'Fresh Air' Linguist Geoff Nunberg Dies At 75 Nunberg became a contributor to Fresh Air in 1987. He wasn't interested in scolding people for not following the rules; he wanted to explore how language changes over time. He died Tuesday at 75.
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Linguist Geoff Nunberg, Who Explored Our Ever-Changing Language, Dies At 75

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Linguist Geoff Nunberg, Who Explored Our Ever-Changing Language, Dies At 75

Linguist Geoff Nunberg, Who Explored Our Ever-Changing Language, Dies At 75

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

We're ending today's show with sad news. We've lost a longtime member of the FRESH AIR family, our language commentator Geoff Nunberg. He died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 75. Geoff was a regular contributor to our show since 1987, when we made the transition from a local radio program to a daily NPR show.

I met him even before that, when he was the usage editor at the American Heritage Dictionary, and I interviewed him about the new edition. I love the way he talked about language in that interview. He wasn't interested in scolding people for not following the rules of grammar; he was interested in following and reporting on how language changes over time. That led us to invite him to become a regular contributor, and luckily for us, he agreed.

Over the years on our show, he talked about new slang and coinages and the ways in which pop culture, technology, the business world and politics keep changing our language. He was fascinated by how, in every generation, young people create new words and give old words new meanings. He also followed the changing language people of different identity groups use to describe themselves.

The first piece Geoff did for us was broadcast in May 1987, during the first week of our daily NPR broadcasts. Inspired by Meryl Streep's ability to use accents so convincingly, Geoff talked about the evolution of accents in Hollywood movies. Here's an excerpt of that first piece adapted from an article he'd written in The Atlantic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GEOFF NUNBERG: Hollywood didn't used to care much about the authenticity of movie accents. Claude Rains talked the same way whether he was playing an English rake, a French policeman or a senator from Montana. And nobody seemed to mind that Clark Gable played Fletcher Christian in "Mutiny On The Bounty" with vowels that could only have been shaped in Ohio and with never a word of explanation. Yet curiously, casting directors did use to pay attention to accents in certain films, and precisely those in which accents should have been entirely irrelevant. Take the ancient Roman costume epics that flourished until the 1950s - "Quo Vadis," "Spartacus," "The Robe" and so forth.

There were strict linguistic conventions in these films, which needless to say had nothing to do with the Latin or Hebrew of the period. The Roman patricians had to be played by British actors like Peter Ustinov or Laurence Olivier. The heroes - Christians, slaves, gladiators depending on the film - the heroes were played by Americans like Kirk Douglas or Charlton Heston. And in the roles of apostles, you had to have Jews or Irishmen, almost always either Sam Jaffe or Finlay Currie. This casting was crucial to the key scene in all these movies. When a Roman patrician, say, was interrogating a young Christian girl, the captain has these impeccable West End vowels. And he says something like, this Nazarene you speak of, how many legions has he? And the Christian girl answers, 12, my lord. Twelve legions? Why have I not heard of them? Twelve men, my lord. Twelve men? Why, what are 12 men against all that is Rome?

GROSS: That piece changed how I hear old biblical epics and period films. We always looked forward to finding out what Geoff would choose as his word of the year. In 2018, the word was nationalist. Here's how Jeff started the piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NUNBERG: Donald Trump has a pension for breathing new life into expressions with troubled pasts, like America first and enemy of the people. It's not likely his uses of those phrases will survive his presidency, but he may have altered the political lexicon more enduringly at a Houston rally two weeks before the elections when he proclaimed himself a nationalist and urged his supporters to use the word.

GROSS: One of the last pieces Geoff did for us was about the use of gender-neutral pronouns. He focused on the pronouns for people who don't define themselves as male or female and instead identify as nonbinary, queer or transgender, people who don't want to be referred to as he or she but rather with the gender-neutral pronoun they. It's a change that's controversial, but Geoff was confident we could all learn to adapt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NUNBERG: It's not a lot to ask, just a small courtesy and sign of respect. In fact, the accommodations we're being asked to make for nonbinary individuals are much less far-reaching than the linguistic changes that the feminists called for 50 years ago. Yet the reactions this time have been even more vehement than they were back then. A fifth grade teacher in Florida whose preferred pronouns are they, them and their was removed from the classroom when some parents complained about exposing their children to the transgender lifestyle. When the diversity office at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville published a guide to alternative pronouns in 2015, the state legislature promptly defunded the center and barred the university from promoting the use of gender-neutral pronouns in the future. Like the classic episodes of pronoun rage in earlier eras, those weren't about pronouns at all.

GROSS: We've heard just a small sample of Geoff's hundreds of FRESH AIR pieces. But, of course, he was known for many things beyond our show. He was a linguist who taught at Stanford and worked on linguistic technologies at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. In the last years of his life, he was an adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information. He wrote scholarly articles and books for general readers. He wrote pieces for magazines and newspapers. I know I'm leaving out plenty of other accomplishments, but we will always think of him as a member of the FRESH AIR family always. We will miss him enormously. We send our deepest sympathies to his wife, Kathleen, and his daughter, Sophie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. If you'd like to hear some of Geoff's pieces, go to our new archive website - freshairarchive.org - and search for Geoff Nunberg. Geoff is G-E-O-F-F. I'm Terry Gross.

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