To Jim, From His Students*
by Barbara Need
I have been asked today to speak on behalf of the students of the Department
of Linguistics. Speaking for 70 or so individuals, not to mention the hundreds
of students Jim touched in his thirty-five years at the University of Chicago,
is a daunting task. I can't possibly say in five minutes what needs to be said,
and has been said on the Department's web site. The best I can do is to speak of
my experiences, and hope that they resonate for my fellow students, and for his
family and friends.
I met Jim McCawley many years ago when I first came to the University of Chicago
as a graduate student. It was certainly during the first week of the first quarter
-- I didn't have a class with him until second quarter -- and possibly at the first Tea
of the Quarter. "Tea" is the weekly social event of the Department -- and tea is rarely
served. At First Tea, the tradition is to introduce oneself and say something about
one's work. I don't remember Jim's exact words -- though they've probably changed little
over the years -- but I am certain that one of the things he did was to issue an invitation
to all present to his Hanggul Nal party -- the celebration of the invention of the Korean
alphabet, then a Korean national holiday. I went, determined to take part in the social
life of the department, to nuzzle Korean tacos -- that's how he described them--and to eat
my first Korean food.
This was only the first of several annual events that Jim -- I don't think I've ever called
him Dr. or Professor McCawley, certainly not to his face -- held for his friends, colleagues
and students. The second, St. Cecilia's Day, held on or near November 21, celebrated music,
St. Cecilia being the patron saint of music.
Attendees were expected to perform for their supper (or turn pages and provide drinks) and
supper was always at the end of the evening -- to spare his neighbors -- and was always a surprise
as to ethnicity. Musicians honored were those whose "round -- numbered" birthdays (100, 150, 200,
etc.) fell in that year. I know he spent all year tracking down musicians to celebrate and music
to perform. I did not attend that my first year, but once I started to come, Jim would put
together several pieces for me to prepare. He insisted that I was soprano, and gave me some
very challenging pieces. I am not half the musician he was -- I've had no voice training -- and I
never really felt prepared, but I came and I sang. The end of the party, before the food, was
always marked by a massed singing of the two Queen of the Night arias from The Magic Flute. It
didn't matter your range or singing ability; it just mattered that you sang. For those who don't
know these pieces, they get quite high, even for a soprano. I was always sure that this year I'd
reach that top note. I may yet, and when I do, I'll think of Jim.
And what will the Chinese New Year, or trips to Chinatown, be without Jim? Every year in January
or February, he would sign up to do Tea the week of Chinese New Year. Sometimes he would have
help from one or another Asian student, some years he did all the work himself. There were the
peanuts, boiled I think, and sometimes green beans or noodles, and always that steamed dish that
seemed to be part uncooked rice, part sausage, part potatoes and part who knows what else. The
food always ran out in the first half hour -- except for the steamed whatever (which he steamed in
our not-very-adequate kitchen) -- but people kept coming during the afternoon in the hopes that
there would be some food left, because it was so good. It was a chance for the students to practice
using chopsticks, clearly a covert requirement for graduation from the Department. I will never
be able to eat Chinese food without thinking of Jim. At New Years; at his home, where I had been
looking forward to going after my dissertation defense for a Jim-cooked meal; in Chinatown restaurants.
I have been to Chinatown without Jim, but the food has never been as interesting, though I admit I
can do without the deep-fried pigeon.
His last annual event, based on the academic, rather than the Gregorian, calendar, was Bastille Day
in July. This was the only event where his guests were expected to bring food. His invitation asked
us to bring food from some region of the world which had "thrown off the yoke of French imperialism".
It was always a challenge to find something to bring, for two reasons. One, July 14 is often quite hot
and one didn't really want to cook if one didn't have to (the first year, I took German coleslaw -- it
was German because I put caraway seeds in it). In addition, I tried to bring a dish from a different
country every year and one year he let me get away with bringing a trifle, a very rich dessert from
England, because, well, the Normans were French, don't you know. There was singing here too: he had
copies of all of the verses of the Marsaillese, the French national anthem, in French and in German
(the book he got them out of was published in Germany). We sang all the verses in French and, by a
tradition that dates back to my first Bastille Day, the first verse in German. (Hey, I figured, we
had the text, why shouldn't we sing it, and I said so.)
But Jim was more than the parties and interesting food from around the world. He was also our teacher
and a supremely gifted linguist and scholar. Two former students have mentioned to me that they came
to the University of Chicago because Jim was here. Several students have said that they took his classes,
not necessarily because they were interested in syntax or Negation or Japanese, but because he was
teaching it and they knew that the class would be interesting and that they would learn a lot. Nothing
was irrelevant. One of the things that he taught by example was to challenge the established theories.
You didn't need to agree with him theoretically, but you had to think about the position you had taken
and not simply accept it as gospel. And yet in disagreeing with others in this field, he was never mean
or personal. It was the ideas, not the people, that received his strongest comments.
Certainly one of the features of every class I ever took with him (and, I would guess, every class he
ever gave) was the polling of the students for their opinions on the acceptability of different sentences
(native speakers of the language under study only, please) on a four step scale of perfect, pretty good,
pretty bad and horrible. When students said things which he thought were particularly neat, he would take
his notebook out of his breast pocket and note them down in some tiny corner of a page so he could take
them home and think about how to explain them. The example sentences he concocted were often very political
and usually funny, but he also collected real examples from TV, newspaper and Spanish telenovelas. These he
gathered into his "Linguistic Flea Circus" to distribute once a year.
Jim was also a very generous and caring person. He shared of his time to help one student work through
logic, and to provide stimulation for ideas and examples that students wanted to bounce off him. When
students were going abroad, he would provide a list of restaurants that he thought they should go to and
another of local linguists that he thought they might want to meet. He helped feed my Asterix habit
(Asterix is a French comic book that has been translated into several languages), by bringing me back
copies in Catalan and Basque (no, I don't read Basque, but it is neat to have the book!). He would put
books and articles in students' mail folders if he thought they would be interested, and he would often
stop to tell me some little thing that he thought I would want to know. He yearly provided a guide to the
restaurants of Chicago, arranged by ethnicity, with comments about what the best dishes were.
When I met people away from Chicago who had heard of Jim, they would speak of him with respect (of course,
it was always as Professor McCawley) and I would think, that's Jim they're talking about--he's my teacher.
And he was known around the world. Letters have come in from Japan and Hong Kong, Mexico, Norway, and other
far away places from people who had been touched by Jim, by his intellect and his scholarship, and by his
enthusiasm for language, for music, for food--for life.
Each of us our own last memories of being with Jim. Mine was a promise that I would have something for him
from my dissertation. I will never have it for him. But I will keep that promise; I will finish my
dissertation; I will get done and graduate. We will all get done and the best memorial we can give him is
to finish, graduate and go out and be the best linguists and scholars we can be, interested in language
phenomena of all sorts, wanting to share what we know, and what we don't know, with anyone who will listen.
Thank you Jim from all of us, and God bless.
*The preceding talk was given at the U. of Chicago memorial service and is posted as part of the tribute
to James McCawley at
A version also appeared in Historiographia Linguistica 26:3 (268-70) as part of an article titled
"Remembering James D. McCawley." It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and
of John Benjamins Publishing.