On Being Doctor Kirsner’s Son – Robert Kirsner

“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.”

That was the first stanza of the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henly . It encapsulates my father’s life and was one of his favorite poems. For the complete trajectory of my father’s life path, from a childhood in poverty to world-wide recognition, please do read Dr Franklin’s excellent biography GI Joe.

What I now want to do is to talk briefly about what one get’s from being not one of my father’s colleagues nor or one of his patients, as the rest of you are. I want to talk about what I have gotten from being Dr. Kirsner’s son.

Some of you know that I am not a doctor but a linguist, that is, a person who studies how language in general works (what its various parts are and how they function together) and how individual languages work. I do research on Modern Dutch and its sister language Afrikaans, and I focus particularly on those phenomena in grammar and idiom which my mother tongue, American English, does not have. I am a Professor in the Department of Germanic Languages at UCLA and I must tell you that Dutch and Afrikaans are as complex and fascinating as the gasteroenterological tract.

Please excuse me, but here I have to give you a short lesson about Dutch, so you will understand the rest of my talk.

Unlike English, Dutch has a lot of small words or “particles” which can be put at the end of a sentence . One of these particles is hoor (pronounced hoar, as in the English word hoarfrost). It communicates that the utterance is personal and is an assertion, not a question. Whereas the bare particle-less sentence Stikstof is een gas ‘Nitrogen is a gas’ could be an abstract statement from an encyclopedia , the sentence Stikstof is een gas, hoor, with the particle hoor at the end, is a subtle and personal correction or reassurance by the Speaker to the Hearer, something like “Nitrogen is a gas, son.”

Another thing is that Dutch has two ways of commanding. Dutch, like English, can use the simple verb stem, as in the sign you see if you are about to enter a highway entrance going the wrong way and in danger of killing someone: GA TERUG ‘go back’. This is a very strong, urgent, rude command.

On the other hand, there is a second option, which English does not have, namely to use an infinitive. Consider the cautionary sign you see when you are already driving on the highway and are told not to pass other cars: NIET INHALEN, literally ‘not to-pass’ and idiomatically “No passing.”

It is important to note that you cannot use the “other” infinitive in these two situations. You cannot use the infinitive in the command to not enter the highway. In contrast to Ga terug!, the more “gentle” infinitive Teruggaan ‘to go back’ would be a weirdly casual warning . And to say HAAL NIET IN ‘Don’t pass’ would be a bossy, urgent command not suited to indicate a simple rule-of-the-road in the way that NIET INHALEN does. Please keep these two phenomena – optional particles at the end of a sentence and two ways of commanding – in mind for a future discussion below.

So getting back to the main point: What did I learn from being Dr. Kirsner’s son?

First of all, I learned from Dad to make every effort to write well, with precision. I often saw him at his desk writing, at night and on weekends, producing all those journal articles. And he was not satisfied with first drafts either. He revised and revised and revised.

Second, I learned from Dad to pay attention to detail. My father was famous in the 1930s for solving diagnostic puzzles which no one else could figure out. He did this by considering anything that could be relevant data. And for me, a linguist, this has meant paying attention to anything a Dutch or Afrikaans speaker happens to say at any time.

Here is an illustrative incident: One time when I was a guest researcher in the Leiden University Phonetics Laboratory, we were having an afternoon “tea-break.” Everyone in the lab had gathered in de bieb ‘the library’ (room 111 in the Lipsius building) for tea and conversation. One woman graduate student suddenly started to cough and another woman grad student said to her with some concern:

Niet stikken, hoor!
not to-gag, hear
‘Don’t gag now!’

And here is where our two phenomena interact. Note that the second woman had used the infinitive stikken ‘gag, choke, suffocate’ together with that final particle hoor. After the gagging woman had drunk a glass of water and recovered, I asked both of them whether the second woman could also have said Stik niet, hoor!, with the verb stem. The answer was NO. That would be absurd. The interpersonal relationship (and potential concern) between Speaker and Hearer communicated with final hoor cannot be used to comment on or modulate the gruff, unfriendly simple verb stem imperative. It combines felicitously only with the less “aggressive” infinitive. While this discovery of mine can hardly compare with Alexander Fleming’s chance observation that a bit of mould in a Petri dish inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus bacteria surrounding it, it has led to a greater understanding of Dutch imperative structures and native Dutch linguists have built on it: cf. Kirsner 2003, Fortuin 2003, Van Olmen 2009. And it is because of Dad that I was able to perceive and “catch” that graduate student’s utterance as it flew by.

A third thing I learned from Dad that is that language can communicate far more than it actually says. Once when I was a boy and Dad saw someone wearing an overly ornate, gaudy dress, he said to me What an interesting dress!Now interesting by itself does not tell you WHY something might merit attention. I of course had to fill in that the dress compelled our attention, our interest for areason, here because it was unusually tasteless. This euphemistic use of interesting is the essence of politeness, but has big implications. If you are my students and I as a professor say to you I had meant to give you a quiz today, you might think that I am not going to give you a quiz. But all I did was to say that in the past I had had the intention of giving you a quiz today. I did not literally say that Today, in the present, I am not going to give you a quiz inalthough that is the conclusion some of you had drawn. In other words, stating INTENTION IN THE PAST can communicate NONINTENTION IN THE PRESENT but does not explicitly state that. I can, for example, continue and say I had meant to give you a quiz today and because I am a rotten bastard, I will give you that quiz. In talking to patients and to colleagues, my father was always careful in choosing the right words and expressions for the specific occasion at hand.

Fourth, I inherited my father’s moral stance. Once in the early 1970s when my father was Deputy Dean, he discovered that a particular doctor was not available for his patient during the weekend. This doctor had an unlisted number and my father called the Chicago police to track down this doctor, rip him away from the golf course, and get him to come back to the hospital to actually take care of his patient.

So when I noticed a as a linguist that teaching assistants in my Department at UCLA were not correcting mistakes in German pronunciation and that, at least on one occasion, one TA had produced a crashingly ungrammatical German sentence for his students to model, I brought this to the attention of a Review Committee of the Academic Senate.

Indeed, once while trying to teach an art history graduate student how to pronounce the sound (diphthong) written ui in Dutch, I also discovered that she had studied German for four entire Quarters with us without ever learning how to pronounce the German vowel written ü, which is a basic sound, a phoneme, of German . Excuse me, but if this UCLA Ph.D. student in art history could not even pronounce German ü , she certainly was never going to learn to pronounce Dutch ui, the sound of which can be written perfectly well in German spelling as ä + ü (i.e. äü ) and which turns up in such Dutch artists’ names as Jacob van Ruysdael ( the 17th century Baroque painter. This meant that if said student ever encountered the Dutch advertising phrase Nivea voor uw huid ‘Nivea for your skin,’ she would pronounce it with a different diphthong, like the English cry of pain Ow! , a sound written ou in Dutch and au in German, as in German Haus ‘house.’ She would therefore say Nivea voor uw hout , ‘Nivea for your wood. ’ which could lead to misunderstanding. Normally you put Nivea cream on your skin, not on your wood (oak, maple, teak etc.). And Ruysdael ( with older uy representing modern ui ) would undoubtedly be transmogrified by this student into Rausdael.

Now I might be nit-picking here, but I have always believed that a Teaching Assistant in a Department of German or, in my case,a full-fledged Department of Germanic Languages, should teach German itself while teaching German, and not some mangled, misshapen form of German. And this clearly was not happening. While German pronunciation might not be as “exciting” for our graduate Teaching Assistants as contemplating Thomas Mann’s repressed sexuality or the role of hotel lobbies in the Weimar Republic (hot topics in my Department then), pronunciation is a crucial, an essential part of language instruction and I said so. Out loud.

Please understand that I was not loved for doing so. In 2007, three of my colleagues (henceforth known as the “Gang of Three”) even wanted my tenure revoked and for me to be thrown out of the UCLA Department of Germanic Languages. But even though I was not Deputy Dean as my father had been, I did survive this attack. And I continue to argue to this very day that no amount of expertise in such currently fashionable fields in so-called “language departments” as Cultural Studies can even begin to compensate for linguisticignorance. Even if you are a native speaker of German (or Dutch or Yiddish), you do not really know your language if you do not know the linguistics of your language, and preferably from more than one theoretical framework. I also think that if someone earns the Doctor of Philosophy degree in a Germanic Department such as UCLA’s , where Dutch, Afrikaans, and Yiddish have been taught alongside German for four decades, that person is pathetic if he or she cannot even at least read at least one of these three cognate languages. So even if I cannot get the Chicago police to retrieve delinquent doctors from golf courses, I am my father’s son in believing that (and in saying out loud that) a Department of Germanic Languages in this the 21st century should actually behave like one and turn out graduates who are linguistically literate and who know cognate languages as well as German.

One last but very important thing to mention is Dad’s interest in the history of his field, especially his cautionary words about resisting dogma, and his vigorous advocacy of rigorous testing of all aspects of a research hypothesis. Only by studying how earlier doctors thought about disease does one see their errors and gain a critical distance from the practices of today and a certain humbleness with respect to today’s claims and assertions.

A good example is Davenport’s discussion (1994) in Kirsner (1994) of the decline of Nervism, the doctrine promoted by Ivan Pavlov and his students that all physiologic phenomena were controlled by nerves. But in 1901, Bayliss and Starling showed that putting acid in the upper small intestine of dog still stimulated pancreatic secretion even though they had meticulously cut all nerve connections between the upper small intestine and the pancreas. This meant that the communication connection between the pancreas and the small intestine was not by means of nerves but through some sort of chemical messenger. Bayliss and Starling had thus “killed” Nervism.

Similar fights against dogma are of course found in my own field, linguistics, where the older Columbia School and the new school of Cognitive Grammar have taken issue with the 50-year-old assumption of Chomskyan Generative Grammar (going back to Syntactic Structures of 1957) that language has certain rules which are simply “syntactic,” simply mechanical, having nothing whatsoever to do with the meanings which individual linguistic elements signal: cf. Langacker (2008: 496 fn 38) and Reid (2011) . A run of the mill example which Chomskyan linguists in my view have to twist themselves into pretzels to deal with is the contrast between Three students are good enough for the experiment (where you are talking about the students individually, i.e. each is good enough) and Three students is good enough for the experiment (where you are talking about the amount of students and saying that you don’t need four or five of them. ) If you still want to hold that number marking on the verb (here is versus are ) is a “syntactic” rule which mechanically copies number on the noun phrase, you have to postulate that, at some “abstract” level, there are not one but two noun phrases three students, two noun phrases which for some reason happen to look exactly alike on the observable “surface” level of the sentence. In my view, this is making the tail wag the dog. Clearly Reid has “killed” the notion of a mechanical “subject-verb agreement” rule and shown that verb number makes an independent contribution to what a sentence communicates. Presumably future students of linguistics will not have to take as God’s truth the dogma of syntactic “subject verb agreement” which they find in the standard textbooks today. And if they study the history of linguistics, i.e. read the older literature, they will see how the ruling theory of an “autonomous” (meaning-independent) syntax, as in Chomskyan linguistics, kept scholars for a long time from perceiving what is really going on in human language.

The moral for readers of this volume of commemorative remarks about my father Joseph Kirsner is that, to get the complete picture, they should also read his work on the history of Gasteroenterology. I have learned from my father that you cannot understand your own chosen field of inquiry and its inner dynamic unless you study its history.

Thank you for your attention.


Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton

Davenport, Horace W. 1994. “Gastric secretion in the twentieth century.” In:
Joseph B. Kirsner (ed). The Growth of Gasteroenterologic Knowledge
during the Twentieth Century Philadelphia et al: Lera & Febiger, 1994:37-

Fortuin, Egbert 2003. “De directieve infinitief en de imperatief in het
Nederlands.”Nederlandse Taalkunde 8.1.14-43.

Kirsner, Robert S. 2003. “On the interaction of the Dutch pragmatic particles
hoor and hè with the imperative and the infinitivus pro imperativo.” In:
Arie Verhagen and Jeroen van de Weijer (eds.) Usage-Based Approaches
to Dutch:Lexicon, grammar, discourse. Utrecht: LOT. 59-96.

Langacker, Ronald W. 2008. Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reid, Wallis H. (2011) “The communicative function of English verb number.”
Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 29.4. 1087-1146.

Van Olmen, Daniël (2009) “De imperativische infinitief in het Nederlands. Een
corpusgebaseerde benadering.”Nederlandse Taalkunde 14.2.147-170.