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My two Ferdinands

There are two Ferdinands in my life. The first, a nearly lifelong acquaintance, is a bull. Born 75 years ago, right before the start of the Spanish Civil War, “el toro feroz Ferdinando” was one of my favorite characters when I was a child. To judge from the comments parents and some kids leave on Amazon.com these days, Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s 1936 “Story of Ferdinand” remains popular, and I hope you know it. (If you don’t, or if this column makes you wish to reread it, there’s a copy in the Cotsen Children’s Library, which is one of Princeton’s delightful — and, at a research university, unexpected — treasures.) From this short, beautifully illustrated book I learned the words “bandilleros” and “picadores” (the former not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary), discovered that cork comes from trees and began to absorb the lesson that it’s OK to be different. Ferdinand, though a mighty creature, doesn’t enjoy butting heads with other bulls and has no interest in facing the matador. He’s a happy loner, liking “to sit just quietly under the cork tree and smell the flowers.”

All sorts of folks in the 1930s accused Ferdinand — or, rather, Leaf and Lawson — of promoting pacifism: a very bad thing indeed, and this led to the book’s being labeled subversive and, in some countries, getting banned. Alternatively, one could presumably charge Ferdinand with being just plain lazy. But what I took from the story nearly four decades ago was that, even in the absence of cork oaks in the northeastern United States, one had the option of doing one’s own thing and not marching to the beat of one’s peers' hooves. This was a good lesson.

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My next Ferdinand might have been Ferdinand II of Aragon, but I never warmed to Christopher Columbus or the Inquisition and so I didn’t, and still don’t, think of him very often.

No friends of mine have been called Ferdinand — a name that does not appear to be held by any student currently enrolled at Princeton — and another Ferdinand didn’t come along until high school: the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who was to become my intellectual great-great-grandfather (he taught the greatest teacher of my greatest teacher’s greatest teacher). If you have never heard of Saussure, that is a real loss. His ideas, and ideas based on his ideas, had a huge effect on 20th-century thought across the humanities and social sciences, in particular on how we — anthropologists, literary theorists, philosophers and psychologists, as well as linguists — understood, and to some extent still understand, the structure of the world.

The greatest achievement of this candidate for the title “father of structuralism” came early, shortly before his 21st birthday, when Saussure published a monograph that contains what is arguably the single most remarkable feat in the history of linguistics: On the basis of deep structuralist insight, he posited the existence of a class of sounds for which there was no explicit evidence. His belief that Proto-Indo-European — the ancestor of languages from Albanian to Yaghnobi, not to mention English — had what are today known as “laryngeals” received little attention until after his death, when clay tablets written in the second-millennium B.C. cuneiform language Hittite were deciphered (in 1915) and found, mirabile dictu, to have these sounds just where Saussure said they ought to be. An analogue in physics is Wolfgang Pauli’s hypothesized neutrino (experimentally confirmed two years before Pauli’s death rather than two years after); another will be the confirmation of the Higgs boson — if confirmation comes.

My second Ferdinand did not publish much thereafter. Like Ferdinand the bull, he seems to have preferred to smell the flowers. And yet he was anything but lazy, as I now know at first hand, for I spent a week last month in the archives of the Saussure family in Geneva, reading through thousands of elegantly composed pages of unpublished material, especially Ferdinand’s so-called anagram notebooks. These notebooks show that Saussure was whizzing around in dangerous scholarly territory toward the end of his life, attempting in a large-scale way to detect the significant codes he thought were hidden in just about everything. Unless you believe it is more than coincidence that “The Daily Princetonian” and “Tilghman” both begin with T and end in AN, you are unlikely to consider Saussure’s work in this area among his major accomplishments. But there is often a fine line between genius and madness — and since Saussure was indisputably a genius and since I am right now teaching a freshman seminar with the title “Wordplay: A Wry Plod from Babel to Scrabble” (ranked number two by Mental Floss on the list of “weirdest college courses being taught this fall”), I thought I’d better go to Switzerland and poke around in the archives for myself.

Ten years ago, as she assumed her current office, our president said, to the horror of many, “I would like to think we could begin to attract students with green hair.” A look around campus shows that she has not succeeded. Even though I’m a conservative dresser (and increasingly hairless), I am depressed by this failure. So let me rephrase her wish for the decade ahead: How about some more Ferdinands?

Joshua Katz is a professor in the Department of Classics. Those with and without green hair may reach him at jtkatz@princeton.edu.

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