By Larry Teren
You’ve heard the expression, “boy, this guy’s in a class by himself!” In my case, it was almost true but not because I had a swelled head. It had to do with taking a course at Northeastern Illinois University on a campus of a couple thousand students where only three other dedicated underclassmen had the same crazy obscure interest.
In my sophomore year I finally declared a major in English. (You know the old joke: People would ask, “are you an English Major?” and I’d reply, “No, an American Lieutenant, why?” I was never in the Army but most of the people who asked were never in it, too.)
I took course after course in all types of literature genres: British, American, Seventeenth Century, Eighteenth, Modern, etc. I studied German and Swedish playwrights’ works (translated in English, of course), Shakespeare, Satire, Practical Criticism, Creative Writing and last, but definitely least, American and British Poetry.
Mind you, there was not one class whatsoever in composition and grammar. It was expected that we knew all that or there would have been no logical reason to want to major in English. But, I did want to have a better understanding of language and why we say the things we say. I wanted to know the history behind how as a society we formed sounds in our mouth and decided that each of those sounds would represent something meaningful to another person. To study not only our own speaking cultural origins but of those who spoke other languages.
So, I decided to take a few linguistics courses. There was one professor I liked so I kept taking more classes with him in ensuing trimesters. Professor Gary was a genius. He was like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. He could hear you speak just a few words and tell where your grandparents came from. He only had one negative trait which would drive his students daffy. Gary would constantly say the word ‘okay’- in some cases four times in a sentence. It would hypnotize us to the point that a few started keeping track of how many times he said the dreaded word in our fifty minute class sessions. At the end of class, we would go off to the side and compare scores. Poor Gary thought we were living on every magical word he spoke and taking copious notes instead of checking off another spotting of ‘okay’.
Anyway, one trimester he offered a course in History of Dead Languages, Part Two (or something to that effect). The bottom line was that we were going to learn Old Norse and read Leif Erickson’s (not the actor on High Chapparal) ship log of the Viking’s journey to America a couple hundred years or so before good old Columbus. To do this we had to learn Old Norse grammar, dative case and all. I didn’t know any old Norwegians that I could go to for help but I figured I could learn to decline nouns with the best of them.
I had taken two years of Spanish in high school and one class in college in which the instructor told me I had no business taking such an easy class. Instead of letting me do what the rest of the students did, I had to read a play called La Dama Del Alba (“The Lady of The Dawn”?) or something like that. It was easy enough to follow because someone had made a television movie around that time called “Death Takes A Holiday” in which they stole the plot almost verbatim except it was in English.
It ended up that there were only four of us interested in taking the class. Gary had his own Rat Pack. The other three were those I knew from the other linguistics classes taken with him. He told us at the outset that there was a chance the Administration would cancel the class due to low enrollment but he said that he would push to not let it happen. As it turned out, his charm with the office people prevailed and we got through all sixteen weeks ready to walk down the streets of Oslo and look for ancient stragglers and carry on a conversation. I’m sorry to say, but almost forty years later, somehow I forgot what I learned and therefore decline to take apart an Old Norse noun grammatically. Okay? Okay!