooks that the forms are predigested in
And waste no time on learning every language they’re attested in.

Chorus: He wastes no time on learning every language they’re attested in,
He wastes no time on learning every language they’re attested in,
He wastes no time on learning every language they’re attested-tested in.

So many forms share elements (and meanings if you think a bit);
Morphology’s impediments I set aside or shrink to fit.
Indeed I am quite certain (although others seem to vary some)
Mine is the very model for historical comparison.

Chorus: He really is quite certain (although others seem to vary some)
This is the very model for historical comparison.

Now some may say we “lumpers” are just megalocomparative,
Displaying our propensity for hyperbolic narrative,
But who can match our progress, going speedier and speedier—
Just look at the attention we’ve been getting in the media(r)!
Where fainter hearts are loath to tread, that’s where you’ll find me wandering,
Assembling the parallels the “splitting” clan are squandering;
I’m keen to bag the languages they always thought akin to none
By stepping ’round the finer points and joining them all into one.

Chorus: He’s stepping ’round the finer points and joining them all into one,
He’s stepping ’round the finer points and joining them all into one,
He’s stepping ’round the finer points and joining them all into into one.

There’s Basque and Burushaski, let us not forget Sumerian,
Or scratchings unidentified on tablets antiquarian;
I let no language go astray—’twould just be too embarrassin’
And mar my perfect model for historical comparison.

Chorus: He lets no language go astray—’twould just be too embarrassin’
And mar his perfect model for historical comparison.

When I submitted these lyrics in a letter to the Atlantic Monthly, I added this brief comment (tweaked slightly here):

“I sincerely hope that the ‘weighty methodology of old’ will not be jettisoned, for without this ballast historical-comparative linguistics quickly drifts beyond the reach of attested evidence. Far from being a stodgy or barren enterprise, traditional historical-comparative linguistics has demonstrated that methodological rigor is not incompatible with bold innovation. Indeed, it is the scrupulous accounting for detail that often leads to the most startling, unexpected, and far-reaching discoveries, for the demands of methodology both force and enable one to escape one’s own preconceptions.”

I may not receive a calligraphed reply in verse this time, but, wistfully, I think I’ll watch the fax machine just in case.

EPH, we will miss you.—NLD (& DT).

Above is a guest post by Nacy Dray.


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 7, 2019 @ 9:50 am


  2. richardelguru said,

    March 7, 2019 @ 12:30 pm

    Compares well with

  3. David Marjanović said,

    March 7, 2019 @ 5:39 pm


  4. The Very Model for Historical Comparison said,

    March 8, 2019 @ 6:50 am

    […] of Professor Eric P. Hamp, I thought I would repost somethingmy parody lyrics for The Very Model… Read More (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || […]

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2019 @ 10:47 pm

    Three limericks on philological philately, etc. written last year by Martin Schwartz, who prefaced them thus:

    The Albanian stamps with Hamp, Jokl, and Pedersen are on the internet. Personally, I find limericks a torment to write and a borement to read, but I enjoy the challenge.


    The American linguist named Hamp
    is on an Albanian stamp,
    he's as smart as a whip
    in the language called Shqip;
    for Albanian lingusits he's champ.

    That near-centenarian Hamp
    can see his face on the stamp,
    unlike that of Jokl,
    Hamp's mustache looks local,
    It's long, doesn't droop, or look damp.

    H. Pedersen's last in the series,
    though his studies still leave certain queries:
    how gj comes from *s,
    go assess and then guess;
    yes, Jokl and Hamp had their theories.


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