T. Daniel Seely

Eastern Michigan University

Many of you who donate to Fund Drive do so in order to support the student crew, thereby contributing to the future of linguistics. Without your donations, we, the LINGUIST graduate students, probably would not have had the chance to meet and interact with the linguists who will ultimately influence our lives and careers. This year, as a special treat for our subscribers, each of us on the LINGUIST graduate crew has asked a linguist who has been influential in our lives to share with us how they first became interested in linguistics.


The stutter ...
   A deck of cards without a goat in it ...
      Howard Lasnik ...

These are some of the things that drew me into linguistics. As a child, I stuttered. It was so bad that I couldn't say my last name, or half the words in my head.
"S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s e-e-ly...." I'd hiss as I introduced myself.
"Good m-m-m-m-m-orning..." I'd stammer as I greeted the bus driver.

It was so difficult to get out certain words that eventually I just said any name or word that I could say without stuttering. Often I ended up blurting out things like "Hi, I'm Daniel Tinglehammer" (oddly enough, "Tinglehammer" was easier for me to say than "Seely.") Or I was forced to talk around words, even words as simple as "morning." "What a nice ... part-of-the-day-before-noon-when-you-usually-eat-breakfast." I don't know which was worse - when the words didn't come out of my mouth or when they DID.

Needless to say, I was teased relentlessly and ruthlessly.

But, two good things came out of this. The speech therapist I visited taught me a lot about how to produce sounds. She inspired me to experiment with different methods of sound production and through trial and error, I discovered that if I inserted a glottal stop right in the sound I knew I would stutter on, well, MAGIC, I didn't stutter on it. To me, this was amazing. Of course, my name came out as s-eely, sounding rather robotic, but at least the name came out!

I'm no phonetician, but this early experience made me sensitive to the mechanics of human sound production and when, many years later, I took a linguistics course, phonetics/phonology held an emotional relevance for me. After all, glottal stops changed my life!

Another good thing came out of stuttering: I was very conscious of the competence-performance distinction, long before I heard those terms. Even as a young kid, I knew that verbally I could express myself perfectly fine, as long as it stayed in my head. If you've never been a stutterer it's hard to fully appreciate how strange, and frustrating, it is to have the language in there (with just the right words and phrases), but you can't get it to leave your lips. The competence-performance distinction was a therapeutic confirmation of what I experienced on a daily basis: I had the same linguistic rule system as everybody else, but not the same ability to use it.

I kept inserting those glottal stops hoping my performance would catch up to my competence and little by little the stops got shorter and shorter until, except when I'm tired (or lying!), the stuttering was gone. Then came the deck of cards.

As a teenager I played cards — twenty-one mostly. Once my friend was about to turn over a card and he said:

"It's certainly possible that it's a queen of hearts."

I thought about this phrase "it's certainly possible" a lot after that. "It's certain, it's possible; but can it be both at once," I'd think to myself. "Of course it's certainly possible that the queen of hearts would come up. After all, we knew that the queen of hearts is in the deck. But, what would not be certainly possible? The answer that popped into my head: Goats. It was not certainly possible that a goat would come up next, goats not being in decks of cards."

OK, it's not much now, but at the time it seemed important and it was the kind of thing that came up in philosophy classes and ultimately in semantics (I laughed out loud in classes just thinking about those goats), and I loved it. I still do.

Sensitivity to speech sounds. Knowing something just fine but not being able to use it so well. The interaction of scopal operators. Before exposure to any real linguistics, these things were in place. Then came Howard Lasnik.

We've all had great teachers. I certainly had my share and then some at UMASS (what a great place!). But, Howard was my first great teacher, and the first is always special. Howard is a master at the Socratic method, a master at creating energy and passion for a topic, a master at getting a group of people to cooperatively produce ideas. I would leave his classes feeling that the linguistic enterprise was important – and I would feel joyful about it. Been that way ever since!


Maria Moreno-Rollins nominated Daniel Seely because she was inspired by several classes she took with him at Eastern Michigan University and especially by his passion for any aspect of linguistics.

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