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Geoffrey Nunberg, expert on how language works, dies at 75
Geoffrey Nunberg in 2019. Nunberg, a linguist whose elegant essays and books explained to a general audience how English has adapted to changes in politics, popular culture and technology, died on Aug. 11 at his home in San Francisco. He was 75. Caitlin Appert via The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist whose elegant essays and books explained to a general audience how English has adapted to changes in politics, popular culture and technology, died Aug. 11 at his home in San Francisco. He was 75.

Kathleen Miller, his wife, said the cause was glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.

Nunberg’s fascination with the way people communicate found expression in acclaimed books like “Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times” (2001); in scholarly work in areas like the relationship between written and spoken language; and in lexicography — he was chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

He was one of a small group of linguists, among them Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, renowned beyond their academic universes.

“I always saw him as the paragon of public intellectualism,” linguist Ben Zimmer, who writes a column on language for The Wall Street Journal, wrote in an email. “He was a lucid, effective communicator about thorny linguistic issues for many decades.”

Nunberg addressed many of those subjects as a regular commentator on “Fresh Air,” the NPR talk show hosted by Terry Gross. Starting in 1987, he delivered erudite essays that explored words like “disinformation,” “disruption” and “selfie”; phrases like “tell it like it is” and “the deep state”; and broader subjects like the way millennials speak.

In a “Fresh Air” commentary last year on the gender-neutral pronouns used by nonbinary people, he urged speakers to “tweak your internal grammar” to refer to an individual as “they.”

“It takes some practice to get the hang of it,” he said, “but the human language processing capacity is more adaptable than people realize, even for geezers like me. As I read through an article about a nonbinary person who uses ‘they,’ ‘them’ and ‘their,’ the pronouns ultimately sort themselves out.”

In another NPR essay, he observed that the word “socialism” has survived as a term of abuse used against Democrats by Republicans, but has lately lost some of its political zip because “the connections to Marxism are hard to discern” and its power to slander has diminished.

“Conservatives often seem to assign magical powers to that word — call yourself a socialist and you summon the specter of Stalin whether you meant to or not,” he said. “You think you’re calling for guaranteed health care, but you’re really calling for gulags and collectivization.”

In a reminiscence on NPR last week, Gross recalled that Nunberg was interested in how young people “create new words and give old words new meanings,” but not in “scolding people for not following the rules of grammar.”

Geoffrey David Nunberg was born on June 1, 1945, in Manhattan and grew up in Scarsdale, New York. His mother, Sally (Sault) Nunberg, was a teacher, and his father, Jacob Nunberg, was a commercial real estate broker.

His parents raised him and his sister with an “exaggerated concern” for language, he told Stanford magazine in 2005. Poet Ogden Nash’s light verse and unconventional rhymes delighted him.

Still, he took a circuitous route to a linguistics career. He studied prelaw at Columbia College in the early 1960s but left to explore drawing at the Art Students League of New York. His pursuit of art did not last long and he returned to Columbia, where a course on linguistics hooked him.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, he received a master’s in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 and a Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 1978.

He quickly began teaching, first at the University of Rome and then at UCLA, and at Stanford University, where he was a professor from 1988 to 2004. During that time he was also a research scientist at a think tank, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. In 2005, he joined the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught in the school of information.

His scholarly work covered a broad range of subjects, including semantics and pragmatics — the context in which language is used — as well as information access, language policy, multilingualism and the cultural implications of digital technology.

“He was very interested in the nature of written language and its relationship to spoken language, and his work on that has been very influential,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a phone interview.

Liberman noted that although spoken language developed before it was written, “Geoff’s contribution was pointing out that in every tradition, written language has its own principles, its own rules and its own patterns that aren’t just ways of encoding spoken language.”

The rigor that characterized Nunberg’s academic research also fueled his writing and commentary on popular subjects.

In the title essay of “Going Nucular,” he pondered why President George W. Bush pronounced “nuclear” that way. He suggested that Bush knew the right pronunciation (perhaps having learned it from his father, President George H.W. Bush) but had picked up the wrong one from “Pentagon wiseguys” or used it as a “faux bubba thing” to tweak the “Eastern dweebs” he had known when he attended Phillips Academy and Yale.

In “Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years” (2012), Nunberg analyzed the history and use of a word that turns funny, nasty or provocative when it is applied to someone’s character rather than someone’s body.

It is, he wrote, “a word we reserve for members of our own tribe: the boss who takes credit for your work, the neighbors who get on your case for putting out your garbage the night before, or maybe a well-known politician or celebrity.”

His other books include three collections, “The Way We Talk Now” (2001), “The Years of Talking Dangerously” (2009), and “Talking Right” (2006), about the way Republicans and conservatives have transformed political language.

In addition to his wife, Nunberg is survived by his sister, Barbara Nunberg, and his daughter, Sophie Nunberg. His marriage to Anne Fougeron ended in divorce.

In the late 1990s, Nunberg turned his linguistic focus to the long debate over the use of Redskins as the name for Washington’s NFL team. He testified on behalf of a group of Native Americans to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, bringing evidence that the name was disparaging.

“You can say you don’t mean it as a slur,” he told The Northwest Herald of Woodstock, Illinois, in 2001. “But that doesn’t change the meaning of the word.”

Although the board canceled the trademarks covering the Redskins name, a federal judge reinstated them in 2003. The case ended in 2017, when the Supreme Court ruled that potentially disparaging trademarks are protected by the First Amendment.

Last month, however, the team dropped the name under pressure from sponsors.

“Geoff was ahead of his time on the Redskins issue,” Zimmer said. “I’m glad he lived long enough to see the Redskins name fall by the wayside, even if it didn’t happen in the courts.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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